Sanjeev Sabhlok's blog

Thoughts on economics and liberty

Some thoughts on Assam from Perth

In the same vein as the previous post, here's something written in 1992. An edited version of this was published in the Sentinel. Sanjeev 22 Feb 07.

I have a background in administration in one of the most "backward" states in a developing country. Being sent here under a Colombo Plan training programme was an exciting prospect. And apart from doing my studies, which is what I am primarily supposed to do, I also decided that I would try to analyse what I saw around me, in relation to what I see back home.

What was it that struck me when I first came to Australia? The lights in the streets work. The streets are straight, well-finished, with berms sloping slightly above the edge of the road. And so on. I will come back to all this. But what stuck me essentially was the planning of the city. A city like Perth could not have sprung up on its own.

Coming from a socialist country, one has a tendency to think of planning primarily as "developmental planning" with someone at the state or central capital working out details of what is to be produced, where it is to be produced, how much is to be produced and who is to produce it. In Australia I find that there is far more planning than we have ever imagined.

But this planning is in the streets, in the design and lay-out of the parks, in the careful intersections of blocks, in the clear signboards visible to all concerned, specifying the names of roads and places. I found an amazingly high level of urban planning. Traces of this kind of planning are found in special zones in New Delhi such as Chanakyapuri, but these also are no match for the routinely perfect planning of every inch of space which Australia brings into its urban limits. But back at home, unfortunately we have delegated urban planning to a small and insignificant department, called the Town and Country Planning Department in Assam.

I am an advocate of appropriate technologies for rural areas, and a fanatic about rural development, but that does not mean in any way that our urban areas should use inappropriate technology and techniques.

As a citizen of Guwahati, the average level of frustration I faced, till only a couple of months ago, was so high that I wonder how and why I ever did any kind of work at all.


Taking my scooter out on the streets of Guwahati was like going into hell. It was a terribly stressful experience. And I had to do it many times a day, since in Guwahati the plannig is linear, from one corner, near Khanapara, upto Jalukbari, nearly 25 kilometers away, and places are at great distance from each other. There are no interconnecting roads, hardly any alternative roads, and whatever roads exist are designed to test the driver's skills at moto-cross or "pothole-cross". There are vast areas in the rainy season (which covers half the year) where you have to walk in your boots with knee-deep drain water slushing in your feet, lugging the scooter along. There are also areas where the slush and mud on the sides of the roads is so dangerous that you never know whether you will reach home with your bones intact. And in the portions where the roads are relatively well-developed, a scooterist is liable to face all kinds of dust particles hitting his face at great speed.

And it is not as if the experience of a car-driver are any better. The traffic lights are small, hidden behind poles and mostly out of order. Except for the flyover at Chandmari, it is a stressful experience trying to locate and decipher the traffic lights, or the signals being given at night by black and invisible policemen, waving some circular, flat pieces at the traffic. The narrow, winding roads, terrible congestion, poorly-lit streets at night, lack of pedestrian crossings, lack of bicycle paths, and the movement of all kinds of vehicular traffic on the same road, are so frustrating that sometimes one wants to cry, but then, there is no other place to go. So one allows the stomach to churn and produce its acid of frustration, and tries to hang on till one reaches home at the end of the day.

Gas, electricity and and shopping:

Apart from the necessity of driving (or going by bus, if you so like) comes the stress involved in getting your cooking fuel such as gas. Till recently I had to go near the capital complex into a small street winding crazily in the middle of an otherwise totally plain area (one can expect winding streets in hills but not in the plains) and wait in a queue till I paid the money for the gas and the relevant papers were filled. Thereafter I had to go into another street some distance away where in a ramshackle "godown" someone would exchange the old cylinder for a new one. The skills in driving upto that place, reversing the car, and patience involved in getting the gas were so severely tested every time that it became a nightmare just to get the gas. Things had slighly improved just before I came, but not really very considerably.

In Perth, every flat has a piped gas connection with meter. There is so much saving of time and effort that I feel a strange kind of bliss in this place. My stomach, which had deteriorated with the stomach-wall being eaten up by its own acid in Guwahati, has improved dramatically over here. Less stress, less acid secretion. Happiness. Or, let us call it, bliss.

Shopping is one other necessary evil in Guwahati. It is a miracle that one has not caught more diseases such as typhoid and cholera, after going to the unhygienic market places littered all over Guwahati, including Fancy Bazaar. Apart from stepping over filthy footpaths and rubbish scattered all over, there is no happiness when you reach the shopping places either. The vegetable and fish shops are almost floating on filth and flies. Or so it seems after seeing the shopping centres here. And many of the other shops are adjacent to drains which smell as if these were open toilets. I remember one horrible experience when I purchased icecream and tried to eat it in a "decent" shop near Chandmari, with a most obnoxious smell coming from the drain just outside the shop. But one has to live. And one has to therefore shop and eat, even at great risk.

After travelling with great stress to the office and then to the shops, and buying the fish and vegetables in the midst of filth, and ultimately getting the them cooked on the gas which was procured with great difficulty, when one starts to eat, the lights go off! More stress, more strain. More stomach churning, more acidity. In Perth, the lights have not gone out for even one second since the two months we have been here.

A planned city is fundamental to our existence:

With the "blessings" of the streets and shopping centres of Guwahati, the difficulties in procuring gas, and the intermittent supply of electricity, it is a miracle that some of us keep on trying to work in the offices, trying to do some kind of "developmental planning" for this country of ours. And the stupid ones of us still have hope for our miserably mismanaged country.

I feel so shallow and so small here. I feel that we are like arrogant, stupid morons who are not even toilet trained and who have littered up their pants and surroundings, but who are trying to build up great developmental structures. Worse than Don Quixote. If our planning is blind to the physical space around us, and we are busy squatting and littering all over, we have no business to do economic development.

Even within India, I feel small as an officer of the Assam cadre of the IAS, when I go to some of the relatively better planned state capitals. Of course the mess that is India is inescapable everywhere, but at least in some places, here and there, people have had the foresight to plan something for their future, apart from living in the present. Take Madras for example. Inspite of the mess that one finds all over (the Cooum river, for example) there are relatively well-planned streets and parks on the beaches, where one can meditate near the ocean, if one is so inclined; and emphasis is being given on the development of children by building huge parks like the VGP Golden Beach. In Guwahati, except for the zoo, there is nothing to offer to our children.

Who will believe us when we say that we are economic experts and developmental officers? Even after my training of one year in economics and finance in an excellent university here, I am sure that I will not be able to utilise half of what I have learnt if I have to again go out in the same old filthy streets and shopping centres, and waste my time and energy organising gas and praying for electricity. A planned city is fundamental to the existence of modern man. Only a fool would decry the importance of well-planned cities in the over-all development of a country.

In my mood of depression which I feel when I look back at my country, my state, and my city, I have only this to say today. Sad to say, our best officers and ministers have more to learn from the planned and clear-headed mind of a common draftsman and brick layer of Australia than we will ever have to teach to the common man here. We may pride ourselves for having a great past, but when we live our present in a muddled web of confusion and disarray, then who in the world will respect us?

And the worst part is that the people of Australia have not done any remarkably intelligent act by deciding to live in a planned manner. This is not advanced science. It is only the elementary application of arithmetic and geometry, not even architecture. The concept is simple: draw up and implement a clear-cut plan for the place you want to live in.

Now what?

But enough of my depressive fit. I must not allow myself to feel overcome by grief. I have to tell you that there is hope. So…

What is the way out for Guwahati?

I would feel that Guwahati is a mess which can be rectified, if at all, only at great cost. Far cheaper would be to design a town somewhere outside Guwahati, but sufficiently near to it, such as we have in Old Delhi and New Delhi, so that government would be able to shift to a rational place within twenty or so years from now, and people living in it would feel proud to belong to Assam. Let us send our architects and engineers to places such as Canberra, or even within India, to places such as Ooty and Khadakvasla, so that we have, in the twilight years of our lives, a place to live from where the mess of today will only appear to have been a bad dream.

And in this matter, I must hasten to add that I have no axe to grind. I have nothing against Guwahati. I love the beautiful hills and the Brahmaputra river. Who would'nt? My wife, my child, were both born in Guwahati. This place means much to me. But we cannot continue with a place which frustrates the daily living of its average citizens, causes them disease, discomfort and distress, and saps their enthusiasm. We must search out a sister for Guwahati. And make her beautiful. And for once, show that we can plan a place to live in which is as good as the best in the world.

This paper is thus a plea to our planners and developers to turn strongly and vigourously to urban planning and development after having spent so many infructuous years in vague, socialistic, economic development. People often do their own economic development better if left to themselves, within a broad structure of rules. The government may therefore be best advised to spend a far greater amount of its energy on infrastructure and urban development.

I would also visualise the government doing a lot of training and development of the people, so that they are skilled enough to exploit the opportunities opening up to them. For this purpose, it would perhaps be necessary to set up many more engineering and technical universities of excellence and institutes of technical training all over the state. Institutes for garment production through computerised machines, institutes of foreign trade, and institutes of food processing are required in Assam. There are so many opportunities of selling our products in Australia and the rest of the world. I will touch upon this another time.

And perhaps government should withdraw as soon as possible from its disastrous experiment with managing production and commercial activities, which are best left to co-operatives and private enterprise. Intelligent people learn from their experience, and from the experience of others. We may not be worse off if we learn from the experience of people in Singapore and Korea, and Australia, among others. We have nothing to loose except our poverty and stupidity.

As I end, with a pensive note, I am led to wonder whether there would have been any change in the positive direction by the time I return to India. I love my country, but it burns my soul and hurts my heart to see the suicidal waste of its resources. Particularly by those who should know better.

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Why socialism can’t work for India

While searching for some data from my old records, I found this draft article on socialism in one of my early 'computer writings'. Never attempted publication. It is dated 25 October 1992, when I was studying in Curtin University. I’ve made no attempt to edit it or polish it up except to get rid of a couple of obvious spelling errors using Word. It was a draft anyway. Also, a wide range of my writings on policy are found at the IPI archives at (1998-2001). Sanjeev 22 Feb 07.

In 1977 (check) India passed the amendment to the Constitution, making India a socialist republic. Practically from the time of our independence we have followed socialistic practices, though in a less draconian manner than the true socialistic countries.

But in each and every endeavour where we have applied the tenets of socialism, we have failed. The ruinous public sector, instead of reaching the commanding heights of the economy, actually reached all the depressing depths which could possibly be conjectured. They sank like a heavy anchor into the depths of losses and have almost pulled the entire ship of India along with them to disaster.

The bureaucracy, given a cosmetic facelift (by browning its face and calling it the IAS and allied services), was expected to maintain its trust-worthiness and hard-working spirit to help the country achieve its socialistic goals. Bureaucrats got busy in creating more and more wasteful programmes, arrogating to themselves the entire wisdom of the Indian people and recruiting more and more lowly qualified and politically supported people into government. Their fundamental premise was that the businessman who can produce is an enemy of the people, since he may become rich. There could perhaps be no greater crime in their eyes than a person becoming rich. They wanted to be the richest of all themselves. After the ministers, perhaps. So all kinds of laws and rules were invented in the name of socialism to curb production, both in the private and in the public sectors. The net result was an unprecedented increase in corruption. Almost everything that has been created by governments in the past forty-five years has bred corruption. And ever-increasing innovations have been made in this field of "knowledge".

By attempting to do everything itself, while at the same time aggrandising itself, the bureaucracy (including its lowest rungs), effectively became anti-socialistic: look at the practice of having a large bunch of peons both in the office and at home: bureaucrats love servants. And servants are often treated as inhumanly as can be expected in the old-fashioned Marxian capitalistic societies where the bourgeoisie discriminates against the working classes. Even feudalism is perhaps better. We should modify our Constitution to state that we have socialistic republic for the ruling class and feudalism for the poor. Could no one get rid of the system of peons in the past forty five years of socialism? What kind of society are we trying to achieve? Where one human being has to serve the petty needs of another human being? Will that be termed a civilised society? And at the same time this is a system which destroys the productivity of a large body of people. What, after all, does a peon produce? Does a peon's work go into the GDP of a country? Is a peon efficient? Why cannot the "officers" clean their rooms, and carry their files and briefcases? If at all someone is required to be provided, perhaps he can be a common office boy, rather than a personalised peon.

Thus much of the "respect" given to working classes is hypocritical. In a so-called capitalistic developed country such as Australia, on the other hand, one is forced to respect the working classes. All kinds of blue collared workers work with sophisticated machines which increase their output nearly thirty to forty times of that of an average Indian worker. Even sweepers sweep the roads with special machines which blow the dirt to particular areas from where it is removed.

Consider the garbage lifter. Each household is provided with a large plastic black bin with a cover, which is supposed to be filled up with the garbage of the house. This garbage bin is kept in a particular place outside the house, where a garbage collector can reach and collect. The garbage collector comes in a huge truck fitted with complicated mechanical devices, and picks up the garbage bin with the machine and empties it without touching the bin at all, before putting the bin back, with the help of the machine, to its original place. This garbage collector performs his work at an amazing pace, and one such garbage collector with his machines would be able to pick up the garbage of more than one thousand households in a given day.

Then there is an employee who waters the public lawns. Now, there are a huge number of public lawns, and since Perth has almost no rain in its very hot summer (where temperatures reach nearly 50 degrees centigrade), there would be no possibility of grass growing on the lawns unless there were special machines which are available for this purpose. And so there are. One "gardener" or "lawn-engineer", as I see him, is capable of watering huge bodies of lawns, and mowing them too, with his machine, yielding an output which exceeds by over ten thousand times the efficiency of an average Indian gardener. Keeping a city of the size of Perth clean would require thousands of employees if it were located in India, but it takes surprisingly few employees to keep it the cleanest city in the world (Perth has won many international shields as the cleanest city of the world).

These workers are paid at very high rates, and often the manual worker earns more than his white-collared counterpart. Does that mean that Australia is more socialistic than India? After all, the main purpose of uplifting the working classes to the level of the bourgeoisie has been achieved here. Further, social security offers huge benefits for unemployment, and disability.

So what is this illusive socialism that we are running after, so hypocritically? Can we not be honest with ourselves now at least, after the great fall of the Humpty Dumpty (USSR)? What do we need this futile stupidity called socialism for? To produce more clerks and servants for our pampered ruling classes? To create public sector undertakings whose raison d'atre to exist is the amount of money the politicians can make from them? To have electricity undertakings which provide power only to the chosen few, and a great amount of illegal money to its officials? What has socialism done for us except to impoverish us both physically and mentally?

India exported two percent of the entire world's exports in 1947, but today we export only one half of one percent of the world exports. We had Nobel Prize winners even in Physics in the first half of the century. Now we are incapable of even mimicking the Nobel Prize winners in science, not to talk of achieving a Nobel Prize of our own. We did somewhat well in the Olympics in the first half of the century, but now we are reduced to the most pathetic position which even the worst enemies of India could not have imagined for India. We have been made almost impotent in the world stage. This great country, with great people, and great potential – ruined, corrupted and destroyed – all by itself, internally. By socialism. The scourge of mankind. The diseased look at human beings. We even lost our sense of human decency, and allied with the terrible empire of the Soviets which systematically got rid of its best people, and we did not condemn its shoddy trampling over human rights as done by Stalin.

We have become afraid. I am sure that is not what Gandhiji wanted us to become. We have to reaffirm our capacity as a great
people; we have to regain our self-confidence and hew a great country once again from start: only, this time we are in a worse position relative to the world than we were in 1947. We have lost forty five years in stupidity. Let us learn from our blunders and at least now think of the tasks before us.

There is no alternative to capitalism.

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Be careful while giving. Giving can give offense.

Sent to The Age on 8 January 2007 for publication but not published. Hence put up on my newly re-activated blog.

Many of the arguments by Peter Singer ("Giving till It Doesn't Hurt") in The Age of 6 January 2007 to persuade developed countries to open up their purse strings to alleviate poverty in developing countries were so misplaced that I couldn't help throwing my hat into the ring.

First, it is insulting to be at the receiving end of someone’s charity. Self-respecting people do not care for displays of charity towards them. Trade on equal terms, yes. Open exchange of ideas, sure. But for the West to take upon itself the role of looking after the poor of other sovereign countries is paternalistic and reeks of the "white man's burden". Self-respecting peoples everywhere simply ask to be left free to determine their own destiny, even if this destiny seems to others to include a fair share of poverty and disease. Unwanted donations are a form of political humiliation.

Second, Singer fails to show how the aid, even if it were free of political complications, will actually reach the poor. Singer suggests that $808 billion can be raised each year. Presumably this must reach the poor. But the reality is that most of it will end up in the Swiss bank accounts of illegitimate or corrupt politicians and bureaucrats.

Indeed, Singer himself has identified the rampant political corruption in these countries by citing Thomas Pogge: "international corporations are willing to make deals to buy natural resources from any government, no matter how it has come to power." In reality this is an absolutely chronic problem. Even when aid is directly supervised by the West, as in the case of the reconstruction of Afghanistan or Iraq, corrupt practices nullify the entire effort. And in my previous life I have personally witnessed the active misuse by politicians and bureaucrats of aid funneled through grossly over-paid United Nations officials.

And as foreign aid is fungible, it also arms and strengthens corrupt regimes everywhere. Therefore, foreign aid almost invariably makes poverty much worse than it was before. Foreign aid is mostly poison.

“Give a man a fish and you will feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you will feed him for a lifetime.” Erstwhile poor countries that took the path of freedom and good governance – the lessons from the West, experienced economic growth and were able to eliminate poverty. South Korea and Hong Kong readily come to mind. The West must teach its methods, not provide fish to the corrupt.

Third, my calculations show that even poor countries like India possess sufficient money to completely eliminate poverty, if they choose to adopt a negative income tax model. Instead, India has a range of subsidies and other “poverty alleviation programs” that are primarily used by its politicians to line their pockets. The point is that poor countries do not need anyone’s charity to eliminate poverty. They consciously choose not to.

However, not all is lost for those of us who are appalled at the ongoing poverty in the world today. We can do quite a few things to assist. But that does not require spending $808 billion annually to spoon-feed people in developing countries.

The West can conclusively transform the world through free trade and by communicating the message of freedom and good governance to recalcitrant countries.

Singer rightly cites Herbert Simon’s view that social capital is responsible for 90 per cent of what people earn in wealthy societies. Indeed, the level of freedom in a society is the primary determinant of its governance, and hence of its success.

As the demand for freedom must necessarily be ‘home grown’, ie. endogenous to the poor countries, methods of the sort suggested below will do far more for poverty than a trillion dollars spent on a war of freedom or on charity: (a) significant increase in the funding of high-quality students from developing countries who must then commit to return to their countries for at least five years after their education, and (b) bringing in senior bureaucrats from developing countries into long term “training-cum-secondment” roles within the local, state and federal governments of Western countries. This will enable these public servants to experience at first hand how freedom is operationalised.

The principles of freedom and good governance will then flow back to these poor countries, motivating the necessary change in social and political perspective.

There are no shortcuts to the elimination of global poverty.

* * *
These views are entirely my own, based on experience in working in Indian state governments, and do not represent the views of any organisation I work with or have worked in the past.

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