October 25, 2009

Bleeding on the Styx

We do not build ports of optimum sizes at optimum places; we build them for political and commercial patronage, election gains and kickbacks. We extend this sickness into every aspect of maritime life. We do not train enough seafarers and we don't train them well enough because some of our institutions are riddled with what we Indians love to call 'vested interests'. We don't build road and rail connectivity to ports appropriately because the status quo suits the transport contractor who gives us nice Diwali presents. We plan to build a huge canal of the wrong depth and for the wrong reasons against sage advice.

We blame a former Shipping Minister for a lot of rotten behaviour that is still ongoing and hamstrings progress even today. In addition, our maritime security has been repeatedly compromised because some of the people in the institutions that are supposed to protect us allowed material and trained terrorists to land on our shores in exchange for thirty pieces of silver. I bet some still do. Astoundingly and along with the rest of the commercial world, the shipping industry does not seem bothered about the malaise of corruption that continues to rot our commercial and spiritual soul.

Amazingly, we continue to ignore the true cost of our pussyfooting around the 'c' word. That the economy hemorrhages by such behaviour is a given; that this bleeding gives rise to gross injustice and consequent frustration, despair and anger is dismissed; that the Naxalite violence now affecting almost a third of our 604 districts is a direct consequence of more than a half century of corruption and consequent frustration is discounted. This violence, or social unrest, depending on one's prism, can easily bring our economy (and our shipping infrastructure along with it) to a grinding halt pretty quickly. As I write this, the government is planning to send in 35,000 paramilitary forces over 11 'theatres of operation' across a vast swath of the country; they say this will be a two or three year operation. Nobody can tell me movement of goods, trade and shipping will not be adversely hit, particularly on the East Coast 'Red Corridor' (see map).

I would like to see the maritime fraternity doing less fraternising, for once, and take the lead in fighting corruption wherever it occurs within it. This is not a utopian pipe dream but a prerequisite for survival: the natives are already restless, and they are armed. We ostriches are running out of time.

What would really happen, I wonder, if industry bodies and associations representing shipowners and others issued a joint statement appealing to their members not to cough up speed money? What would really happen if individual shipowners in India advertised in the newspapers of their decision to stop paying up at almost every industry/government interface? What if, in addition, a part of this industry made the cause of fighting corruption public? What would really happen? It would be tough for the honest, at least initially, yes, but somehow I doubt that shipping would grind to a halt or be cripplingly targeted, especially if full media glare is actively solicited.

Not easy, sure. Requiring individual commitment, certainly. Assuming an industry wide integrity and homogeneity where none exists, yes. Tilting at windmills, perhaps. Critically required? Absolutely. Imagine, in my utopian delusion, what would happen if we actually made sufficient headway in cleaning up the industry and the government bodies associated with it. By showing the country the way to start ridding itself of arguably the biggest festering sore on its body, we will, like the Information Technology industry, acquire a progressive persona at one fell swoop. We will have contributed colossally to changing the face of India, and we would have leapfrogged our industry into greatly enhanced efficiency and profitability.

 A little math before I end. Since large numbers usually blind me to their impact on real people, a reminder: a billion is a thousand million. A trillion is a thousand billion. (Those, folks, are a lot of zeros after the one). Statistics, as Michelle Pfeiffer will undoubtedly tell you, should conceal more than they reveal. Pamela Anderson will probably disagree, but it doesn't matter. Indian vital statistics are staggering on both counts; besides being in your face, they often require to be reduced and put into perspective to be understood.

Consider this one: Although numbers as high as 1.7 trillion are bandied about by many others, the Economic Times says that wealth stashed away by Indians in offshore banks could be as much as US $1 or 1.5 trillion. That is 1.5 thousand thousand million. United States Dollars. All of this money is undeclared; much of it is cached, we can guess, by corrupt babus and politicians, although it belongs to you and me. More numbers: Indian Gross Domestic Product (the total market values of goods and services produced by workers and capital within a nation's borders) stood at $1.2 trillion last year. Then, the Reserve Bank of India pegs the Indian external debt at $227.7 billion as of June '09. India's internal public debt (including market borrowings, external debt and other liabilities like small savings and provident funds), on the other hand, is approximately three times this number, at roughly $600 billion. I have totalled up and rounded off both external and internal debt, for the sake of simplicity, to $830 billion.

Finally, widely available figures tell me that India's population stands (or staggers, depending on your point of view) at 1.15 billion. Therefore, unless I have botched up the calculations again, all this means is that a) Indian iffy money held in offshore banks was worth around a year’s total of all goods and services produced by the entire country in 2008; b) Indian money stashed abroad could pay off the entire Indian external and internal debt and the country would still be left with some loose change. c) Each Indian is indebted to the tune of (dividing 830 by 1.15) more than 720 dollars, or 30,000 rupees, give or take. Given that our per capita income is only about 37,000 rupees, this statistic (that an average Indian is in debt for up to ten months of his full wages) is almost the most astonishing of them all. Almost, but not quite.

Public indifference, the confederate of corruption, tops this list, the same as it tops so many other infamous ones in this great (and greatly plagued) nation. Time to change that?

At least I think so; some utopian dreams are worth blood and sweat, especially when the alternative is continued existence on the banks of the river Styx. Right between the Earth and the Underworld, or between Earth and Hell, depending on which mythology one follows: Greek or Christian.