May 28, 2009

The Elephant in the Bedroom

While all of us spew ideas on how to address the pressing issues within the shipping industry all the time, we continue to pussyfoot around an issue that has been, for more than fifty or sixty years, probably the single largest one responsible for India’s slow growth and Public Sector inefficiency and the biggest reason why so much potential is killed before it is even born.

Corruption is insidious; like a putrefying corpse, it vitiates everything around it, sweeping away merit and efficiency and substituting it with the grime of invidious practices and helplessness. Corruption is also the reason why a reported 1.7 trillion US dollars is stashed away by Indian politicians, babus, industrialists and others in Swiss banks alone. Imagine if that money, or that in the other tax havens worldwide, could be put to productive use within the country.

Post election wish lists of industry in India seem to include labour, insurance and banking ‘reforms’, besides a gamut of other steps that the government is almost being begged to take today. There seem to be no real demands for taking on the depravity of corruption, which has always been the predominant menace in our society post independence. Perhaps this is because the rich, who are the most influential, include corruption in the cost of doing business. Perhaps this is because many in the middle class either already are, or aspire to be, in the corrupt class. Perhaps this is because the poor, who have been ground into the dust the most with daily doses of this menace, take corruption as the inevitable cost of survival.

Banal and predictable reactions always seem to end in hand wringing whenever this debauched behaviour is brought up. Politicians say that the people get the governance they deserve and that political and bureaucratic behaviour is a reflection of society. Everybody else says that nothing will change unless clean people come forward in public service. Many say that urban India is apathetic. So, in the absence of political and societal will, most Indians who are in a position to force change just rant and go home instead, and officialdom goes back to its crooked ways. Promises are made and administrative reforms are claimed to be on the government’s agenda. Unsaid is the fact that, like the STCW convention on rest periods, it is taken for granted that these ‘reforms’ will be implemented last, if they are implemented at all. Meanwhile, nobody needs to tell us how our ports and waterways suffer because of this; we need no reminding of the millions of ways this profanity defiles, bleeds and demoralises us.

It is time that we in the shipping industry demand corruption free administration across our interface with governments, both Central and State. Perhaps we will be assisted by the fact that the trillions stashed abroad did become, briefly, a pre election talking point. Perhaps the recent international spotlight on tax havens makes this an opportune moment for us to aggressively push our demand for a clean maritime bureaucracy. The Congress claims that ‘good governance’ in its first term is the reason it was reelected and promises more in its current term in office. Although it is foolish to blame only the Congress for the ongoing state of affairs across the country, how can governance be good when so much of it is so corrupt?

Many of us, me included, will agree that cleaning up the Shipping Ministry and associated administrations, both Central and State, is a monumental, maybe even impossible task. A majority might even say that we should let corruption be; creeping globalisation and the consequent requirements of transparency will slowly clean things up. Many will argue that corruption exists everywhere, and that many countries prosper despite this parasite in their intestines. Some will claim that cleaning up the maritime administration is meaningless without taking a broom to related Ministries handling Customs, Excise, Labour or even Environment, besides others.

While agreeing with many of these arguments, I can only say that we have to start somewhere, and that the cost of not doing anything will widen the gap between cleaner shipping administrations elsewhere and ours to a point when we will never be able to catch up. The mention of Singapore, Dubai, Port Kelang and even Colombo should be enough to drive home my argument; they came out of nowhere, overtook us and have now a lead that cannot be narrowed easily, unless, of course, we clean up our act. I could additionally argue that though corruption may exist everywhere, the levels of corruption in India are just plain unacceptable and have demonstratably stymied progress.

It is clear, at least to me, that we should not sweep the muck under the carpet anymore; that this menace is a clear, present and ongoing danger and the prime reason why our tonnage is so low, our costs so high, our ports so inefficient, our ancillary maritime services industry nonexistent, our shipping tax revenues so low, our imports more expensive, our exports less competitive, our maritime security a proven joke. It is not just slowing us down; corruption decimates us.

The Central Vigilance Commission’s not so recent report indicting the functioning of a couple of Ministries, including that of Shipping, should tell us, if we still need to be told, that the danger is very real. The enemy is not at the gates, he is inside them and amongst us. A multipronged counterattack is required, and so is a top down approach. To start with, the shipping industry should push for clean Ministries with non partisan agendas. These ministries then have to be pushed to increase transparency and clean bureaucracy down the line. The maritime industry, meanwhile, should ally with FICCI like organisations representing a cross section of Indian industry and take the lead in pushing clean administrations across the board.

Progress will be slow, and we will feel often like monkeys going up a greased pole. We will have to accept that generations of political and bureaucratic lard will not be burnt off by next weekend. The younger generation may be the hope here; us older ones have been part of the problem for far too long. Regardless, all of us have to peck away at the python that is squeezing us to death. Individuals in our industry must show resolve; perhaps if we all manage to change our little corners of the world, the whole world will change too.

I know that failure here is not an option, but I do not know if we can win this battle; it seems to be the toughest one yet to be fought, and I question, so far, our collective stomach for this fight. I do know, however, that we cannot ignore this peril any longer; we have had our heads in the sand for too long as it is. In addition, I know this: if India wants to be one of the giants of this century, she just cannot afford to refuse to see the elephant in the bedroom any longer. She has to take the beast on, and slay it.