Petty peeves, the poor and a never ending corruption story

Petty peeves, the poor and a never ending corruption story
For the life of me I cannot understand the churlishness of our newspapers. As I write this on Thursday (a day before you read it), The Times of India, Hindustan Times, DNA and Indian Express have all carried fairly large news items on Raghuram Rajan’s statements on the need for bankruptcy courts, merger of banks, financial inclusion for the poor etc. Coming from the governor of Reserve Bank of India, these are pretty important policy statements, and they get the column inches they deserve.

But after reading the first three papers you will have no idea where Rajan said these things. Did the Reserve Bank issue a statement? Was there a press conference to announce future measures? Only the Indian Express report tells you that these statements were part of the Literature Live! Independence lecture the RBI governor gave on Wednesday to an invited group at the Oberoi Towers rooftop.

Literature Live! is an organ­isation I founded with the help of a small, dedicated group of people, a group that was formed to run Mumbai’s international literary festival four years ago. Last year we started an annual Independence Lecture, the first one being given by the eminent historian, Ram Guha. This year, we invited the Reserve Bank governor.

My question again: what would the The Times of India, Hindustan Times and DNA have lost if they had mentioned the occasion? After all, their correspondents were invited to the lecture, attended it and then wrote about it. If Literature Live! had not organised all this, would they have got their quotes? So why be mean-spirited about giving credit where it is due? All it needs is a single line! Forgive this rant, but as a columnist and in my more recent role as an organiser, I now see both sides of the picture and wonder why things are as they are.

As to the talk itself, Rajan spoke at length about financial inclusiveness. You and I who read financial papers (which auto­matically suggests a certain income level), have no idea how the poor are exploited by money lenders who charge usurious rates of interest, and get away with it simply because the borrower has no option. Often they have to pawn wedding jewellery as collateral for a loan of a lakh. That amount would normally be for something essential like a deposit for renting a room.

Yet will the bank give them a loan? Probably not — but even that is speculation, because as Rajan pointed out, the poor don’t even know they can borrow from a bank. And if they do have that awareness, entering a bank is an intimidating act in itself.

Contrast that — and this is my observation, not Rajan’s — with the ease with which a Vijay Mallaya borrows thousands of crores from multiple banks, defaults on the loans and continues to lead the good life. (The poor would probably have their room/jewellery confiscated).

Rajan also had an offbeat take on corruption. Why do so many venal politicians keep on winning elections? Because they get things done — for example, get admission for a child at school, find a job for someone who without influence, has no chance because of limited qualifications, get an allotment for a home, a gas connection… and so on and so forth.

Corruption thus becomes an enabler for the poor, and the politician in turn gets the gratitude of the electorate and beats the idealist and well-qualified candidate who wants to change the system. After all, who will wait for long-term solutions when much needed short-term solutions are possible?

Sadly, this is how corruption gets entrenched in the system, its claws so deeply wedged inside that escape seems impossible. zz

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