vol-LXXXIV : May 2, 2011

Dear Colleagues

Yesterday was May Day; did any one notice? Of course, the Royal wedding in London was noticed. Here is another round of random reflections:

1.  Yes, this May Day, several anti-labour legislations are being enacted in America. In progressive Maine, the Republican Governor is determined to repeal an existing legislation that protects child labour from exploitation. In Wisconsin, the Governor there is planning to bring in a legislation that would ban trade unions from the state. While these are very visible and obnoxious anti-labour moves, the trend throughout the world is unmistakable. In rapidly growing China and India, most export-oriented industries do not allow formation of trade unions, a practice that dates back nearly 40 years since the first ‘free trade zones’ were set up in Penang in the Asian region. So, much of trade union activity seems to have become limited to white-collar government employees?

2.  The rise of private sector, its visibility and expansion in national and global economies in the past decade, has also brought in focus regular media coverage of iconic business leaders and management professionals. Now, it seems that many of these icons have ‘feet of clay’ as new revelations about their ‘illegal’ activities, wealth -amassing and influence-peddling are coming into public domain. Rajat Gupta, the much decorated ‘Indian’ former head of Mackenzie is being investigated in USA for insider trading; the much ‘talked about’ Anil Ambani is avoiding arrest in 2G spectrum investigation in India. In fact, the so-called young generation of business women Indian parliamentarians (for example, Supriya Sule and Kanimozhi) are under CBI investigation. So much for the ‘new era’!

3.  It has been assumed that ‘reconstruction’ of new Afghanistan has to be focused on creating a central political authority in Kabul that has both capacity and legitimacy. However, there is yet to be a central civil service in the country. Most ministries (like the rather active Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development –MRRD) are running on short-term (2-3 year) project grants made available by international donors. This internationally recruited and paid for human capacity at the senior most levels of national government is fragile; there is hardly any capacity at provincial levels, which are highly diverse in geography and demography. Building sub-national governance institutions would more readily enhance the legitimacy of democratic state in the country.

4.  There is a growing trend around the world where business houses ‘adopt’ primary schools and invest in infrastructure and teaching. In a recent ‘Education Forum’ in New York, this trend was reported from Morocco, Argentina, Qatar, and Nigeria. In recent years, similar trends are visible in Asia too, specially India, where a large number of business houses ‘adopt’ public primary schools. These are laudable efforts indeed, as the educational foundation of children from poor communities can be strengthened. But, these same business houses are not so keen to engage with Ministries of Education to reform themselves to become more efficient and accountable in using public funds generated from taxes and other sources. Why should public institutions not be made to function more professionally?

5.  Media in the past month in India has been full of stories about mounting corruption and citizens’ angry response to end it by pressurizing the national government to enact a tough Ombudsman Act. The government has now set up a committee to work on its draft, with a team from civil society, led by the veteran activist Anna Hazare, whose fast provoked this process. Much has been written about the advisability, or otherwise, of this move to end corruption, as well as the ‘rise’ of civil society in India today. Without getting into the ‘rise or otherwise’ of civil society, it is useful to differentiate civil society actors more clearly. In the five member delegation, only Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal are civil society activists. The two Bhushans (father and son) are professional lawyers who earn their livelihood by fighting legal cases on behalf of their various clients. Justice Hegde is a judge of High Court currently occupying a constitutional position in the state of Karnataka, clearly a part of the state apparatus. By clarifying the locus stand, it may help to articulate the roles of civil society more appropriately.

All the very best
Rajesh Tandon