The Indian Babu-dom

A recent New York Times editorial notes that the ” [US] Army has had trouble meeting its recruiting targets since 2004 and fell short in 2005 by about 8 percent, or 6,400 recruits. After that, national targets were met, but only by lowering standards”. For instance, in the middle-class community of Sgt. Clayton Dickinson in Patchogue, N.Y., the young people “who express interest in an Army career, roughly 70 percent do not qualify, he says. They either have criminal charges against them, cannot pass the drug test or cannot pass the military qualifying test, which measures math and verbal proficiency”.

The rank and file members of the US army come predominantly from the poor and marginalized sections of the society, who have few other opportunities in the society. These kids were then armed, and sent to poor countries (Iraq, Afghanistan) and given enormous power over the citizens of that country. Is it any wonder that Abu Ghraib happened? Sure the harsh interrogation tactics sanctioned by Bush/Rumsfeld played an enormous part, however so did placing poorly equipped people in authority positions.

There are parallels in India (apart from the obvious human rights violations in Kashmir, Indian jails). We have an omnipotent state, yet the implementers of the administration are predominantly poor and undereducated (entry-level government jobs aren’t first choice for most Indians). In addition, the positions themselves, while affording power over residents, do not empower the position holder (the traffic cop, the “babu” in the dusty offices, et al – have uninteresting and tedious jobs with little potential for advancement, and enormous vulnerability to abusive/demeaning behavior at the behest of superiors etc). Further, they are confronted daily with the expansive riches of some sections of the society. They then have enormous incentive to encash any/all power they can exercise over the hapless citizen who comes under their purview, especially when “everybody is doing it” and corrective/punitive action is not forthcoming.

Mere overhaul of governance and external accountability measures cannot solve our creaking and corrupt bureaucracy – we must also upgrade and empower its people with requisite education, training and advancement opportunities.


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