In the north-eastern part of India lies Assam, a populous and resource-rich jurisdiction that borders Bhutan and Bangladesh. It’s a state that’s famous for Assam tea – which is exported throughout the world – as well as a range of world heritage protected flora and fauna.
Just recently, the Assamese Community of Melbourne brought a part of Assam to Australia with their Bohag Bihu celebration on April 12. For those unfamiliar with Bihu, it’s a festival that welcomes the coming of spring: a time for communities to come together and for farmers to prepare for the upcoming harvest.
Yet while Bihu is worth preserving, most locals I have spoken to acknowledge that Assam’s culture of bribery, nepotism and extortion is definitely not to be praised. The outrageous excesses of Assam’s political class have contributed to a situation in which the state lags behind the national average when it comes to economic growth and per capita income.
A heavy reliance on agricultural industries combined with low productivity and a shortage of machinery to improve efficiency has made Assam one of the most backward states in the country. Other factors relevant to the state’s lacklustre performance include: unreliable communications, inadequate transport infrastructure, terrorist groups and illiteracy.
The poor standard of living is part of the reason that many have decided to build a better life abroad. As my father Sanjeev asks in his book Breaking Free of Nehru, “[I]f India can’t let go of its addiction to corruption and shoddy governance, why would any of its children who have abandoned its shores want to return?”
As a former member of the Indian Administrative Service, Sanjeev tackled first-hand the underbelly of Assam: “Unhappy with hordes of officials around me who were corrupt in many ways and also misappropriated money meant for the poor, I developed systems of administration to minimize their opportunities of corruption and diligently investigated the records of projects to confirm that things were being done in the correct manner”.
“I ‘trapped’ individual corrupt officers wherever possible. I caught (and got jailed) one officer in Dhubri district and a revenue assistant in Barpeta district for taking bribes. Similarly I pursued cases of corruption against Inspectors of Schools while I was Secretary in the Education Department of Assam. But in all these cases, and in many others…that I came across in my later role as Assam’s State Enquiry Officer, corrupt officials – even those caught taking bribes red-handed – were quickly reinstated by their corrupt senior officers at the behest of corrupt political bosses or released by corrupt courts,” he explains.
Corruption is made possible by giving politicians and bureaucrats too much discretionary power, which they then abuse by doling out privileges for a price. In other words, corruption is caused by socialist policies that fortify the state at the expense of ordinary citizens.
Research by the Centre for Civil Society has shown how a larger size of government adversely impacts economic development, mainly because it takes resources out of the hands of private individuals and places them in the pockets of government officials. In Assam, the government is so involved in activities that it shouldn’t be doing that it has neither the financial resources nor the time to focus on activities that are actually important. Thus instead of tackling the law and order problem, the government wastes money running businesses, and spends millions on security to protect its own dignitaries while ignoring criminal complaints by citizens.
When the entire system is rotten from top to bottom, the only way to effect real change is to educate voters in how they are being taken advantage of. India is still theoretically a democracy, and it should be possible to vote in candidates serious about implementing good practice from the West.
The first step is to dramatically cut government spending by 50%. Cutting spending doesn’t mean services would disappear, it just means that they would be provided by ordinary people rather than by government. Spending cuts would remove one source of corruption because there would be fewer opportunities for taxpayer money to be siphoned off into the pockets of officials and their secretive Swiss bank accounts.
In addition, spending cuts allows for elimination of taxes, which can only be a good thing for encouraging economic growth because it allows consumers and businesses to keep more money for saving and investing. All state level taxes could be reduced by 50% across the board.
The third step is to initiate a review of the court and police system. A National Crime Record Bureau report in 2012 deemed Assam to have the highest rate of violent crime in the country, a dubious distinction that highlights the need for an inquiry into factors contributing to increased crime.
Despite problems back home, the diaspora of Assamese rightly maintains a link to their rich culture of singing, dancing and feasting. Bihu should be a time to celebrate the good and reflect on how to improve the bad.