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October 31, 2017

Of bureaucracy and emotions

  • Eleven-year-old Santoshi Kumari died of starvation in Jharkhand’s Simdega district this month. Her ration card was not Aadhaar card-linked, preventing her from receiving any food ration from the Public Distribution System (PDS) for several weeks. The resulting politicisation of the debate and the cacophony of who is at fault reminds us again of the hopelessness in public discourse.
  • Our society runs on paperwork. Bureaucracy came into being after the birth of scripts in ancient civilisation. When a large amount of administrative data was created, a system was needed to retrieve the stored knowledge, which gave rise to archiving, cataloguing and classifying. More than writing, it was this method of retrieval that led to efficiency. Archaeologists discover new scripts every decade, but what sets the Sumerians, Chinese and Egyptians apart were their investments in building ways of cataloguing, says historian Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens.
  • Bureaucracy is new in developing countries. And we must realise that institutionally, people are not “bureaucracy-receptive”. In his monograph, Danes Are Like That, anthropologist G. Prakash Reddy writes of his experience of living in a tiny Danish village called Hvilsager in the early 1990s. There, he was struck by the individuality and insularity of people’s lives. He writes: “Coming as I do from India, and born and brought up in a village, I am used to seeing people… The doors of all the houses were closed and created a doubt in me, as to whether this village had any people at all.”
  • The Indian villager accesses the state through a local leader. Everyone knows everyone else and independent bureaucracy cannot be executed in the web of interdependent informal relationships among the stakeholders. When the state creates a new bureaucratic framework that trumps local networks (on which informal societies such as India are built), citizens become confused and find themselves at a loss to negotiate their space. Here is an example. Many of our grandparents prefer to go to the bank rather than call customer care. Any new conduit of relationships makes them recede.
  • Societies carry a historical burden of norms and customs. Mostly informal in nature, these institutions cannot be changed overnight. New laws and regulations introduced in any society must recognise the informal social norms society is predicated upon. In societies such as India, citizen-state interaction is historically built on patronage and personal relations; bureaucratic forms of engagement are recent. The ‘modern’ forms of citizen-state engagement through the bureaucracy do not go well with ‘traditional’ citizens. Western societies that are individualised, are prepared to function bureaucratically, and can successfully build independent regulatory bodies. But collectivist societies like India cannot, and may be should not, try this. Therefore, shouldn’t we build a framework for emotional bureaucracies to emerge?
  • In diverse societies, bureaucracies have to be contextual, and therefore emotional. They must be designed for everyone, and not just for the urban elites. Regulations force people to change their behaviour and dynamics instantly. If the bureaucracy is not empathetic to those who are slow in responding, it will be hugely damaging to society as a whole. It will leave so many of us distressed, some of us dead, and even worse, most of us devoid of compassion.

Lessons from Kirkuk

  • The conflict that broke out in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk between Iraqi government troops aided by Shia militias and the Peshmerga, the military wing of Iraqi Kurdistan, this month is a reminder of the divisions that run deep in the country. Both government troops and the Peshmerga are part of the coalition that is fighting the Islamic State in Iraq. They are also American allies. The U.S. provides air cover in the war against the IS and offers military advice to Iraqi troops, besides supplying weapons. Likewise, the Peshmerga has received arms from the U.S., Germany, the U.K. and other western countries. The U.S. also has a consulate in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan where hundreds of its diplomats and their families live. But neither the common American factor nor the shared interests in the war against terrorists has prevented the conflict in Kirkuk, that was captured by the Peshmerga from the IS in 2014.
  • The alliance between the Kurds and Baghdad is tactical rather than strategic. In 2014, after the IS scored a series of military victories in Iraq, including in the cities of Fallujah, Ramadi, Kirkuk and Mosul, both Baghdad and Erbil were threatened by the prospect of IS advances. They set aside their historical differences and joined hands against a common enemy. But the IS is in retreat. Most of the cities it captured, including Mosul, Iraq’s second largest, have been freed. This receding IS threat has exposed cracks in the alliance.
  • More immediately, the Kurdish political leadership’s push for independence from Iraq has alarmed Baghdad. Masoud Barzani, President of Iraqi Kurdistan, wanted to mobilise the momentum created in the battle against the IS in favour of independence. Despite strong opposition from Baghdad and western capitals, Mr. Barzani went ahead with a referendum in late September, in which Kurds overwhelmingly voted for independence. Though the vote is not binding on the Kurdish regional government, it has undoubtedly strengthened Kurdish nationalist politics across borders. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi rushed troops to retake Kirkuk. Mr. Barzani’s move was politically counter-productive as he is not in a position to achieve independence for Kurdistan. Taking responsibility for the mess, he has announced he will step down as President in November. This actually aggravates the crisis. The new Kurdish leader may lack his charisma or authority but will have to deal with stronger nationalist aspirations.
  • Baghdad has sent a tough message to Erbil by sending troops to Kirkuk: if the Kurds go ahead with plans to secede, it would invite a strong military response. The cracks in the coalition would be good news for the IS. The only country that could constructively intervene in the conflict is the U.S., which enjoys good ties with Baghdad and Erbil. It should mediate between the two sides on the Kurdish national question. Unless that is addressed, the chances for another civil war in Iraq remain high.