Home / Opinion / Views /  The problem of governmentality: Its suspicion of change-makers

When we reflect on impediments to growth in India, we realize that these are not only an outcome of specific laws, regulations, or rules, but a much larger mentality. We might, after Michel Foucault, call it India’s ‘governmentality’. This, indeed, is how Foucault meant it when he coined a new word instead of resorting to earlier and more familiar terms such as governance or government. It was, admittedly, an “ugly word", especially for purists of the French language, but it revealed a lot about the relations between the governors and the governed.

Indeed, it is not merely decrees or directives that determine the power relations between a state and its citizens, but also persistent attitudes, tactics and modes of thinking. Let me offer two examples, one personal, the other institutional, both of which are based on true stories. First the personal. I spent three years in Shimla as director of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS). During this period, I was on deputation from Jawaharlal Nehru University, where I continued in my substantive position. While on deputation, I retained, as per university rules, my residence at JNU, paying the licence fees and other dues. I was also offered rent free accommodation as per IIAS rules.

Close to a year after I completed my term, the current IIAS administration brought to my attention an “audit para" on “non-recovery" of 1.65 crore from me for “unauthorised occupation of General Pool Residential Accommodation" of the Central Government. The escalating punitive damages started at 50 times the licence fee of my JNU residence, going up to 250 times that fee after the eighth month. The rule cited was from a September 2016 notification of Directorate of Estates, ministry of housing and urban affairs, against retention of two accommodations by government officers. The fundamental flaw in the audit paragraph should have been obvious. As autonomous organizations, neither the IIAS nor JNU came under the central government’s residential accommodation. So the rule cited simply did not apply. Moreover, JNU professors on deputation on senior posts, both in India and overseas, were permitted to retain their accommodation as per rule 10.2 of the Estate Office Rules. The previous JNU vice-chancellor, now University Grants Commission chairman, and previous and present IIAS directors with additional charge, retained their parent department accommodation. Despite supplying these facts, the matter is yet to be resolved. Suppose, for a moment, that the case was of a central government officer covered under the cited rule. Even so, retrospective punitive damages without prior warnings or eviction notices would go against the principle of natural justice.

Now the institutional example. A leading Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), one of the original five, with the earliest startup incubator, also faces a unique problem. I came to know of it when I visited its premises during a selection committee meeting as the President of India’s nominee. This incubator has helped kick start over 200 successful businesses, including a few unicorns, since its inception in 2004, much before startups became a buzz word in India. It has spawned over 800 entrepreneurs, who have provided employment to over 8,000 individuals. Not only does it have a low attrition or closure rate, but has raised close to 4,500 crore through its enterprises.

As in any startup incubator which is linked to an academic institution, this organization, headed by a current IIT professor and a team of professionals, receives most of its grants from various ministries of the government. These grants are, in turn, transferred to the startups that it incubates after a rigorous selection process. The grants mostly come in the range of 15 lakh to 50 lakh, in accordance with various government schemes and guidelines. Naturally, till disbursements take place, the books will reflect the monies received from the government, with a rollover from year to year.

Imagine the surprise and discomfiture of this organization when it received an income tax demand for several crores. The tax department had calculated dues based on the grants received, which were treated as income, and slapped a tax notice on this IIT incubator. Repeated representations were made pointing out that this was a not-for-profit organization on an IIT campus, fully part of the latter’s larger institutional framework. Furthermore, that the money on the books was not income but grants received from the government for onward pay-outs to selected incubators.

To treat government grants as income was logic-defying, to say the least. The incubator in question has taken the matter to court to protect its interests, which, in this case, are totally aligned with the government’s policies and objectives. If the matter is not resolved speedily and amicably, one wing of the government, using government resources and manpower, will be litigating against another wing of the self-same government. All at the expense of taxpayers and the nation. This certainly seems to be a case of the left arm of the government not knowing what the right arm is doing.

In both instances cited, officials of the bureaucracy are apparently acting to protect the interests of the government, supposedly to safeguard the larger common good of the country. But, in effect, their actions seem, prima facie, to be unjustified, if not vindictive. Worse, they entangle non-offenders as well as sections of the government machinery in enormous, wasteful and time-consuming energy, effort and expense.

There are, it would seem, no simple solutions to the larger problem of impediments to India’s all-round growth. Apart from specific regulations, laws, rules, directives and so on, which shackle and smother entrepreneurs, business leaders and even ordinary citizens, there is the deeper malaise of governmentality. An attitude of suspicion, even hostility, against those very stakeholders who wish to serve and strengthen the nation.

This is the second of ‘Impediments to Growth’, a series highlighting the laws and regulations that hold India back. These are the author’s personal views.

Makarand R. Paranjape is an author and academic.

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