Dhan Vapasi: The Treatment India needs to Recover from the Crisis (Part 3)

Government Control

How did the control of the vast public wealth of Indian end up with the government?

One of the things that defines a free country is the notion that the citizens are free and can own their property. Conversely, a country is not free if the citizens are subjects of some agency and don’t have full, unencumbered ownership of their property. By that measure, prior to 1947, India was clearly not free. Indians were subjects of the British crown, and the British government made the rules that governed India.

Post 1947, Indians should have become free but they did not. British-era rules continued to be enforced by succeeding governments, and the ruler-subject relationship between the government and the people continued. Instead of the people being the sovereign and the government their agent, the government continued to be the master and the people its subjects. The racial makeup of those in government changed but its imperial role did not. Two examples will highlight this.

Lutyens’ Delhi has hundreds of bungalows that house India’s politicians and bureaucrats. Built by the British, they once housed the rulers of colonial India. With the end of the British Raj, the skin colour of the rulers changed – but not their homes. Those who took over control of the government of independent India — politicians and bureaucrats — moved into those lavish quarters. Each bungalow, spread over acres, is worth a few hundred crores. It is impossible to justify that. How can those who were supposed to serve the public live like they were imperial rulers of a subjugated people, and extremely poor people at that?

A conservative estimate of the land value of Lutyens’ Delhi comes to around Rs 5 lakh crores. The aftermath of the pandemic has caused great pain to tens of crores of Indians. The proceeds of the sale of Lutyens’ Delhi rightfully belong to all Indians equally, rich and poor.

Each of the 25 crore Indian families could receive Rs 20,000 in the next few months. It is not a large amount but it will help the vulnerable families enormously to get back on their feet. With money in hand, their demand for goods and services will pull industry to increase production, which in turn will generate jobs. While helping the poor, it will give a much-needed boost to the economy without damaging side-effects.

(On a side note: I had written earlier about this idea of liquidating Lutyens’s Delhi. We ordinary citizens have to pay rent or buy our own houses. Why should the netas and babus get it for free? Like the rest of us, they should get a salary, and rent or buy whatever housing within their budget. This can be accomplished within a month. Remember, demonetisation was done overnight. The Prime Minister should give them all a month’s notice and demonstrate to the world that he means to correct the wrongs of the British Raj and that India is not going to tolerate it anymore.)

As another example of imperial rule, consider the existence of cantonments in India. The British Raj created military cantonments in more than 60 Indian cities and towns to quell rebellions from the “natives.” As a colonial power, it was rational for the British to do so. But military cantonments in the middle of a city are not justified in a free India — unless post-1947 governments consider themselves to be the new rulers.

Consider Navy Nagar at the southern tip of Mumbai. Created in 1796 (that’s not a typo — it’s 225 years old), it occupies 200 hectares of prime land. The Delhi cantonment takes up 4,000 hectares. It’s the same story in major cities such as Pune, Bengaluru and Ahmedabad. What’s their function? It cannot be protection from foreign invasion. Its prime function appears to be to provide private clubs, golf courses, fine accommodation, etc, to military and politically connected elites. In effect, public property has been usurped by the ruling nobility for their private use. This must be stopped.

These areas can be put to alternative uses to benefit the people — for housing and offices, schools and colleges, hospitals and shops, parks and recreation. Bringing these assets into use will create commercial value, which can then be returned to the people. There is a broader principle that goes beyond the use of public lands for the benefit of the public. It’s this: all public assets belong to the citizens, and they must derive tangible, direct and present benefits from them.

Tomorrow: Part 4

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.