Wednesday, December 14, 2011

India's Anti-Terrorism Medicine Is Worse Than The Disease

It looks like terrorists merely have to start disrupting life for Indians and the authorities will finish the job for them. The damage done by them is too often magnified by the official response. I see more of this in my present visit to India and have been greeted with these instances since arriving here a few days back:
  • My Indian prepaid cell phone didn't work. My service had been blocked because my carrier is required to re-verify and obtain documentation of proof of address and identity plus a new picture of the owner after a while (6 months? A year? Two years? The frequency isn't clear.)  
  • Visitors from abroad simply cannot get cell phones in their name even if they have valid documents and proof of identity.  All carriers "officially" advised me to get it in the name of a local resident (I chose an uncle). The alternative is to pay international roaming fees that cost 50 to 100 times as much as an India based phone.  As if paying an extra few hundred dollars will deter actual terrorists.  The Nov. 26, 2008 Mumbai attackers used satellite phones anyway, and none of the steps taken prevents this.
  • I went to draw some rupees from my bank account with paltry balances only to find my bank account was on hold pending submission of documents. The bank folks explained this was required under a new KYC (Know Your Customer) policy thrust upon them by the Reserve Bank of India.  And never mind I'd gone through this routine 11 months back with two branches - some fresh guidelines required me to produce copies of papers submitted two decades ago at the time of opening of the account. Plus, this process of "re-verification" is to be repeated every two years.
  • This "KYC" ordeal is for all bank account holders, not just foreigners.  My 92 year old father-in-law in Pune suffered a protracted back and forth, having to produce fresh documents for his bank accounts that were opened and in regular use for over 30 years.  And Anita's 83 year old uncle is being pressed for "official" documentary evidence to prove his marriage to his wife of 50+ years to avoid a freeze of his decades old and continuously used joint account with her.  Most Indians don't obtain marriage licenses, at least didn't in the past. 
  • A close friend in IBM (of Indian origin, now a US citizen) traveled to India on work, then left to attend a meeting in Malaysia.  He then had problems re-entering India because of the new policy barring re-entry of Indian visa holders within 60 days of leaving the country. The then Indian Foreign Minister of State Shashi Tharoor had rightly derided this policy by his own ministry through his much publicized tweet "26/11 killers had no visas."
Such new restrictions are ostensibly to curb and prevent terrorists from funding their activities and carrying out attacks on Indian soil.  But as Tharoor pointed out (much to the annoyance of his seniors, the Foreign and the Home Ministers) they'd hardly deter actual extremists while adding to the bureaucratic hell faced by ordinary Indians and foreign visitors.

Why does this happen?  Having been in the Indian government for over a decade I know how this can be as much a result of ulterior power grabbing as of bone-headed decision making.  In a milieu of widespread restrictions officials can relish their discretion to interpret, enforce or to relax burdensome rules. They can use their power to help those around them in exchange for gratitude or gratification, and become more relevant than in a freer, more smoothly functioning environment. Of course the problem can also be created or compounded by a bumbling administration that's under pressure to show that "strong" steps are being taken in response to militant attacks.

The trauma of the terrorist attacks probably prompted the leadership to seek the advice of its security apparatus for preventive measures.  The latter apparently didn't let this crisis go to waste, using it as an excuse to reintroduce "inspector raj" type controls that had been drastically loosened during Indian economic and administrative reforms of the 1990s.

I hope that smarter and more enlightened people at the top are aware of this dynamic and reverse such trends.  A tragic loss of a few hundred innocents at the hands of fanatics shouldn't bring on these strangely drastic yet ineffective measures that gum up the lives of a billion.