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Analysis: The Nexus of Power

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In India, there is a nexus of the resourceful and the powerful. The nexus creates a set of rules to exclude and discriminate against those who do not have resources or power. Let us see what the resourceful and the powerful do to exclude.

First, the group controls information and knowledge. Information about opportunities and knowledge that helps us take decisions regarding life is only accessible to very few people.

Second, the resourceful and powerful create procedures; these procedures are like a maze. The maze is supposed to dissuade people who do not have power from challenging those who do. The procedures have many steps. Each step has a gatekeeper. Each gatekeeper is supposed to wield some power. The power is gained by denial of access to the next step of the procedure. Each gatekeeper is encouraged to use the power by those who put the procedure in place. This is not so as to share power with the gatekeepers, but to compound the power available at the top of the pyramid.

Third, the resourceful and powerful create a network of people similar to themselves. These networks control all institutions of the society. The individual's power is magnified when it seems to flow from an institutional framework. This framework is protected from outsiders. Some outsiders, who show their dissent or have the ability to use the information and knowledge in a more profitable manner are co-opted into the network. Some gatekeepers join the networks as they build muscle and money by using their role.

Mr Thangaiah, more often than not, because of our definition of success, we too have been forced to try and to join the group of resourceful and powerful. We end up interacting with this group of people that works for sustaining its own power. You do it by being the principal of this nice boarding school, which has the luxury of building a large hall for art and music, and I do it by working for a large corporate hospital. We are offered privileges for doing so. We think we have earned our privileges, but essentially, we have only bartered knowledge that we have for the good of the networks of people who exclude. Some people are more courageous; they leave the privileges and seek the right to information or form the voice of dissent about the exclusion.

So, are there dichotomous categories of right and wrong or is there a continuum of right through to wrong? The answer, I think, lies in when are you asking the question and what are your definitions of right and wrong. If you are asking the question when five people die because a pillar of the Metro construction collapses, the wrong is easily identifiable, and thus is dichotomous to the right. It is difficult to bring the rationale of pragmatism when the impact is so obvious and visible. But, what if you are asking the question when the procurement process is being slighted, or a design fault is being overlooked, or if a generator, which could have caused a fire in a cinema hall is ‘managed' by giving free tickets for the first show? These are everyday occurrences that are rationalised in the name of pragmatism.

While each of these processes can also lead to death, more importantly, these everyday occurrences can lead to an environment where there is a continuum of rationalised wrongs with confusion and vacuum about what is right. Let us see another continuum, you pay less than usual price to buy agricultural land to convert into an art and music hall, and then refuse to pay bribe to the gatekeeper of a procedure to prevent you from buying that land and converting the land use for the same. You may want to assume higher moral ground on this, but the fact is that you bought acres to convert into an art and music hall to use for a thousand students who will contribute to more inequity in a society than your paying bribe to a gatekeeper.

In real terms, the dilemma is much greater than the fact of corruption. The questions for me are: how do we teach young people that our rights and entitlements cannot be and should not be more than others? How do we share information and knowledge with those who do not have opportunity? How do we question our own definitions of success, which lead to discrimination? In my view, if one needs a change in environment and society for all, we need dichotomous definitions of right and wrong. I am also aware that such absolute definitions, do not exist today and have not existed for long. But if a few people keep on asking for such definitions it will at least help the students know that one needs to question one self and one's actions, particularly those that discriminate against others. A thought for your pink ‘post-it' Mr Thangaiah: all corruption leads to systematic discrimination and exclusion of people, and all discrimination is nothing but corruption.
Dr Achal Bhagat is a consultant psychiatrist and psychotherapist at Apollo Hospital, Delhi. He is also the founder director of Saarthak, a mental health NGO.

achalbhagat at yahoo at co dot in

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 03-08-2009)