The Statesman used to have, till at least 1991 when I left the paper, a quaint form that the staff would have to fill and submit for local travel reimbursements. For example, if a reporter travelled from Chowringhee Square, where the newspaper’s offices were located, to, say, Chitpore, to do a story on umbrella prices in Kolkata that monsoon, he would have to fill in the form and submit it to the ‘jamadar’ (who had nothing to do with housekeeping) for reimbursement.

Currently, over 70 permits are needed to set up a new hotel in the city. The state is thinking of doing away with 31 approvals which are archaic or redundant. Representation pic/AFP
Currently, over 70 permits are needed to set up a new hotel in the city. The state is thinking of doing away with 31 approvals which are archaic or redundant. Representation pic/AFP

The form provided for three modes of transport — taxi, bus and ‘ghurry’ or a horse-drawn carriage. I put down the inclusion (or retention from the past) of ‘ghurry’ to our finance chief Jehangir Dastoor's eccentricity for the only 'ghurries' left in Calcutta were the ramshackle Victorias with flea-bitten horses that fouled Red Road off the Maidan. You couldn't really use one of them to get to Chitpore. In fact, it made eminent sense to use a rickshaw. But you couldn’t do that either.

The form did not provide for travel by rickshaw. I once asked Jehangir Dastoor why, and he said “Anybody using a rickshaw is not deserving of working for The Statesman”. It was all about rules too. The rules did not permit it and that was that.

The reason I recount this story is to stress the point that absurd, illogical and mind-blowing ‘rules’, the single-word definition of red tapism, are not the sole preserve of government; private sector is equally guilty of discovering a million ways of making life that much more difficult. Who learned from whom is an entirely different story.

I was reminded of The Statesman rulebook while reading a report in Friday’s Times of India on the Maharashtra government waking up to the fact that 71 permits are required to set up a new hotel in Mumbai. According to this report, “hotels in Maharashtra still need a clearance before they can operate a mixer-grinder, atta-chakki or install a three-phase electrical connection.”

The absurdities of the licence-permit-quota raj still persist. Rules, you see, are rules. Once framed, they remain carved in stone, cast in iron. More importantly, rules also mean jobs — not just any jobs but jobs at the taxpayers’ expense with benefits that need no elaboration. Hence, even if the LPQ Raj is long over, the rules framed then are yet to be thrown into the dustbin and their enforcers sent packing.

Point is, everybody knows what is the right thing to do. This is not about the BJP or the Congress, or for that matter the Shiv Sena and the NCP. This is about common sense. So, everybody agrees these rules should go, but nobody will go ahead and scrap them from the rulebook.

Here’s why. Babudom will come up with the most innovative and persuasive reasons why hotels must seek permission to buy a mixer-grinder. Scrapping this rule would mean scrapping jobs and, worse, clipping the limitless powers of babudom. But that’s only one set of reasons. Politicians dare not scrap bad laws and worse rules because they are scared of being hauled over the coals for facilitating business and profit.

As we all know, business and profit are bad things, the second is a vice promoted by the first. So both must be eschewed, never mind the tall talk about ‘ease of doing business’. Our hypocrisy is limitless. Babus are hypocrites, so are politicians. And, so are we the people. We whine about rules but we also believe that more the rules less the corruption though that is contrary to fact.

That explains why the Maharashtra government, instead of throwing all 71 rules into the dustbin is still contemplating a graded response. “Licences like these could be scrapped,” says the report, “as the state government considers slashing operational approvals for hotels from 71 to 21 to promote the ease of business in the hospitality industry. To begin with, the state is thinking of doing away with 31 approvals which are archaic or redundant. The proposals are still under discussion and are yet to be approved.”

The irony of it all is right at this very moment the Prime Minister of India is pleading with global investors to come invest in India, promising to make doing business in this rule-ridden country easier. All his effort will amount to nothing unless state governments act fast, instead of wasting time on contemplation and consideration. Will that ever happen?

The writer is a senior journalist based in the National Capital Region. His Twitter handle is @KanchanGupta