What's really changed?

Oct 09, 2011, 07:36 IST | Paromita Vohra

You know that feeling of multiplex rage.

You know that feeling of multiplex rage. First, the price of bottled water will be way above the MRP level. Then they will always lie that the small ones are over, when in fact they only stock the big ones. You watch the second half plotting revenge against The Big Lie of our times -- consumer choice.

Illustration/ Jishu Dev Malakar

A Pune man named Sanjay Shirodkar, perhaps similarly outraged by the high price of bottled water at airports filed an RTI seeking an explanation from the Mumbai International Airport Limited. MIAL refused, saying it was a private company, not a public authority, hence not liable to discuss what it did.

The Central Information Commission ruling on the case declared that MIAL, because it benefited from public concessions such as the waiver of a substantial stamp duty and because it functions on land leased cheaply from the Airports Authority, should be accountable under the RTI.

Hot on the heels of this, the Maharashtra Regulatory Board wrote off to the CIC asking that Reliance Infra which provides electricity (at higher prices as we suburbanites know) come under RTI as it is a public utility. Reliance Infra moved the High Court against this saying it's a private firm, so what if it provides a public service.

This dichotomy of public and private is conveniently brought up when it's an issue of power. For instance, domestic violence, suggest abusers, and some cops, has to be ignored because it is a "private" matter. It's not public violence.

But surely corporates who partake of public resources --  concessional land, tax benefits, waivers -- in the name of public good -- development and service -- rather than in the name of private profit and institutionalised greed, are accountable for both, the material benefit they've received from the public and the ideas of nation building they evoke?

The same goes for hospitals, private schools which will receive land under the RTE, and the BCCI, which the sports ministry wants to make a public authority, and if they want to be in charge of the Indian team, then, why not? In the last case, we may not want the sports ministry to indirectly be in charge of anything, including sports, which is a separate discussion.

This is a complex debate which needs to be foregrounded at this current moment when we are in the grip of strong anti-corruption rhetoric and across the oceans, unions and civil groups are Occupying Wall Street asking for an end to a culture of inequality and arrogant profiteering.

A certain entrepreneurial freedom is essential for diverse growth and change. But how should we consider use of resources that belong to the various publics that make up the country? A public in a forest with mines and a public in the city are very different and perhaps should not be able to blithely decide for each other. What are the essential services that all people need, thereby providing a kind of captive market for companies, which is a kind of public resource too?

We need to debate these matters because otherwise it feels as if our energy and outrage will be spent, not in assessing the responsibilities of those at the top, but victimising those at the bottom -- such as auto drivers, who, horrible as they behave with us, are as much victims of a system as they are perpetrators. We've seen this happen with sting operations, which became more about moral policing against ordinary people and rarely about investigating the powerful. And if the weak suffer while the strong are unquestioned, and the middle classes moan about being in the middle, what's really changing?

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com.

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper.

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