Gerontocracy vs Meritocracy in Assam

But then to put them in the controlling seat of even things about which they hardly know the basics is something difficult to appreciate. If one is to have a Silicon Valley in Assam, one has to be able to bring in the Silicon Valley culture. The ecology of technology is something that Sam Petroda talked about with reference to a meeting of European leaders who were interested in developing a Silicon Valley in Europe. In Assam too, one would have to be able to change the age-old culture in certain aspects of life if such ecology of technology is to be developed. One important aspect in this ecology is the leadership of people willing to look around and have the energy to look around, absorb new ideas/things from the surroundings and to apply such novelties to our own conditions. The older the people in power the more difficult it would be to change. Our time tested tradition of giving respect to our seniors is no doubt healthy in itself. But that should in no way be an impediment to entrusting important matters to people who have not yet reached the age when one begins to think of a well-earned rest.

A few days back, Mr S Gurumurthy of the Indian Express fame delivered a wonderful, in fact captivating lecture in the Vivekananda Kendra on culture and its link with economic development. In fact he called the whole process development with culture, analysing with very apt examples, the development around the world and how culture had an impact on it. While the modern economists talk about the capital- output ratio, the savings rate etc there is also the cultural aspect as to why some countries are more developed than others, why some save more than the others and why some consume more than the others. One good example he had pointed out is the family values in India which make the system of social security a matter of private concern in India as against that in the US where the old are at the mercy of the state. The spending culture in the US has made it the biggest borrower nation in the world whereas the Japanese are having problems due to their culture of savings to the extent that they are saving in the bank even with a negative real rate of interest. One does not necessarily agree fully with Shri Gurumurthy’s analysis of things but his idea of importance of culture for development cannot be underrated.

The above is almost like the ecology of technology that Sam P was talking about. Only difference seems to be that culture does not have to be static in his case if one wants to introduce certain new strategies of development. If one sticks to one’s culture then one will have to forego certain technological developments. One example is the Silicon Valley replication. Sticking to the age- old tradition of pin stripes, white shirts and black shoes will not do. The culture in Silicon valley is faded jeans, tee shirts and sneakers with the least amount of formalities. It is the unconventional types who can bring about major changes in the economy today. As mentioned before, Assam badly lacks the presence of such unconventional types today to take the economy to a different level. May be this has to do with the Assamese tradition itself.

One thing which strikes somebody from outside is that in the state today, in almost all the committees and projects it is the old gray-haired lot who are made the head. More gray hair one has more likely that he or she shall be given the top position. A state wanting to bring about a change should not adhere to such an unwritten code. It is understood that the Assamese society is a close knit society with almost everybody knowing everybody else. Someone once said that there is no wrong number in Assam. Even if the person is not the one wanted on the phone, there could be a conversation leading to the discovery that both in fact know each other. Of course, this is more true in Mizoram or Arunachal Pradesh where the society is still more closely knit. While closeness is good as in the case of social security as referred to by Shri Gurumurthy, to bring about major technological change, gerontocracy has to make way for the meritocracy. It may further be prescribed that even within the merit-based system, it is the younger generation which is more capable of initiating and absorbing the change. There is no question of any disrespect, it is just the need of the hour.

We do see some of the projects being run by the younger generation. But there too the ultimate authority is with the oldies put in that position by the other oldies in power. More often than not, they are taken for a ride by their juniors who learn the tricks of the trade in a very short while. The honest person would stay away because they cannot sacrifice their beliefs and principles for narrow selfish gains. The system thrives on albeit with unsuspecting oldies being led by the crooks from below. The society suffers as a result. In case of new sectors like IT, BT one would expect to see such a power structure. In fact such things do come to limelight although rather slowly. Whether the old folks or the power hungry, selfish younger cronies are better, is a moot question.

Without the change in the mind-set it is very difficult to bring about major changes in traditional set up here in Assam. Choice of a person who has retired after putting in more than 30 years of service in the same dept makes it is very difficult to visualize that he/she is going to think of some drastic changes to bring about improvements. Even if one tries, one is always prone to the stigma of not trying enough when one was in power, a complaint often heard with regard to some of the committees that the government sets up in Assam. The same thing could have been done by utilizing the younger people while taking the advice of the older generation. Another difficulty generally noticed in respect of super-annuated people is their tendency to depend on hangers on and their almost inevitable drift into nepotism and its concommitants

There was some important implication in the remark from one of the officials from DONER that in the NE policies, plans are made at the whims of the contractors not anything else. If this is so then one is constrained to point out that this is due to the fact that the people who are at the helm o affairs are these oldies. They are normally more prone to be corrupt than the younger people, as they have less zeal and aspiration to be recognized as honest, hardworking people and also they perceive themselves as an endangered species trying to make the most of their last opportunities. have more perceived liabilities. The older generation somehow gives up adhering to the higher principles of life and thus fall prey to the contractors baits. How many parents are there in Assam today who advise their sons not to make any money through unfair means? This is also seen amongst the young IAS/IPS officers who remain honest for a time while before learning about their immunity and then trying to outdo their seniors. This is the sad reality that one has to face in Assam and perhaps all over India.

Another development pointed out by the official of DONER is the proliferation of NGOS and consultancy organizations headed by retired bureaucrats. This is fine. But the problem is that the bureaucrats then hang around the corridors of the Planning commission to get projects. There is some chain reaction in this. The officers are now would be willing to please their previous bosses so that they in turn may get to enjoy similar privileges, and lo and behold, projects get created out of nowhere. It seems greater use has been made of the Non Lapsable Pool by such retired people than by genuine consultants.

One would not do much justice to the above line of argument if the role of the media is left out of it. The media does have a major responsibility to uphold the efforts of the individuals trying to bring about change. Honesty must be given high priority in the evaluation of such a project and the leaders. Often the hardest efforts to befriend the media will be made by those having some ulterior motives. If there is somebody honestly trying to bring about change in this lackluster economy of Assam, he/she must be given all the support even at the cost of sidelining some of the ‘well-known’ retired personnels. The ‘good old days’ are in their lips only because they are the people who made them look like those, in comparison to the present days, which are better in most ways, and the future, which, I am sure will be brighter provided we have the strength to call a spade a spade.

By Amiya Sharma
The Assam Tribune/10 November, 2002