Pahlaj and Adityanath are not the Problem

For real reform, we need to transform institutions. The individuals at the top make little difference.

The glee with which the sacking of Pahlaj Nihalani as Chairman of the Central Board for Film Certification has been met, and the furious outrage against Yogi Adityanath and his government over the deaths of children and adult patients in Bhagwan Raghav Das Medical College are the same thing – momentary reactions to events without understanding the underlying situation.

While Prasoon Joshi may sound sensible (and the new members, eminently reasonable), there’s no guarantee that we won’t soon be outraging over some controversial cuts in some provocative film or the other. While Adityanath is Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh now, and a five-time Member of Parliament from Gorakhpur, this tragedy would have happened even if he was neither of these things. That doesn’t mean that he wants to or knows how to ensure that the tragedy of BRD Medical College never repeats itself, but that this disaster was long in the making.

(Before you rage-quit and abuse-tweet me, I’m not saying that censorship and dead children are equally repugnant. There is no comparison. These events happening with a day of each other, and the same people having both these reactions has prompted me to try and turn this into a teachable moment).

Censorship

To Pahlaj first. While he was probably the least media-savvy government official in the present dispensation, he did have a point in something that he’s been saying for a while – he’s just exercising his powers under the law. The law, the Cinematograph Act, 1952 gives wide discretion to the Board in deciding certification and, worst of all, mandates such ‘certification’ before a film is released. When certification is denied or held up unless cuts are made to a movie, the body that is ‘certifying’ it is actually a Censor Board, and not a certification authority as some still like to insist.

This distinction between a Censor Board and a certification authority is not trivial word-play. Nihalani didn’t order those cuts out of thin air – some were egregious, yes, but the powers were already there. Joshi will wield precisely those same powers, and as filmmakers push the edge of what is mainstream, will find himself doing exactly what Nihalani did. What then did the firing of Nihalani achieve (except some moderately good PR for the government which appointed him in the first place)?

With the underlying law that gives vast discretion to the Board to hold up releases, there is always going to be room for rent seeking. Even before Nihalani took over, the Censor Board was a hub of touts and corrupt practices given the procedures involved and the amounts at stake. There are remedies provided in the form of revision and appeal from the orders of the Board, but when the cost of doing so (pushing back release date or the actual cost of litigation itself) is so high, it is not an effective one for this sector. As long as the legal structure of censorship, there will always be massive misuse.

Oxygen

It’s easy to see the deaths of children in the BRD College as a failing of government healthcare in India, but that means we miss seeing the deeper problem. The deaths happened because the oxygen supply failed. The oxygen supply failed because the hospital hadn’t paid the suppliers for six months, and had only made irregular payments for nearly a year. Enough reminders had been sent that supplies would have to stop if the massive pending bills were not met. The money was there. The payments were still not made.

Here’s the issue: why did someone who faithfully carried out his part of a contract need to beg and plead for the government to do its part? Even if Pushpa Agencies heroically decided to supply oxygen forever without payment, its vendors would have demanded payment at some point. It is not as if the State of Uttar Pradesh suddenly went bankrupt in the last few months. Even accounting for the fact that the Chief Minister’s visit delayed the last payment, it was just the straw which broke the camel’s back.

Nothing stopped the hospital authorities from making the payments. But importantly, nothing made them either. This wasn’t a payment out of their personal pockets, which if they hadn’t made they’d be held personally responsible. There are no rules in place mandating payment of contracts within a fixed time. On the contrary, CAG pointed out that money was being put in an account contrary to the rules, possibly leading to the delay in payment. Further, the inefficiency of the judicial system means that few would want to try and take that route to get quick payment of a bill.

All the outrage about dead babies and who is responsible is making us miss this important point – it is the lack of rules, and their violation when they exist, that created this. It is the absence of a reliable mechanism to enforce rules which did this. By leaving it to the individual officer to decide at what time and pace payments should be made, and putting in her no fear of action for failing to do so in a timely manner, we find ourselves in this situation. Government, or any institution in the modern world, cannot run on the individual heroics of its personnel. There need to be rules and systems in place.

If people are content with holding Modi, Yogi, the Health Minister, the Principal of BRD College or the supplier responsible and ignoring the underlying problems, we have already the sowed the seeds for the next such tragedy. The outrage will be extinguished when a scapegoat is found, but the same broken system will continue to take lives.

The problem with governance in India today is not that the right persons are not in the right places. The problem is that even with the best persons in charge, very little will change in the way the government works if the rule of law – of robust, independent institutions, minimal discretion, clear norm-setting – is given a go-by. Saviours and scapegoats are a diversion from the real issues.