Read Editorial with D2G – Ep (318)

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Read Editorial Beacons curb: Red, blue, ordinary

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MEANINGS are given in BOLD

In a most welcome move, the Union Cabinet has decided to disallow the use of the red beacon (a fire or light set up in a high or prominent position as a warning, signal, or celebration) on vehicles on India’s roads. Starting May 1, only vehicles on emergency services, such as ambulances, fire trucks and police cars, will be permitted the use of a beacon — from now, a blue-coloured one. So-called dignitaries (a person considered to be important because of high rank or office) will no longer have the privilege (a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group) of announcing their exalted (at a high or powerful level) status on the road by sporting beacons on their passenger vehicles.

For this, the Central Motor Vehicles Rules of 1989 are to be amended, so that the Central and State governments lose the power to nominate categories of persons for the red-beacon distinction. As a symbol of an assault (make a physical attack on) on India’s over-reaching VIP culture, this is a good beginning. The flashing red beacon has become so closely associated with unchecked official power that in popular culture it is often all that is depicted to establish a character’s place in the hierarchy.

In fact, it is seen to be such a symbol of arrival in the country’s power structure that at a workshop for first-time MPs in 2009, one of the main demands made was that cars with red beacons be allotted to them. Such demands have also made its very denial (a statement that something is not true) a low-hanging fruit for regimes (a government, especially an authoritarian one) seeking to establish their street cred (acceptability among fashionable young urban people) as men and women of the people. For instance, over the last three years, governments in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, each of a different political hue (character or aspect), have limited the use of the red beacon.

But to meaningfully begin to dismantle (take (a machine or structure) to pieces) India’s VIP culture, doing away with status symbols such as red beacons is not enough. For one, this accessory is just one category among privileges that maintain a colonial-era overhang (hang or extend outwards over) on the country’s democracy, by publicly enforcing a subject-ruler separation. From pat-downs avoided at the security gate at an airport to a freer pass at the toll-gate on a highway, there are numerous ways in which the culture of entitlement is asserted (state a fact or belief confidently and forcefully).

Such visible reminders of a feudal (absurdly outdated or old-fashioned) separation apart, the power of official proximity is experienced by citizens most intimately while accessing government services — from getting a bed at a state hospital, or a seat for one’s child in school, to cutting the waiting time for, say, a passport or an Aadhaar identity proof.

To be, or to know, ‘somebody’ is far too often perceived as a requisite (necessary; required)  to getting one’s rightful due in a political economy of shortages, sloth (reluctance to work or make an effort; laziness)  and rent-seeking. To refresh Indian democracy, the state needs to stop protecting MPs such as Ravindra Gaikwad who coast along on “don’t you know who I am” bullying (use superior strength or influence to intimidate (someone), typically to force them to do something). But yet more importantly, it must also reform procedures and the work culture to provide a level playing field to citizens to get what is theirs by right.

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