The real culprit behind the Adarsh scandal is not the army. The real culprit is the criminally high cost of land in urban India. Frequent news reports seem to gloat over the fact that real estate prices in south Mumbai, for instance, are comparable to, or even exceed, land costs in Manhattan or Tokyo, despite the fact that both the US and Japan are far richer countries than India.
Far from taking pride in the prohibitive price of our urban land, as our press is inclined to do, we should deplore it and find ways of bringing it down. The astronomical value of prime real estate encourages scams, as in the case of Adarsh, precludes common citizens from owning or renting residential accommodation in urban centres, and increases the cost of doing business in India: the high overheads of office and retail space are a major disincentive for entrepreneurs setting up shop in India.
Why is land - urban real estate - so expensive in India? The obvious answer is that India is an overpopulated country. The growing demands of a rapidly increasing population has created an inevitable shortage of supply, the consequences of which are impossibly high prices. Fair enough. But Holland, to take one example, is a more densely populated country than India. Yet the price of real estate in downtown Amsterdam, say, is less than land rates prevailing in Colaba or Lutyens' Delhi.
One of the main reasons - perhaps the main reason - for the high cost of urban Indian real estate is the Operation Land-grab mounted by the government ever since Independence. The armed forces reportedly hold a total of some 17 lakh acres of land across the country; the sarkar in its entirety holds many times more than that. If you take all the government landholdings - central and state government offices, residential accommodation for politicians and bureaucrats, and various emporia and exhibition grounds - the sarkar is the single biggest landlord in the country.
In New Delhi, ministers and other netas occupy Lutyens' bungalows the market value of which is estimated at some Rs 150 crore. Often, even after their demise these personages continue to occupy their official residences which are converted into museums in their honour. Lower down the sarkari pecking order, bureaucrats get heavily subsidised housing, often in the most desirable residential areas, which become so costly as a result that you and i can't afford to live in them.
In no other democracy do politicians and babus get free, or almost free, housing: the American president lives in the White House, everyone else must find their own accommodation. If the Indian sarkar were to take a tip from the US, only Rashtrapati Bhavan would be retained to house the incumbent president. All other government residences - in Delhi and elsewhere - would be freed, significantly increasing the supply of urban real estate and bringing down its price - and the incidence of greed-induced scams that artificially high prices generate.
But if the sarkar were to vacate city centres where would it go and how would it run the country? In the 1950s, the then chief minister of West Bengal, B C Roy, in order to decongest Calcutta, tried to move the government bureaucracy to the new township of Kalyani, specially created for the purpose, a hundred or so kilometres from Calcutta. However, the citified babus dug in their heels and Kalyani became a ghost town before it was fully born.
Perhaps in the dawning era of e-governance it's time to revisit the Kalyani approach and develop live-in sarkari townships away from urban centres, which would be made accessible to the open market. As government departments get progressively computerised the sarkar should be able to do its work without having, literally, to sit on the heads of citizens. Won't happen, of course. But if it did, Anil Ambani could well become the new resident of New Delhi's 7, Race Course Road, to rival in grandeur brother Mukesh's Antilla high-rise in Mumbai.