A Second Republic | There Can Be No Collective Property

Sauvik Chakraverti
The Times of India, 30 Dec 2003


India 's socialist judiciary, even after a decade of liberalisation, remains inextricably wedded to the notion that publicly held property is in the public interest: The collectivist ideal.

This indeed must be the rationale for blocking privatisation in the oil sector and referring the matter to Parliament - the custodian of collective property in socialist thinking.

To understand the pitfalls of the notion that collectively held property actually exists, the reader should take a walk around Lutyens' Delhi . All the bungalows there are public property: They belong to the state.

But does this mean that they belong to us, the people? Certainly not. If anyone of us were to try and enter one of these compounds, even if just to admire the flowers in the opulent garden (maintained at public cost), we would be turfed out pronto.

From this, we arrive at a theorem: There is no such thing called public property. Whatever goes under that name is very much private property, in the hands of someone or a group that claims to represent the public.

That person or group has obtained a lien on that property, and exploits that so-called public property for private gain. Thus, in the case of the bungalows of Lutyens' Delhi , various functionaries of the state have obtained liens on these public properties at rates far below market prices.

Having understood this, let us extend this theorem to the public sector enterprises our socialist rulers have invested in: Are all of them public property by virtue of the fact that they belong to the collective - the state? Of course not.

Indeed, we can analyse them in much the same way as we saw the bungalows of Lutyens' Delhi : Certain individuals or groups have obtained private control over these public properties and are exploiting this for private gain.

In the case of the state-owned enterprise sector, we can even develop a public choice model of the political economy based on our theorem, as follows: All these firms are the properties of various ministries.

Whoever gets appointed minister then rents these firms out to individuals or groups for private exploitation. Hence, totally at odds with the opinion of our learned judiciary, liberal jurisprudence will hold that publicly held property is a socialist myth.

A truly liberal constitution would debar the state from holding property.

What should be done with the vast properties of the socialist Indian state? Before we arrive at that decision, let us first inquire as to how these property titles were obtained in the first place.

This is necessary because the title may have been criminally acquired. For example: If we see A snatching at B's wristwatch, this does not necessarily mean A is a thief, for B may have stolen A's wristwatch in the first place and A is simply trying to regain his just property.

According to liberal jurisprudence, only just property titles are valid - there is always an ethical dimension to liberal law.

So let us consider how the socialist state acquired these titles. It owns all these bungalows, all over the country, where its functionaries reside for free.

It owns all these enterprises which it leases out to its cronies. It operates a land monopoly in most cities, including the Capital. It owns all the forests, all the rivers, all the mountains, all the oil under the ground, all the minerals: It practically owns the entire country.

For the rest of us, property titles are extremely insecure. We really own nothing. Tribals get booted out of their traditional homelands, which are leased out to forest officials and contractors for private gain.

In Karnataka, the state government is passing law to take over temples: God is being nationalised!

At this point, let us pause to reflect on the fact that there can be some truly public properties which every citizen and even every foreigner is free to use like a public thoroughfare or a public park.

Liberal economists call these public goods and call for public investments in public goods alone. This is because businessmen will not invest in goods which everyone can use for free.

In India , although this is a planned economy, the state has not invested in these public goods at all. Instead of investing in roads, it invested in an automobile factory. It owns Scooters India. It owns oil companies. Hotels. Steel plants. Airlines. Should liberal jurisprudence hold these property titles to be valid?

Absolutely not. These are all criminally acquired titles. The taxpayer's interests have not been represented in this planned socialist democracy. Instead of investing in public goods, they have invested in private goods. This is planned theft.

All these properties should be seized and auctioned off. Those responsible for this diversion of public money should be prosecuted. The charge: Criminal misappropriation of public money.

If the disputed site at Ayodhya is handed over to a Hindu group, then this temple will not belong to all Hindus. It will be the private property of that group of Hindus alone. Thus, as mentioned in these columns earlier, the disputed site at Ayodhya should be auctioned.

And, with this de-politicisation of the saffron agenda, let us also bury the notion of collective property. We put an end to both fascism as well as socialism. Onwards to a Second Republic.