Is India Truly Shining - Online Article

I  N ONE of the most famous episodes in the Mahabharata, Dharmaraja, the embodiment of truth, is persuaded to announce ashwatthama hatah kunjarah — Ashwatthama is dead, the elephant. Krishna blows his conch so that the last word kunjarah is not heard and the listeners concluded that it was Ashwatthama, the warrior son of Dronacharya ,who was dead. The BJP's publicity blitz that India is shining is of the same nature. The slogan is not complete; it should have been India is shining better — not merely that India is shining.

As many observers have pointed out, however much India may beshining, however much the feel-good factor may prevail in the country, the country is in a poor shape in many spheres: Hunger, water supply, domestic fuel, housing, primary education, health delivery, sanitation and unemployment are all matters of concern. The World Development Report 2004 has drawn a bleak picture of the state of the poor in India. India is far to go before it can describe itself as shining.

Three districts in Orissa, Koraput, Keonjar and Bolangir suffer from chronic hunger. That is a matter of surprise because Indian granaries are full. As Prof Amartya Sen never tires of pointing out, famines do not occur in democracies. Yet, we get frequent reports of death due to hunger. Even if such reports are not quite true, malnutrition is unacceptably high.

The Orissa Government has appointed special senior IAS officers to attend to the problems of their chronically-sick districts. From what one gathers, those officers operate from the state capital rather than live and function in the districts for which they are responsible. Thus, we have three problems:

     
  1. Grain is there in plenty butthe poor are hungry; 
  2. Officers are there but they will not attend to their responsibilities; 
  3. Democracy is there but it is not effective inthe way, Prof Sen says it would be.

Democracy is effective when people find their elected representatives useful. Many poor people vote in India because of inducements, caste loyalty, or even because voting day is a change from their dreary routine. Their expectations of any kind of service from their representative are next to nil. Elected representatives too are happy to be relieved of any such responsibility. In any case, they have no statutory responsibility to do anything for their constituency, let alone their constituents. Nobody can take them to court if they do not visit even once their constituency after they are elected.

That is a glaring omission, and one suspects that it is deliberate. World over, law-makers protect themselves by claiming that the legislature is supreme, and, therefore, by implication, they themselves are supreme. When the electorate is articulate, such self-aggrandisement does comparatively little harm. On the other hand, when the voters are poor and illiterate, that attitude makes legislators irresponsible.

The World Development Report 2004 reports that half the womenin Uttar Pradesh do not consider it necessary to have a trained medical attendant to assist in child birth. (In Kerala, that figure is barely one per cent.) When the expectation of the electorate is so low, legislators will naturally have no fear of the electorate.

It would appear churlish to say so, but it is more than likelythat the people of Orissa are dying of hunger because they accept it as divine will that cannot be mended, and certainly not by the legislator.Even if the poor are that much ignorant, legislators are being unwise in neglecting their constituents. It is no accident that Naxalite disturbances are confined to poor tribal areas, and are not found elsewhere. Some day or other, legislators will pay heavily for their irresponsibility.

In the late 18th century, France saw a bloody revolution, but England escaped. One reason for this startling difference was a simple but significant difference between the habits of British and Frencharistocrats. All year round, French aristocrats lived in Paris attending on the Emperor; they never bothered to visit their estates. They cut themselves off from their tenants, and lost their roots. In the UK, there was a London "Season" when the aristocracy congregated in the capital, attended a number of glamorous social functions including presentation of their wards at the Royal Court. Rest of the time, they lived in their draughty castles. Such aristocrats, even if they exploited their tenants, did have human contact with them. They were available to listen to complaints, and most of them did respond even if not as generously as necessary. That small but significant intercourse between the aristocrats and the populace made the British aristocracy look human and saved them from the people's wrath; the absence of any such contact doomed the French ones.

Both the legislators and the IAS officers of Orissa are making the same mistake as the French aristocrats did. They are liable to suffer the same fate. If they and their counterparts in other tribal areas are wise, they would camp in their constituencies all the year round, and take some interest in local welfare, make themselves appearhuman.

Such self-discipline is unlikely to emerge automatically. Hence, it would be useful to have a rule that legislators would forfeit their seats if they do not reside in their constituencies at least for180 days in the year, and do not have at least 50 open sessions with the public. It is possible that this simple rule will cure the Naxalitemenace better than any other device that one can think of, certainly better than any amount of policing.

Like legislators, administrators also need discipline. It is not clear why they do not reside in the districts to which they are attached. It is even more difficult to understand why their absence is condoned.

One guess is that family life in tribal districts is difficult; in particular, quality schools and medical services are not available. If that is so, the remedy is not all that much difficult. Establish large multi-speciality hospitals, and a variety of schools in each tribal district, and do so in preference to locating them in large metropolitan cities.

It is important that the hospital be large and the schools be many. A small hospital will not get any doctors. That is well-known.According to the World Development Report 2004, absenteeism of doctorsin Uttar Pradesh was 58 per cent. For professional experts, the company of like-minded people is a vital need. Hence, 30 single doctor dispensaries will be dismal failures; one 30-bed hospital can be expected to be successful. Similarly, single teacher schools will malfunction; a single 30-teacher school stands a good chance of success. If there are several of them in close proximity, success is all but assured.

There are 30-40 predominantly tribal constituencies in our country. Let each of them have two or three 100-200 bed hospitals; adozen schools. That may cost Rs 100 crore or more. Even then, it will be a small fraction of what the same population is provided in cities.

These hospitals and schools will not have enough customers.That does not matter; let those constituencies export quality education and quality medical services.

Then, administrators will vie with one another to be posted there. These inputs will create employment; they will attract and retain expert staff. Then, such tribal areas will be open to public view; hunger will no longer be tolerated.

The third issue is why there is hunger when grain is availablein plenty. The answer is well-known. The poor do not have enough purchasing power. The government does have poverty alleviation schemes. Evidently, they are not functioning well enough.

The problem is that the government has tried to solve the problem through food subsidies. That is liable to misuse; it invites corruption. Food-for-Work is a better solution. However, works undertaken under such programmes have not been properly designed. There is no point in making earthen roads that will be washed away the momentrain comes. In olden days, thoughtful kings built palaces to all eviatefamine-stricken people. That is often condemned as ostentation. Palacesmay be ostentatious but they are durable.

Our Food-for-Work programme suffers because most of the worksare not durable. With durable targets not much cheating is possible. Even if there is as much corruption as before, it becomes imperative to engage the poor; false muster rolls may magnify the numbers employed but the minimum number will have to be employed. Totally fictitious accounts are not possible. So, the poor will be employed. Then, let the Food-for-Work programmes be used to construct hospital and school buildings. They will have to be built; they cannot be reported ashaving been washed away by the rains.

Everybody talks of income inequality between the rich and the poor people. It is no less important to reduce inequality between rich and poor locations. We need not merely socialism of people but geographical socialism too.

India is shining somewhat, and appears so only because it was dreary till now. It will be accepted as truly shining only when every nook and corner is well lit.

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