State of  the nation

Between the lines

By Kuldip Nayar

Indian farmers raise their batons at a protest, outside Parliament in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2008. The farmers were demanding that the government make loans interest free and increase the minimum support price of all the crops and the rejection of the new draft on agriculture of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). (AP)

If you want to assess a country’s progress you should pick up the poorest from among the people and see how far he has gone up the ladder, so said Mahatma Gandhi. The budget session of parliament, in progress, is a stock-taking exercise, not of economy alone but of other fields as well. With an array of ‘liberal’ measures, India has more than doubled its growth rate which was once dubbed the Hindu growth rate of four per cent.

If Gandhi’s criterion is applied, India is rich but unequal. Billionaires compete well with their counterparts in America. Millionaires in India are cheaper by the dozen. Yet the common man has made little progress. Two reports emanating from official circles say that nearly 70 per cent of people live in dire, dismal conditions. The latest national Sample Survey says that the people in the countryside live on a daily earning of Rs 8 to Rs 12. The amount has lessened by half from the time the report was published early last year. It is quite a steep fall in some 12 months.

This is apart from the suicide that farmers are committing all over India, including rich Maharashtra and Punjab. The figure is one every half an hour. (In 2006, the number of suicides was 7,006). The villagers cannot clear the compound-interest debt because they have got enmeshed in the cash crop economy that cannot take the market’s vagaries. The humiliation of not paying the debt is too much for a respectable person to face. In comparison, even a middle class sibling spends more in one evening at a restaurant than what a villager’s family affords in 365 days.

As for the government, it would prefer importing rotten foodgrain to buying from the Indian farmers the same wheat at a remunerative price which in any case is less than one fourth of the world price. If Sharad Pawar is the Food Minister, sordid deals cannot lag behind. The Central Vigilance Commission is looking into the import of 23 lakh tons of wheat at a far higher cost than was necessitated. After testing the quality of wheat, it has been found to everyday’s horror that the imported wheat failed all quality tests.

Gandhi had promised that there would be no tear on anybody’s cheek in independent India. Sixty years later, tears of helplessness and hunger do not stop trickling from the eyes of a large majority of Indians. Jawaharlal Nehru’s socialism and Gandhi’s self-sufficiency have clashed to give India a hotchpotch of uneven urban progress and scotched rural betterment. These signs are not that of a soft state but of a confused state.

Neo-liberal economic policy of the Manmohan Singh government has pushed aside the common man, whether engaged in small industry or retail business. Influenced by public opinion, the government has introduced the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act to give work or dole to a villager a minimum of 100 days of work in a year. The scheme has already been perforated by corruption. Rajiv Gandhi, when he was Prime Minister, said that 85 per cent of the money did not reach its intended target. However, the rural employment scheme is said to have awakened people to their needs.

The government can, however, take credit for the Right to Information Act (RTI). This has opened many doors, although the government, particularly in the states, continues to stall the information sharing process. The Act has helped to have information from official files at the asking and it has exposed reluctance to take the right decisions. Here too the arrears of applications are piling up making the RTI less effective.

But it is not only the dearth of money or employment that is tormenting the people in rural India. There is a long list of denials. The public health does not cover them. Teachers do not attend schools. Roads are few and they too barely passable. Land records are in a mess. The politician-cum-police backed mafias have come to wield authority at several places, with the connivance of the bureaucrats.

Yet the fact remains that the middle class has expanded to some 250 million people, more than the total population of Europe. They have all the money to buy goodies. But this class of consumers is still crazy about phoran goods. The malls are full of them. Even those who want to buy Indians goods find it hard to get them. A sad development is that the Indians are becoming traders and increasingly quitting the field of manufacturing. Many among them are outsourcing their production to China, a country of bonded labour.

India’s economy is buoyant but the policies are not chalked out in such a way whereby the surplus is diverted to meet the basic needs of the population. Concessions should be given to the lower half, but the current strategy is to sustain the growth rate even though it is making the rich richer and the poor poorer. The purpose of growth should have been to spread gains wide so that even the ordinary person could reap the benefit. Apparently, Manmohan Singh, once a left-of-the-centre economist, has decided to convert India into a capitalist society, not realizing that capitalism, socialism or any ism is a means, not the end by itself. The end is the betterment of the society on the whole, not part of it.

What hurts one the most is that the rich do not even feel embarrassed in flaunting their wealth. Some leaders of the political parties have their birthday bashes in public, spending crores of rupees. The questions before India still are: State versus people, urban versus rural, unbridled development versus human needs, blind laws versus natural justice. If only some people gain at the expense of a vast majority, it is a development of sorts. But poverty stays. 

India can have vast farms, large industrial houses, huge laboratories and tall buildings. But if in the process the country loses its soul or allows disparities to yawn, the result is nowhere near the dream of freedom fighters. A state with perpetual inequalities may find it difficult even to retain democracy. People’s involvement-and their confidence-strengthens the system. Disparities weaken democracy and make people desperate.

Frankly speaking, in a poorly developed country, the capitalist methods offer no chance. The alternative that the Manmohan Singh government is offering is no alternative. It is sheer exploitation. It may be that we are not strong enough or wise enough to face the real problem. We have again failed. Another budget, another exercise of stock-taking has gone awry. Why are we afraid to admit that our fight against the haves lacks commitment? EOM      


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