Poverty in India


If the Planning  Commission’s highly controversial figures are to be believed, one out of five Indians is still poor. The Manmohan Singh government’s record has been dismal, like that of its predecessors. It is time people were approached for a fresh mandate.

By Kuldip Nayar

It was heartening to watch debates on poverty on national television channels, particularly the English ones. Elitist in approach, they seldom deliberate privations of the common man. Likewise, the English press is reluctant to carry news or write-ups on poverty because it has come to believe that its well-to-do readers do not want to know about the extent of poverty at the breakfast table. Hindi and other language papers are more sensitive. This is probably the difference between India and Bharat.

Yet, the nation cannot run away from the fact that roughly 65 per cent of Indians are poor, 35 per cent of them destitute. After projecting that the Planning Commission’s criteria for expenditure is Rs 24 in villages and Rs 33 in urban areas, the government has realised that the amount is too paltry to convince even the most gullible.

Now, the average has been placed around Rs 50. This sum is also too meagre. Yet, some leading Congressmen have tried to trivialise poverty by proclaiming that one can have a full, hearty meal for Rs 5 in Delhi and Rs 12 in Mumbai. According to the Planning Commission, seldom right, poverty has been reduced to 22 per cent. The Commission, a creature of the ruling Congress, gives credit for this to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government.

Planning Commission’s Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia says that the reduction of poverty during the BJP-led coalition was 0.8 per cent, while it has been going down by 2.5 per cent annually since the Congress takeover. Assuming that the reduction to 22 per cent is correct, one out of every five Indians is still poor. This is a dismal record in the last six and a half decades after independence. If you were to add dimensions other than food, you end up comparing India with backward countries in Africa.

The Congress has been ruling for at least 50 years and it is the most to blame for the mess in which the country is today. Poverty and education, both neglected by the British, should have been on top of the party’s agenda. An undertaking given during the independence struggle on social justice remains on paper. So do the provisions on equal opportunities in the Constitution.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, an eminent economist, was expected to bring things in order, but he has been a failure. The growth rate in the last two years is less than the proverbial Hindu growth rate of 3.5 to 4 per cent, although the overall average in the last decade is 5.5 per cent, reportedly next to China, the leader in the world. Manmohan Singh has turned out to be more of a politician than an economist. This is proved by the fact that he has managed to be the Prime Minister for nearly a decade.

India’s poor performance is not due to global factors, ascribed by pro-establishment economists, but because of poor governance. The fact is that we are spending more than we are earning. The government has doubled spending in the last 10 years. Inflation has been galloping. Printing of currency notes, if at all a short-term relief, is not a solution. The paucity of funds is sought to be met with panicky measures.

Take the concessions offered to foreign investors – 49 per cent FDI in insurance, oil and gas. The measures have been compared to opening the floodgates. Instead of self-sufficiency, the cardinal principal after independence, foreign investment has become the mantra. Then, foreign investment was welcome in technical or such fields in which we had no know-how. Now, any field or method is good enough as long as it attracts foreign investors. Still, they want more concessions.

Bureaucrats, more than politicians, must share the responsibility. They too, like the Prime Minister, have followed the World Bank advice to covert India into a crony capitalist state. America has not helped a bit despite high-ranking people from the US visiting the country every other day.

Most Members of Parliament and state legislatures live in their make-believe world and continue to delude themselves. It is well known that they get subsidised food and many other things. The central hall of Parliament, where the MPs congregate to rub shoulders with the obliging journalists, has a canteen which is run by the Railways and sells food at a ridiculously small price.

The welfare schemes, started with good intention, are starving for funds. The Congress-run government has an eye on the next elections. For unpredictable gains, the Congress has put the entire economic system at stake. The opposition parties may be shrill in their criticism, but they are right in stating that Manmohan Singh’s rule has been fraught with mismanagement, corruption and a few belated steps to stem the rot. The economic situation has been going from bad to worse.

India is a non-sympathetic society. Over the years, it has deteriorated in values. There is not a semblance of idealism, much less movement, to lift the lower half to lead a viable living. Poverty, unemployment and malnutrition, all signs of a decaying society, are visible on an increasing scale. The bureaucracy has been reduced to an authority merely affixing seal, from of being the steel frame that it was till the beginning of seventies.  

Once in a while, a courageous official like Durga Shakti Nagpal appears on the scene to evoke optimism. Her crackdown on the sand mafia in UP was applauded. But then, state chief minister Akhilesh Yadav was influenced by politicians and she was suspended. Some of these politicians are the owners of trucks she impounded while they were carrying sand illegally from Yamuna and Hindon river banks. Had the two main political parties, the Congress and the BJP, been together in backing measures against corruption in administration, the situation would have been different.

Probably, a mid-term poll could have given a fresh start to the country. The new government would have had at least a five-year tenure to formulate policies for that period. It would have renewed trust which is badly needed for investment from within and from abroad. Even now, Manmohan Singh should go back to people. His remaining 10 months in office are a lame duck rule.

The writer is a veteran journalist and commentator 

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