Vulnerable base of Indian miracle
Has political intelligence in India’s leadership collapsed
completely? Last month, Chattisgarh’s Chief Minister, Raman Singh, announced
what he described as "the most innovative and humanitarian scheme
any State Government has ever introduced": the decision to distribute
‘free footwear’ to a million tribals. Interestingly, this scheme was
announced in the context of his Government’s failure to live up to its
electoral promise to gift a cow to each tribal family in the State as
a poverty alleviation measure. The cost of the ‘free footwear’ project
is estimated in the region of Rs. 10 crore. The funds are reportedly
to be diverted either from the tribal development plan or cooperative
societies handling tendu collection.
It is incomprehensible that anyone can even imagine
that provision of footwear to the tribals of Chattisgarh is the most
urgent priority among a people who lack access to the entire range of
basic amenities – clean drinking water; adequate nutrition; basic health
services; a functional educational system; and opportunities for gainful
employment in a modern world that has deprived them of their traditional
callings, but failed to create new opportunities for a majority among
This harebrained scheme replaces another that was not
particularly astute in its conception or successful in its execution:
the promise to distribute a cow to each ‘adivasi’ family. In the sixteen
months preceding March 2005, Singh’s Government had reportedly been
able to ‘distribute’ just two cows, against a target of 20,000 for just
the financial year. Worse, many of the cows that had been bought for
distribution, were found to be sick, or with a milk yield well below
acceptable levels. Opposition leaders have criticized the scheme on
the grounds, moreover, that the ‘adivasis’ are not accustomed to rearing
cows, and that providing them with sheep, goats or chickens would have
been more practical and productive.
It may require some research to identify other examples
that equal the idiocy of these cockeyed schemes, but the truth is, they
are only symptomatic of a wide range of projects for tribal and rural
upliftment – with the rare exception of a handful of programmes developed
by relatively pragmatic Governments in the country – on which thousands
of crores are expended each year. Needless to say, the benefits that
accrue to the target groups are negligible, and often – as in the present
case – insulting.
Take, for instance, the general health and veterinary
cover in the rural areas. I have been working over the past two years
to provide medical and veterinary services, treatment and medicines
in the villages of Western UP, around the Mathura region, and conditions
– just 100 to 200 kilometres away from the national capital, in a region
that is not listed among the country’s more impoverished areas – are
appalling. Most villagers have no regular access to doctors, and rely
for most of their needs on the poorly trained Auxiliary Nurse Midwives
(ANMs) that the Government supports as its ‘multipurpose’ health workers
on the ground – and often, even these are not present. Veterinary health
cover is virtually non-existent – this is critical for human health
in villages, where humans and animals live in close proximity, and zoonotic
diseases, which are transmitted from one species to another, are endemic.
Despite a very large population of doctors and a fairly good doctor-population
ratio for the country, few doctors are willing to serve in rural areas
– even though the Government has sought to impose a tenure of compulsory
rural service on medical graduates. Many villages are serviced by poorly
trained RMPs and quacks, who are completely unable to diagnose and treat
diseases. Even where doctors are fitfully available, they work without
technical backup and facilities for diagnosis, including basic pathology
laboratories or tests. Treatments tend to be rudimentary, with over-prescription
of broad band antibiotics – and the medical supplies in these areas
are, at best, suspect, with a very high circulation of spurious drugs.
The sheer number of people walking about with twisted limbs – results
of orthopaedic injuries that have been mis-set by quacks and badly-equipped
or poorly-qualified medical practitioners – is astounding.
These are the conditions a stones-throw from Delhi.
Rural areas in what are thought of as the Indian backwaters, and areas
where tribal populations live, are even worse off. Thousands of crores
have been spent in the construction of primary health centres – ill-designed
buildings constructed by the PWD, altogether unsuitable for their intended
purpose – in many areas, but they lie decrepit, often entirely abandoned.
A national Rural Health Mission has now been announced by the Prime
Minister, with a budgetary allocation of Rs. 6,713 crores for the year
2005-06, and it is intended to ‘strengthen primary and community health
centres’. But these are precisely the institutions in which thousands
of crores have already been invested, and that have failed the people
Health problems are compounded by the lack of basic
sanitation. Many villages have now been able to secure access to regular
water supply – often by village tube wells connected to their dwellings.
But the free flow of water has only created the problem of sewage overflowing
around the dwelling units, breeding mosquitoes, flies, vermin and disease.
Education is another area of critical importance and
unforgivable neglect. Government schools nearly everywhere are a disgrace
– and standards in most such institutions even in Delhi are so poor
that they do not deserve the appellation of ‘educational institutions’.
In the villages, teacher absenteeism is the norm, and it is a rare teacher
who makes a daily appearance in the school house where he is often required
to deal with a mixed class comprising children of all ages and ‘standards’,
from toddlers to adolescents, ordinarily in a dilapidated structure
– or in the open – with children and teacher squatting on the floor,
with not even a blackboard and chalk to help him in his task. Interestingly,
Government school teachers are now quite well paid – at least by rural
Indian standards – and have also become rather influential, as enormous
responsibilities have been vested in them in the local, state and national
electoral processes. Yet, the education services they provide the children
– their primary raison d’etre – remain overwhelmingly worthless.
Where rural folk are able to afford to pay for education, private schools
have sprung up. And though the quality of education they provide is
far from the best, they are usually infinitely better than, and preferred
to, the Government schools.
Such examples of neglect, waste, mismanagement and
misallocation of resources in rural areas can be multiplied in every
sphere of the provision of public goods and services. The truth is,
the lives and futures of millions have been put in jeopardy, and with
them, the future of the nation as well. There has been enormous emphasis
on India’s recent ‘economic miracle’, but its base remains too narrow
and, consequently, vulnerable. Growth continues to coexist with vast
areas of stagnation, even decline. And while small sectors of the economy
are booming, there have also been visible signs of growing distress
and deprivation in many parts of the country – most dramatically manifested
in the rash of farmer suicides in areas as different and as distant
as Andhra Pradesh and Punjab. India’s rising GNP and per capita income
notwithstanding, it is clear that, as one commentator notes, "scarcity
and abundance may very well coexist". And such ‘coexistence’ is
ever a volatile mix.
(Published in The Pioneer,
April 16, 2005)