Bureaucracy as an obstacle
For over six months, I tried to get a listing of the poorest villages in Mathura District in Uttar Pradesh - just 145 km from the national capital. I was presented lists of villages by caste and by religious majorities, but none that could help in identifying those that were the most impoverished.
Our electoral system and the systematic exploitation of 'vote banks' has made caste and communal data invaluable - but information regarding the poor serves no useful function in the sphere of democratic realpolitik. Unfortunately, for all the schemes and programmes to help the Dalits, minorities and women, the fact is you cannot resolve the problems of a particular caste, religious group or gender in isolation. Poverty is an enveloping culture, and it crushes or consumes all its victims without distinction.
There are, of course, generic statistics for people below and above the poverty line in the country, but it is becoming more and more evident that these numbers have little to do with the reality of the ground. With a myriad 'poverty alleviation' schemes pouring thousands of crores of rupees into what appears to be a bottomless pit, we discover that we don't even know who and where the poor really are. How then - even if we factor out its endemic corruption - can the system ensure that benefits actually reach the right people?
The various systems of enumeration of the poor in India exist only on paper, and the declining trends in the 'below poverty line' (BPL) population are nothing but a repeated and arbitrary statistical invention. The truth is, the number of people in India who sleep hungry every day, or who make do with a single miserable meal of dry roti and a green chilly, or a handful of rice and chilly powder, is simply unimaginable. There has been a spate of reports of starvation deaths over the past few years, the most recent in Maharashtra, with the dead numbering thousands.
Over the past years, we have heard of waves of starvation in Orissa, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. The average per capita consumption of cereal, the staple of the poor man's diet, is now acknowledged to be well below minimum norms and has been declining over the past decade. One recent estimate suggests that, if poverty is defined in terms of a calorie norm of 2,400 calories per capita per day in rural areas, then 75 per cent of the rural population had fallen below this 'line' by 2004, as compared to 56 per cent in 1973-74. Malnutrition is a visible fact of life right across the rural landscape.
There are further signs of rising destitution: The hundreds of farmer suicides in so many and such divergent States, prominently including Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala and even the 'granary of India', Punjab. There are no reliable estimates of the real magnitude of unemployment and disguised unemployment - the official statistics of a 9.1 per cent rate of unemployment is a macabre joke and another statistical fiction - but some estimates put the real proportion as high as half the working-age population in the country. And this appears very credible. If you go to India's villages - even a few tens of kilometres from the national capital - and see the sheer numbers of young people who appear to have little or nothing to do, and their utter desperation to secure the dignity and respect that a job or productive work brings, it is more than obvious that unemployment is rife.
Many of those who are thought to be 'productively employed', and indeed, imagine themselves as such, have, in fact, little to do; as the economist's jargon describes it, their 'marginal productivity' is negligible. In the organised sector, since 1997-98, employment has actually declined. Total annual employment generation in the country has more than halved, even as we celebrate the economic miracle of a sustained seven per cent-plus growth rate; a million cars roll out of our factories every year; India is the IT and BPO destination of the world; and a mass of 'economic indices' tell us that the future is refulgent.
But India is, today, increasingly a grotesque illustration of the fact that excess and unbearable want, wealth and great destitution, can not only coexist, but can simultaneously and immensely expand. This fits in poorly with our newly inherited and enthusiastically embraced dogmas. This is India's great tragedy: We have always replaced dogma with dogma. Our educated classes and leadership appear incapable of thinking beyond simplistic formulae, reductionist catechisms, and this proclivity is compounded by an incapacity to reconcile ideas with reality, or even to consistently carry our ideological pretensions to their logical conclusion.
Take the utter fraud of the Left and the trade union movement in India, for example. These have fattened on slogans, and on a pattern of blackmail and extortion that prey's exclusively on the minuscule organised sector in the country, driving not only specific industrial enterprises, but entire industrial cities to bankruptcy and abandonment in the name of the protection of the rights of workers. Even today, demonstrations and protests are organised in multinational companies and large industries whose workers receive both generous pay and benefits.
In all these years, there has been little sustained effort to reach out even to the millions within the unorganised industrial sector - substantially concentrated in urban areas - and no attempt whatsoever to organise and secure protection for the worst exploited and most deprived constituency of workers: The millions of landless labourers in rural areas. The votaries of the new mantras of liberalisation are no better, constructing great walls around their isolated gutters of affluence, even as a tidal wave of poverty builds up all around.
The essence of the Indian failure is simply the inability to think things through, to correctly assess and confront reality, to ask simple and exact questions and then pursue a reasonable course of action. Instead, politically correct falsehoods or transient fashions of thought dominate - and have always dominated - our policies.
Each new regime would like us to believe that it is making a radical break with the past; and grand sounding new projects and programmes are announced. But these are all old and rancid wine in new bottles. Eventually, enormous resources are simply wasted with little real impact. The crisis centres, not in a lack of schemes, programmes and resources - our granaries overflow while our people starve - but in the virtual collapse of our delivery mechanisms for all public goods, but most particularly civil, law and order, and justice administration. Yet, not a single regime has dared to address this calamity.
Many announcements have been made of an imminent reform of the bureaucracy, but action has never followed, or has stopped at the most desultory tokenism. Even within the bureaucracy today, there is a growing realisation of insidious and pervasive decline, and there are many who accept that India's bureaucracy has become the greatest obstacle to the nation's advancement.
Yet, no regime has had the courage to do what is necessary and inevitable: Dismantle the structures of privilege and impunity that have ruined the `steel frame' and create a body of administrators who do what they are supposed to, the simple tasks of daily administration and service delivery - and not the mindless and wasteful processes of 'file augmentation'.
(Published in The Pioneer, September 3, 2005)