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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 them.

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 totally.

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)





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