Sunday, March 6, 2011

196 - Madness in this Wondrous Land - by Tavleen Singh - Sentinel Assam

By Tavleen Singh
6th September 2010

Madness in this Wondrous Land

Nandan Nilekani, head of the UID project, should go and see Peepli Live if he has not already seen it and think twice about his grandiose scheme


I n one of those coincidences that make the job of writing columns easier, I happened to see Peepli Live last week on the evening before yet another article appeared in yet another major newspaper in praise of Nandan Nilekani’s scheme to give every Indian a unique identity number. Nandan’s charm has so bowled over most commentators in the Indian media that nobody asks him the only question that needs to be asked: can it work? The other question that nobody asks him is: can thousands of crores of rupees of taxpayers money be wasted on yet another massive gamble?

Nandan has grown up in urban India where even if the bijli goes it usually comes back. And in companies like his own Infosys they make sure that it never goes by investing in their own power generation. If they relied on municipal sources Infosys could not have survived, leave alone become one of the most famous companies in the world. In rural India things are much, much worse. There is almost not a single village in the whole of our fair and wondrous land that can tell you with certainty that they can guarantee you 24 hours of reliable electricity. So can someone please explain to me how sophisticated electronic devices that can recognize you by your eyes will work? It is in the villages that nearly 70 per cent of our billion people live and  they have another problem that the Unique Identity scheme appears not to have noticed. They are mostly illiterate or semi-literate.  I must admit that even I, a college graduate, finds going through Iris at London airport intimidating.  Half the times I have tried using it, the machine has been out of order. It is beyond horror to think what could happen to an Iris machine in the heat and dust of an Indian village.

What connects Nandan’s expensive, futuristic scheme to Peepli Live is that the UID scheme is of a piece with the absurdities depicted in the film.  Let me explain how. Natha, a destitute farmer, is coerced into committing suicide because in his desperately poor village they hear that the government gives the families of farmers who commit suicide a compensation of Rs 1 lakh. A passing news hound hears about his plan and writes a story that gets picked up by a fancy lady TV anchor in Delhi. She swoops into the village and carries Natha’s story on prime time leading to an army of OB vans descending on Peepli village. When politicians are put on the line by about Natha’s suicide plans, they arrive in the village and offer him  a hand pump called Lal Bahadur, but do not pay for it to be installed, a massive colour TV set without noticing that his mud hut has no bijli and a plethora of other sops none of which are any use to him. When, finally, the Chief Minister offers him cash to stay alive, the Election Commission rules that this violates the model code of the election campaign. Natha ends up with nothing.

As someone who spends much time travelling in villages let me tell you some more examples of the Peepli Live kind. In villages in the Daltonganj district of what was then Bihar, I once came across a government scheme that gave goats to destitute families without noticing that there was no grazing land left in these villages. The goats ended up dead or eaten. In Kalahandi during a terrible drought in the eighties, I was horrified to see free food being distributed to children but only those who were under the age of five were allowed to eat at these free kitchens. So little children ate a few morsels and took the rest home for their starving brothers and sisters. Typically the food was only given in towns and villages to which there were roads. In remote villages in which children were dying every day of starvation, the only government assistance that arrived were malaria medicines. A local doctor had tears in his eyes when he told me that the only thing wrong with the dying children was that they had not eaten in a single real meal in more than six months.

In Maharashtra, one of our richest States, I came across a similarly useless attempt to save children from starving to death. This was no more than three or four years ago when reports of starvation deaths came from Nandurbar. When the children were on the verge of death they would be brought to the hospital in Akalkuwa town and given Rs 40 worth of food a day. They got eggs and milk and fresh vegetables, but as soon as they were well they would be sent home to starve again because the family could afford no more than Rs 10 worth of food a day. Articles appeared on the lunacy of this scheme, courts intervened to chastise the government, children’s rights activists got involved, but as far as I know the Integrated Child Development Scheme carries on unchanged.

If you are asking yourself why go and see Peepli Live. But I can offer you my humble opinion based on decades of covering politics and government. The simple reason why we continue to pour massive amounts of money into mammoth, unmanageable schemes is because they provide a thousand ways in which officials can line their own pockets in the name of social welfare. If we had simpler, decentralized schemes that were run by village panchayats and district councils, there would be less chances for officials to make money because in a village everyone knows when some corrupt sarpanch is stealing. If, under the orders of the Supreme Court, the Minister of Agriculture goes ahead and distributes the food grain that is rotting in the open, then would he please make sure that it is distributed in decentralized fashion.

Meanwhile, dear Nandan Nilekani, please go and see Peepli Live if you have not already seen it and think twice about your grandiose scheme that cannot possibly work until the fundamentals for such a scheme are in place. It is an irony that the scheme’s name is Aadhaar. This means foundation in Hindi and what is lacking is in fact the aadhaar for such a scheme. The article I read reported that Rs 3,000 crore was being set aside to give Rs 100 to each destitute Indian as an incentive to enroll in the UID programme. If this is not madness, will someone please tell me what is?

Tavleen Singh

(Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter@tavleen_singh)