Tuesday, March 8, 2011

264 - Taunting the Poor - Daily Pioneer

October 09, 2010   7:59:48 PM

Hiranmay Karlekar

A million mutinies may be the harvest of brutal policies of a Government of the rich, for the rich and by the rich

Indian democracy — with apologies to Abraham Lincoln — is Government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich. The poor and the weak exist to serve the rich. They can be ruthlessly evicted, marginalised and even be killed, if they stand in the way. Even if they are not murdered suddenly and violently, they are slowly sent to the hereafter by the deprivation of livelihood, the denial of adequate nourishment, ill health through the payment of criminally low wages or the denial of rightful wages through governmental corruption and private chicanery.

One would doubtless run into a volley of invectives as one says this. India has free and fair elections. People vote and change Governments. There is a lively, free and much-feared media that regularly exposes corruption and wrongdoing by officials and the politically and economically powerful and has, in some cases, compelled retribution and remedial action by an administrative machinery which had remained silent. India has a Constitution that guarantees a comprehensive set of fundamental rights and Directive Principles of State Policy, which lays down the coordinates for enlightened governance.

The argument that economic exploitation continues despite all this would be met by the answer that minimum wages have been statutorily provided in many sectors of the economy, the industrial workforce, even drivers and those engaged in public and private sanitation, now enjoy middle-class life styles. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme has hugely benefited the rural poor. The Green Revolution and land reforms have markedly improved the life of farmers. A state-run healthcare system exists almost everywhere; primary education is reaching down to the grassroots level.

All this is true. India is a democracy in a formally-institutional and mechanistic sense. While institutions do function, they often do so grossly imperfectly and do not deliver what they are supposed to. An independent judiciary does not help beyond a point, if those without resources cannot access it and if one has to wait for years to receive a judgement. Lawyers’ fees are reaching for the skies and not many lawyers are prepared to fight pro bono for the poor. Besides, most such lawyers are beyond the reach of the poor in the countryside, and some of them in peripheral urban areas. As for state-run healthcare, one has only to visit Government hospitals and health centres in some part to realise the farce that it is.

A significant section of industrial and service sector workers, no doubt, enjoys middle-class incomes. They, however, represent a fraction of the country’s total work force. The rural poor remain exploited and under-nourished because of the corruption that prevails in the NREGS in many States. Even farmers, who have done well, are increasingly driven to suicide by rising costs of inputs, inadequacy of crop insurance facilities, poor returns and the debt burden. Both they and those below the poverty line in rural areas are vulnerable to forcible eviction to facilitate the setting up of industries, mines, and infrastructure like roads. Compensation, even where the amount does not turn it into a cruel joke for the victims, is usurped by crooked Government employees and middlemen.

There are, doubtless, non-Government organisations reaching out to the disprivileged. While many of them are doing an excellent job, many operate under severe financial constraints. It is hardly a secret that Government employees demand bribes for even sanctioning reimbursements for programmes for the benefit of street children. NGOs whose welfare activities exist on paper and whose funds are diverted to private pockets — and there are quite a few of them — are, course, generally flush with money, as they are skilled in the art of greasing palms.

As for the media, the focus is increasingly on entertainment, the celebration of the wonders of the market, and the altruism and excellence of corporate entities. The result is a diversion of the focus of public discourse from the plight of the poor to the titillating world of trivia, the glorious world of endless consumption, including luxurious travel.

How many print publications and television channels report serious, informed debates in Parliament and the State legislatures? How many have run sustained campaigns against the systematic genocide of tribals and their culture, and the rape of the environment, in the name of development? How many, for example, have opened their pages or programmes for an adequate debate on the pros and cons of the UID? The discussions that have occurred have been desultory and far-between.

Long before John Kenneth Galbraith wrote The Affluent Society, RH Tawney had said in The Acquisitive Society, published in the 1920s, that in a society with great disparities of wealth, the money that should have been invested on meeting the subsistence needs of the poor ends up catering to the consumption urges of the rich which ensures higher returns. This is precisely what is happening in India. People have money to hire a plane and celebrate a wedding in mid-air, or charter aircraft and take friends on foreign jaunts to celebrate their birthdays, but would not donate the amount thus spent on a hospital for poor children.

The harsh fact that consuming Indians, whose ranks now include those from the middle-class as well, have no time for what Swami Vivekananda called Daridra Narayan, or the god that resides in the poor. Worse, a section with money to influence bureaucrats and politicians and run advertising blitzkriegs, is mercilessly dispossessing and evicting the poor and the week.

The poor and the disprivileged are not going to endure their plight passively. Their anger is alienating them implacably from the existing order. They are, in their respective areas, being drawn to the most powerful group that stands for the overthrow of it. It is the Maoists at some places and/or communal, linguistic, ethnic or separatist organisations in some others.

Repression will not help. Extremist violence of one kind or the other is raging in large parts of the country and may spread all over with time. Extremist groups are establishing links among themselves and trying to launch coordinated action. On how many fronts can the security forces fight, particularly if, following American withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pakistan, its arsenal swelled by aid, unleashes both jihadis and its conventional forces against India? One has to switch to a development pattern that does not destitute the poor.