August 25, 2005

Egg a week

Anand (Locana) has a post announcing that the Rural Employment Guarantee Bill is now in place. He also refers to a discussion about levels of poverty, where several people are arguing over just what various numbers mean.

I think it is possible to wrangle endlessly over the numbers. I think you can use statistics to support whatever view of the world you have or want to believe. Not that figures don't have value -- I have great use for them all the time. But I wonder how many people who wrangle over them actually go out and try to find the people (the anecdotes!) behind the numbers.

Me, I always wish I could do more of that than I manage. Because that exercise works the other way for me. Rather than finding the figures that will support my hypotheses about the world, I see realities that I didn't know about, that tell me things about the world, that I have to believe.

An example of sorts. A few years ago, a doctor I know wrote me a letter from rural Orissa. It spoke of the deaths of ten children from diarrhoea and measles, suddenly epidemic in the area. The doctor also mentioned that they needed Rs 500 a month to buy one egg each week for about one hundred malnourished tribal schoolchildren in the district. That egg, added to their lunch, would make the difference between hunger and health; perhaps even life and death.

One egg per kid per week, that's all.

Absent that much, measles and diarrhoea were killing children there.

I wrote an article about this in a Bombay paper. The evening it appeared, I got a call from an unknown reader who asked me for the doctor's address, sent a cheque for Rs 6000 there for a year's supply of eggs, and returned to anonymity. Neither the doctor nor I have heard from him again; and he has never returned calls. But about a hundred Oriya kids live today because of his generosity.

This little story tells me a few things. You?


Sriram said...

This tells me that man will help his fellow man in need voluntarily - we don't need to use force through the state (taxation) to achieve this.

After all, if we don't think social problems like poverty can be addressed by us fellow citizens without requiring a budget proposal from New Delhi, we might as well give up and move to the moon (as a wise man once said about hope!)

When I see someone in my neighbourhood so poor that they send their kids to beg, I shouldn't have to worry about which economic policy the center should pursue. Me and my neighbours should help them out as a part of the community.

Of course, different people will see different things!

Anonymous said...

Nice post, Dilip, and yes, very topical story.. I agree with you, it means little to say "the poor are better off, by on average six eggs a year" [link]when some people's daily reality is so harsh..

Suvendra Nath Dutta said...

This tells me that man will help his fellow man in need voluntarily - we don't need to use force through the state (taxation) to achieve this.

Sriram, of course it would be nice to not have a situation which requires philanthropy in the first place.

As for myself, I rather prefer those few luxuries in life that taxation brings to us liberal elite. Like roads and railways, garbage collection, law and order, national defense.

Anonymous said...

Dilip -- You never cease to amaze me with your excellent posts based on your experience with ground realities.

"One egg per week". Don't know if we can be happy about just "six extra eggs a year"!

Sriram said...

Suvendra, no man is an island and philanthropy will always be needed, in one way or another. Bad things, natural or otherwise, will happen. Collecting taxes will not change that in any way.

Voluntary actions are simply better than forced ones. Both parties feel better. The helper can make sure that his donation is properly used or accounted for (can you get a statement from the govt for exactly how your tax money was used?) The receiver's faith in his fellow man is restored. He is also grateful and tries to better his condition (in welfare systems, receipients generally feel entitled).

Not to mention the fact that no "filtering" takes place because money doesn't pass through the hands of politicians and bureaucrats.

Finally, people have to pay for the services they get; be it roads or law enforcement or food in a restaurant. No problems with that, except that it is strange that the taxes thus paid are proportional to how much you make, instead of being equal for everybody.

I am not the first guy in the world to find income tax inexplicable. It is good to be in the company of Einstein.

Anonymous said...

Sriram -- I am not the first guy in the world to find income tax inexplicable. It is good to be in the company of Einstein.

I thought Einstein's greatness is attributed to other things that he could explain!

I would feel good to be in the company of great people by achieving something similar to what they could achieve. Not by not achieving something that they too could not achieve.

Well, please do not take this comment very seriously. I understand that you didn't mean it seriously as well.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Suvendra, you liberal elitist, you! You want gargabe collection?!

Thanks Anand and Lod. I don't mean at all to pour cold water on the people who analyse the figures. I do mean to say that those figures come from the real experiences of real people, and sometimes it's good to understand that.

Finally, Sriram, when you say: Me and my neighbours should help them out, I'm tempted to ask, what's that "should"? Why "should" you help?

Also, did Einstein know about the tragedy of the commons?

Abi said...

Thanks for yet another nice post, Dilip. We have too many people who say we should convert our country into one that offers equality of opportunity. Sometimes I wonder what opportunity these people are talking about, when (as your post shows) 'opportunity to live' still eludes so many people.

Now, if only philanthropy worked as well as Sriram says it 'should' ...

Anonymous said...

>>Why "should" you help?

How many eggs could that one lakh 'donated' to to Tehelka could have bought? Or 2 lakhs if you add another one lakh by J B D'Souza.

Choice was easy in D'Souza household I guess.

Sunil said...

Hey....why is this poor Sriram at the receiving end of some stick??

Anyway....this was a nice post. And this does bring up the question of the role of charity/volunteer contributions. What is it in society?

Suvendra Nath Dutta said...

Sunil, I guess I made it clear, I don't like the idea of looking to charity to solve problems. I know too many people who are into charity to think it is a good thing. Voluteering on the other hand is totally different and enormously valuable. It gives an opportunity to people to use their skills in meaningful ways in an entirely different context. This can only be good. Indians have been at it for a long time. People volunteer their time routinely to perform tasks for the extended family and friends without even thinking of it as "volunteering". And because the family could be the entire neighbourhood (or village or town), you ended up very aware of a large swathe of the society, poor, rich, young, old. Because you sometimes were at the recieving end you didn't get any delusions of grandure from volunteering. And you learnt things about yourself and others that is impossible in any other way. When I was 12-14 I'd go around fixing electrical equipment for my older relatives. My entire relationship with my older aunts and uncles is colored by this sweet memory where they'd sit and watch while I fixed their fan, lecturing them about electricity and how it worked.

Dilip, sorry for the length of the comment. But its your fault for provoking too many discussions.

Sriram said...

Dilip, when I said "should", I didn't mean it in the sense of force. I think we all have social responsibilities. That is where the "should" came from.

These social contracts cannot (and should not) be enforced by law. Some people will not help. But I have enough faith in people to believe that many will. Some will even devote their entire lives for it. Like Mr.Vidhyakar from Udhavum Karangal.

Assume you live in a complex of flats with a garden. You and the other flat occupants may tend to it once in a while so that your complex looks good. Some won't; but most will. Later, Mumbai city planning dept. collects money from all the residents and appoints a gardener. Now, most residents will step back from gardening because they are already paying for it. The gardener is not answerable to the residents and so probably won't do such a good job. Now, what options do the residents have? (a) pay the city and do their own gardening or (b) complain about how the gardener is not doing his job. Which scenario is better?

Actually, (a) may not be entirely possible because of the gardener's monopoly!

What about the people who don't voluntarily help? They won't help in the forced scenario as well! I am sure a lot of people don't pay their taxes or cheat on them. Except for the salaried class (where tax is deducted at source), everyone else has many ways to bypass paying taxes. In fact, rich people are rich enough to hire accountants who will make sure that their taxes are low! Many studies have shown that the bulk of taxes usually come from the middle class.

I don't know what Einstein thought about it, but I think only inviolable private property rights can prevent tragedy of commons.

Sunil, I don't mind the jabs. It is just fascinating to me that (war = force = bad) is an easy sell, but (taxation = force = bad) is so much harder to convey and convince.