What is the difference between a tsunami demolishing poor Indians' huts and the Bombay Municipal Corporation demolishing poor Indians' huts? Why does the first result in middle class India racing to loosen purse-strings and people
volunteering to help; but the other gets approval and support from the same middle-class India? The slums are "illegal", of course; they must be demolished.
But so were the fishermen's colonies on the Chennai shore. Yet, when the tsunami struck, we did not sit back saying "right, they had to be demolished." No, we ran over to help. What explains this schizophrenia?
In some ways Harsh Mander alludes to this too, through this book. Because he writes about case after case, through our post-Independence history, of government programmes to tackle what is arguably India's greatest shame - widespread
poverty. There has been no lack of them, their acronyms using up every plausible letter of the alphabet: UBSP, EIUS, SJGSY, SEP, IRDP, TRYSEM, DWCRA, MWS, RPWP, NRY, JRY, JGSY which is the new avatar of JRY and in fact all of these are collectively called APPs (antipoverty programmes). Whew.
They have all had laudable objectives, been launched with fanfare and high hopes. For example, the Development of Women and Children in Rural Areas (DWCRA) programme aimed to "raise the income levels of [poor] women," and thus improve their "access to basic services of health, education, childcare, nutrition, water and sanitation." Similarly for the others. Fine aims. But measured by the level of poverty around us, DWCRA and every other scheme have clearly failed.
To know the truth of that, you need only walk out onto any street in any city in this country; you know that within minutes - seconds - you will see some of the one-third or more of our nation that suffers the miseries of being poor.
And as you read this book, digest its litany of failed programmes, and try to understand why they failed, the feeling grows on you that the reason for failure is, above all, attitude; a certain contempt for the poor. And as long as that persists, whatever we try - whether state employment programmes or a totally free market - will fail.
Because in a real sense, too many of us do not much care about the poor and their daily struggles.
That attitude is the root of the schizophrenia I mentioned. It raises its head all through Mander's book. Thus the scheme to "assure" wage-employment to poor rural families "assures" instead of "guarantees" so that the scheme will not be legally binding. Or the belief among policymakers that "economic development need not take into account the interests of the poor." Or that "the poorest are deliberately kept out" of self-employment programmes as they are seen to "lack motivation." Or the "bitter irony" that "the very people who build homes [i.e. construction workers] should be rendered homeless."
The profound injustice of India's poverty leaves you feeling bleaker and bleaker as the pages of this comprehensive book go by. Yet, there are tools now available to improve governance and thus, both Mander and his reader might hope, to improve the lives of India's poor.
The Right to Information Act is one such. "The only feasible way" of ensuring good governance, writes Mander, "is for people to exercise direct control over a significant part of the levers of government" and right to information (RTI) offers
at least the potential for just that.
But that hope runs up against attitude too. As I write this, the drive on slums in Mumbai has accounted for nearly 90,000 homes belonging to fellow Indians. It has left some 400,000 fellow Indians homeless and devastated.
Those numbers are comparable to that of tsunami-hit Tamil Nadu (though thousands actually died in Tamil Nadu). What are not comparable are our reactions to these two disasters. That leaves me baffled and I get the feeling it does the same to Harsh Mander.