September 12, 2005

Letters of the alphabet

Someone I met in Nagapattinam today reminded me of this review I did of Harsh Mander's book The Ripped Chest. It appeared in The Hindu in February this year. Some reminders of it on this trip, in the work this person I met is doing, and in recent discussions elsewhere.


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.


Anonymous said...

Lord works in mysterious ways:

We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did.

kuffir said...

'Thus the scheme to "assure" wage-employment to poor rural families "assures" instead of "guarantees" so that the scheme will not be legally binding.'
the govt.,(the centre and the states) spends around two-and-a-half hundred thousand crores every year with the aim of helping the poor. this it does through various subsidies, grants and other means.
now, you tell me, how is the government supposed to 'guarantee' the spending of any amount beyond this huge sum already committed? the sum committed already constitutes a major portion of its yearly budgetary spending - how is it supposed to raise(something in the range of 10,000-60,000 crores) and spend(and more effectively than the earlier schemes you have referred to ) sum beyond its current capacity ? under the circumstances, don't you think the pm did the honorable thing by 'assuring' and not guaranteeing work? a guarantee would have been a false promise.the proponents of this current project are the same ideologically inclined wise men who had earlier backed the failed schemes you mentioned. they have always remained closest to the ears of the powers-that-be and (avowedly) to the pulse of the poor. it's funny that they should raise the questions we should be asking. right to work shall be supported by the right to information act? what about the right to education, guaranteed much earlier?
a character in the movie 'austin powers' points out why james bond survives all the attempts on his life : because the villains were too smart for their own good.they would think up elaborate schemes to torture and kill him where a simple bullet to the head would have served much better. why do we fall prey to the temptations of these smart, elaborate schemes when a simple straightforward dole would cost half as much and be doubly as effective? it would avoid the pitfalls of going through the sieves and filters of the babus,elected officials, contractors and others who block the path between the poor and the promised manna. it would also eliminate the necessity of a hundred such schemes and considerably lessen the strain on governmental resources and more importantly, attention.
mahbubnagar, one of the poorest districts india, sends every year(as reported by mr.p.sainath in the course one of his expeditions in search of the holy drought) tens of thousands of migrant construction workers to mumbai and the school drop-out rate in the district too increases every year. you would find a similar picture in all the backward districts of india. the schizophrenia, i believe, lies not in the attitude of the middle classes who live only a few noches better than the slumdwellers (at times) but in the attitude of those who hide behind the poor. why do they pay so little attention to the non-voting children in mahbubnagar as compared with the voters in mumbai?
a simple dole of ,say, rupees five hundred a month(which is what,almost, the current bill assures) to rural parents who send their children to school would not only cost much less than what the current project would but also a. stop the migration and b. protect the rights of the children.
would you call that charity? most of the subsidies and other giveaways intended for the poor are today cornered by the more privileged classes. why shouldn't the poor have their share?
but that would not be elaborate enough for the wise men. have you considered why the pm had said so little on the bill he is supposed to pilot than its votaries in the political class and the press? because it ties him up in the ultimate fiscal knot which would severely restrict any maneuvring space he would need to formulate any ideas of his own on tackling poverty or any other major issue(like how to reduce the burden of the 'elaborate' schemes so that the poor get more attention not the poverty-mongers). the wise men have effectively made irrelevant the very virtue/merit on which he was chosen: his ideas.
let's not support this farcical exercise of creating 'work' for the poor when the government can't find work for its own babus. or,if we should, let's rename it : right to profits-for-all-except-the poor.

kuffir said...

i've realized i've taken up a lot of space- i'm sorry.
i also have to thank you for raising an important issue.

wise donkey said...

well said.
and kuffir, must admit that u did make me think twice :)