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Start now, fix later

The UPA has come up with a neat slogan for the poor -- except it doesn’t know who’s poor and has really no time to find out, writes Samar Halarnkar.

columns Updated: Dec 06, 2012 22:42 IST

Indians love slogans. So, since Independence, successive governments have offered catch lines to their electorates.

Some slogans were inopportune because they were of dubious accuracy. Jawaharlal Nehru’s 1950s ‘Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai’ — Indians and Chinese are brothers — (even Nehru did not believe this), led to a battlefield defeat. The Congress’ 1975 Emergency-era ‘Indira is India and India is Indira’ and the BJP’s 2004 ‘India Shining’ were electoral disasters.

Some worked because their contexts were rooted in the times. Lal Bahadur Shastri’s 1965 ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’ — hail the soldier, hail the farmer — (tweaked after a nuclear test in 1998 by Atal Bihari Vajpayee who added ‘Jai Vigyan’ — hail science), eulogised Indians who fought against the old enemy and against starvation. Indira Gandhi’s 1971 ‘Garibi Hatao’ — remove poverty - was a simple ode to a bankrupt, desperate country. ‘Garibi Hatao’ has had an almost-mesmeric, trans-generational appeal for the Congress. That India has progressed but remains poor is reflected in the fact that Indira’s winning slogan was resurrected by Rajiv Gandhi in 1986 and Rahul Gandhi in 2011. When India’s iron lady imposed an Emergency, the Opposition flipped her famous slogan in 1977 and said, ‘Indira Hatao’.

Successful slogans reflect current realities and aspirations, not perceptions and fantasies. They address the majority of the people — in most cases, that means the poor and disadvantaged. And they must be backed by action, as ‘Garibi hatao’ was by Indira’s ‘21-point programme’.

By these criteria, the Congress’ latest, ‘Aapka paisa, aapke hath’ — your money in your hand — is neatly done. It addresses the poor, yet it recognises that the days of paternal government are passing. It reflects emerging India’s aspirations by focusing on a helping hand instead of handouts. It is backed by a technological prowess that holds the promise of bypassing corrupt middlemen and transferring cash directly into the bank accounts of millions of Indians covered by 45 social-security programmes, which, of course, you can argue, are doles in another form.

Much has been written about cash transfers. The consensus among experts appears to be that direct transfers are an idea whose time has come in a country where perhaps half of all subsidies — Rs. 2.16 lakh crore or about $39 billion — are filched, in large part by those responsible for delivering it to the poor. There is a caveat to this consensus: Cash transfers are being rushed through by the UPA as an electoral trump card, without adequate concern for enabling infrastructure, such as Unique Identity (UID) numbers, bank accounts, computer connections, and disquieting failures in pilot programmes. For instance, in the Kotkasim block of Rajasthan’s Alwar district, a much-bandied 79% drop in subsidised kerosene sales to 25,000 households appears to be as much a result of cash not being transferred to bank accounts — in some cases, the bank accounts were never created — as eliminating duplicate and fake beneficiaries.

The rush to give life to the slogan by January 1, 2013, in 51 districts is evident in the mad behind-the-scenes chaos. The government tells us that 45 programmes will move to cash transfers, but it is, as yet, unwilling to reveal these schemes. Some implementing officials, too, haven’t got the list (Your columnist has a list of 34 schemes across eight ministries, see it online at Everything is happening, as one senior functionary puts it, “in real time”. Essentially, wary bureaucrats are being told, “Launch it, then fix it.”

But here is the real problem with the big slogan for the poor: The UPA does not know how many poor people there are in India — indeed, it is not even clear on the definition of poverty — and does not intend to find an adequate answer.

Last year, the government found itself in an ideological quagmire and a statistical mess when it declared that — based on estimates by the late economist Suresh Tendulkar — it was fixing the poverty line as the ability of a person to spend R860 per year in urban areas and Rs. 673 in rural areas. This line allowed the government to say that roughly 400 million people were now “poor”, with 52 million being pulled out of poverty in the five years preceding 2009-10.

When the Tendulkar cutoff was widely criticised as a “destitution line”, a defensive government said an expert group led by C Rangarajan, chairman of the Prime Minister’s Economic Council, would review how poverty was measured. Later, pressured by the Supreme Court, the UPA said it would not use poverty estimates but would launch a special count, called the Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC), 2011, to identify the poor.

Rangarajan’s group will finish its work only by August 2013, but it is now redundant, for the cash transfer exercise at least, following the announcement of the SECC, which has so far counted 190 million households (the regular census in 2011 counted 247 million households) and definitely won’t finish by January 1. In any case, there are reports of flaws in the count of the urban poor, especially in Delhi, the only major city to be completed.

As if this confusion was not enough, another expert group (the Hashim committee, commissioned by the ministry of housing and poverty alleviation) specifically tallied the urban poor, who, unlike their rural counterparts, have never been clearly identified. Before the Hashim committee could submit its report, the SECC started off.

I might, obviously, be wrong, but the UPA’s game-changer appears not to be ready to play the game, much less change it. Millions of poor will be left out because they are not registered as such, many who benefit will not be poor, and ‘your money’, to quote the slogan, could wind up in someone else’s hands.

Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist
The views expressed by the author are personal

PDF link for download: List of centrally sponsored schemes amenable to direct cash transfers