Behind the ongoing global economic turmoil are two fundamental crises heading towards every nation, from Greece and the US to France and India, at the speed of citizens’ aspirations – the crises of capitalism and democracy. And caught between the two is the huge mass of India’s 850 million – three out of four citizens – who live on less than $2 a day.
It’s easy to talk about poverty alleviation within the people-proofed confines of North Block or Planning Commission. It’s even easier to do so 30,000 feet above the earth, when you play big-picture, with Spanish wine in one hand and caviar in the other. On terra firma, the richest discussions around village destitution happen in a five-star world that’s as geographically close to rural poor as psychologically.
And that’s why we’ve failed – all of us in the businesses of governance, policymaking, politics, thinking, building and writing. Politics defines the food chain that eats ideas and then offers itself to be eaten, through applause or critiques, with that invaluable vote defining the climax. But weak foundations do not a solution create.
Urbanites have little clue about rural aspirations. This intellectual failure is the do-gooder’s Siamese twin – it is built into the idea-ladder he climbs, leaving trails of cars and vacation homes behind.
Engaging every day with ‘the people’, I find the words of politicians more grounded, more robust. They know, better than any number of Cambridge-Harvard-D-School graduates that the expression ‘economic reforms’ is as close to the hearts of voters as their fallen ideals to ‘serve the people’ once were.
A household, where one illness can trap it in the vicious cycle of moneylenders, is unconcerned about how the Goods and Service Tax is going to smoothen out financial transactions or the Pensions Bill could catalyse old age security.
You can push for Land Acquisition that could give them a more stable stake in the economic development that will come up around the Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor, for instance, but to expect them to forget that between 1951 and 1990, 50 million of them have been displaced when they gave up more than 150,000 sq km – bigger than the size of 143 countries, including Bangladesh, Nepal and Greece – would be taking them for granted.
The sunrise industry of economic reforms has created opportunities for all but those they’re meant for – the poor. Seeking nothing more than a hand pump to draw semi-potable water, a healthcare facility where the doctor calls in at least every alternate day or a school where tenured teachers actually teach, the voice of the prime driver of votes in India has been all but smothered. To think that she will join you in singing the reforms chorus simply to serve the interests of capital that seeks nothing less than an 8% GDP growth in the next quarter would be foolhardy.
Reforms must restart but more importantly, reforms must reach. It is only then that economics will have a political stake.