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Fission in empty waters

The machismo of the scientific-military complex is dearer to the CPI(M) than bringing health and education to the poor, writes Dipankar Gupta.

india Updated: Sep 03, 2007 01:09 IST

By popular consent, with just a turn of a screwdriver we will have over a hundred nuclear bombs ready for delivery in our backyard. But do we need that many? After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which happened long before even I was born, the US has not used it elsewhere — neither in Vietnam, nor in Iraq. Even the distance from Washington did not tempt America to test its throwing arm, knowing fully well that nuclear damage cannot be contained within political boundaries. The idea then of India chucking one across the border does not exist, unless we want to kill ourselves as well. In 1998, had we not declared that we had no need for further nuclear tests?

If we have no use for any more bombs, then the need to test for more is a waste of time and national resources. As it is the bombs that we have at our disposal are all dressed up but have nowhere to go. Under these circumstances, if the Hyde Act says no more nuclear tests, it should not be of any importance to us. The Hyde Act could equally have stipulated that the US would withdraw nuclear support if we conducted searches for dinosaur eggs. Would this have threatened our sovereignty too? For us there is little logical difference between conducting further nuclear tests and reviving extinct species. We need more nuclear weapons as much as we need dinosaur eggs. Why should restrictions of this order ever threaten our national sovereignty?

It would have been far more becoming of the left if it were to threaten the UPA for reneging on the Common Minimum Programme. The UPA has so far been unable to make any significant dent on the conditions of poverty or improve on the delivery of public goods, particularly to the rural poor. This, rather than beating our chest about our right to test nuclear bombs, should have been the principal concern of the left. Unless the definition of socialism has changed in recent times, their ideology was all about raising the living standards of citizens, particularly those of the poor.

But on all such matters that affect the overwhelming majority of our citizens, the left has been extraordinarily, and painfully, quiet — as if in a mid-life crisis. It has made occasional noises but largely to protect the public sector as if that is all there is to socialism. The occasional spats in the past were about disinvestments, building airports with private support, and so on, but nothing that forced the government to deliver on health, education and civic amenities.

When the left joined the UPA, there were expectations that this time around there would be greater emphasis on public deliverables on the ground. Pious escalations of budgetary provisions mean nothing in reality. Rajiv Gandhi’s 15 per cent principle has alerted us to the fact that money spent is not the same as being put to proper use. Yet, from the beginning the left showed no interest in the actual delivery of quality public goods like health, education, etc. Now it appears that the machismo of the scientific-military complex is dearer to the CPI(M) and its friends than bringing health and education to the poor. It is, therefore, no surprise that it finds itself in the company of the BJP. If there is any alliance more incompetent than the UPA, then it is the NDA. This leaves the left squarely between a rock and a very hard and prickly place.

In fact, this should have been anticipated long ago had we not been prisoners of extreme naiveté. Take a look at the dubious record of the left regarding the social service sector when it comes to the one state where they have ruled uninterruptedly for nearly three decades. If the left could not swing it for the poor in West Bengal, it has obviously other priorities and other fish to fry. It is, in fact, quite scandalous that the delivery of basic public goods such as health, housing, and education should be in such a sorry state in left-ruled West Bengal.

The popular impression in India is that West Bengal is a socially developed state. It may be ‘poor’ in terms of capitalist lucre, but ‘pure’ on human development criteria. Obviously, Tagore, Satyajit Ray and the Kolkata gentry have created the optical illusion that West Bengal is both a well-read and well-led state. The truth is that West Bengal is barely above Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar on most important social indices that have to do with public goods.

If we take the Net Enrolment Ratio (NER) in schools, we find that West Bengal just about beats UP and J&K (among the major states). In fact, if one were to just look at the NER for boys alone, then it is just above UP, and no other state. But for the girls who are leaving behind rolling pins for school bags, the picture would have been much worse. Further, when we take into account the intensity of formal education, we find that only UP and Bihar have a worse profile than West Bengal. If it is any comfort to the politburo, we might also add that the small north-eastern states of Nagaland and Meghalaya also lag behind West Bengal. But that must be very small consolation. To make matters worse, between 1986 and 1997, the heydays of left front rule in West Bengal, the number of teachers per school actually declined from 3.2 to 3.

If we take a broader view of West Bengal, we realise that the proportion of people below the poverty line is higher in this state than it is for all India. In the 0-4 age-specific mortality rate, West Bengal is eighth from the bottom. In only six other states is the population per hospital bed higher than in West Bengal. Only Bihar has more population per Primary Health Centre than West Bengal, and if we come to the sub-centre level then Bihar and UP alone have more damaging statistics. To cap this miserable litany, only Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Mizoram have a lower percentage of electrified households as compared to West Bengal.

If one takes some of these significant facts into consideration, it is quite clear why the left never pressured the UPA to be more sensitive towards health, education and housing. These, more than fulminations in favour of the public sector, and now the bomb, should have been the main concerns of the left. But as it has failed to deliver on these fronts in West Bengal, it dare not raise these issues at the national level for fear of rattling skeletons in their cupboards back home.

As CPI(M)-led parties have given up leftist, or even leftish concerns, it is not surprising that they should be casting about for something sensational that could tide them through to the next election. Anti-Americanism did very well in the old days when it was in the context of planning for the poor. But as this is no longer a left front obsession, it took refuge in ultra-nationalism and the Hyde Act to somehow get itself back in business.

Dipankar Gupta is Professor, Social Sciences, at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.