When the UPA government was sworn in three years ago, there was more a sense of relief than jubilation. The fact that Sonia Gandhi had declined a post that was hers for the taking gave the impression that this government did not want to be side-tracked into frivolous identity and ethnic issues. It would rather concentrate on social development.
Instead, what did it do? The UPA partners were more than willing to roll up their sleeves and fight flat out on caste politics. The government is on the verge of implementing OBC reservations in institutes of higher learning. On tackling ethnic and identity issues the current government is hardly combative. This is reflected in the fact that the Congress-led Himachal Pradesh government has passed the anti-conversion Bill, which was for so long the BJP’s pet project. This was pushed through in spite of high-ranking church officials, including the Archbishop of Delhi, petitioning the Congress leadership to halt such a move. The government has failed to curb vandalism against artists like MF Husain, or against Christian missionary school teachers. To cap it all, Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi is quite happy playing the moral policeman and calmly chops out television programmes that he thinks are offensive to Indian culture. Sounds a lot like the NDA. And therein lies the problem.
Social development deliverables on the economic front have not been exciting either. Economic growth by itself is bland stuff. In terms of pure economic strategy, there is little to distinguish the UPA from the NDA, which it so narrowly beat at the hustings. Consider this. When the Tenth Plan document advocates the strengthening of governance through ‘liberalisation’, ‘privatisation’ and withdrawal of ‘unnecessary subsidies’, surely the NDA will have no objections? The real test of the UPA was in terms of social development and clean governance. These were supposed to be the main issues that would separate one from the other. But the record so far has not quite demonstrated the difference.
Officially, at least, the spurt of economic growth started well before the UPA came to power. It does not therefore bear its signature in any significant way. There are those in the current government who would take credit for the declining rate of poverty. But this, too, began before the UPA took over.
The newly published reports on declining poverty are actually quite incredible. For example, how is it possible that the poverty figure that climbed to 43.01 per cent according to the 1998 NSA estimates (54th round), suddenly dropped in two short years to 26.10 per cent and 23.30 per cent?
Rather than setting aside such clearly spurious facts and striving afresh, the UPA government has projected that it will reduce poverty further. This is where the credibility factor of the UPA is under pressure.
The most heralded and talked about programme initiated by the UPA is the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREG) that assures 100 days work for poor families who come forward to avail of this scheme. The Rural Development Ministry has allocated Rs 14,300 crore for the current year, but not all of it separately. Funds would be pulled out of Food for Work and Sampoorna Grameen Rozgar Yojna schemes to finance this project. Further, the fact that 50 per cent of the NREG funds were to be devolved to local panchayats is an exercise in pure humour. Most panchayats have neither seen this money, and worse, many don’t even know that it should come their way.
Pitiable though the financial outlay is for a project that was all bells and whistles when it was announced, the sad fact is that contrary to government claims, there are actually many more people with NREG job cards than those who have been given employment.
I have seen this myself in both Bihar and Jharkhand. But let us ask the difficult question: is this programme aimed at development or just to keep the poor alive? As there is no developmental aspect built into this scheme, the money spent on it is in the spirit of staving off starvation and hoping for better days. The public distribution system did not pull its weight either and the Union Budget of 2007-08 confesses to insufficient funds. The revised estimate on this score is at least 1,000 crore less than the budgetary estimate. This, in the face of rising foodgrain prices.
The story of insufficient funds dogs every development policy the UPA has set in place. But the bigger picture is not about money allocated, but its utilisation. The mid-day meal scheme is in shambles in large tracts of the cow belt. It has done well in the southern states of India. But in that region, it has a long history that pre-dates both the NDA as well as the UPA. The tortuous process by which provisions for the mid-day meal programme are realised is truly cut out for corruption and worse. There are so many steps from the godowns of the Food Corporation of India to the plates of children, that a school teacher needs to be deputed specifically for this purpose. Also, there is little objection from the deputed teachers. After all, there is room enough in the long drawn-out process to feather their own nests.
The UPA has done nothing tangible in terms of raising either health or educational standards. Nearly 80 per cent of India’s total health expenditure comes from private pockets. Only war-torn Iraq has a slightly higher percentage. Indian metros, big and small, showcase a large number of private hospitals and nursing homes, but there are simply no new institutions of public health.
Private expenditure on education is equally staggering. Even the poor tighten their belts to send children to private schools in villages. There are many kinds of rural private schools, depending on one’s budget. The one thing in common among the private schools is that teachers here are paid miserably, sometimes well below the state’s minimum wages. This is in sharp contrast with the handsome salary that government school teachers get with negligible accountability. This is what drives poor rural parents to seek out private schools, even though they can barely afford them.
So where are we then? The UPA promised ‘high quality employment’. Organised sector employment is almost stagnant. The much talked about IT and ITES sector only employs about three and a half million people. These high powered specialists in cities like Delhi, Gurgaon, Mumbai and Bangalore by no means signal a spurt in employment growth across the board — least of all ‘quality employment’ for the vast numbers of the lowly employed.
The only silver lining so far has been the Right to Information Act. Hard won, that too, not by legislators but by external public pressure. The government was doing all it could to defang the entire operation, but Aruna Roy with others stepped in to spoil the politicians’ plot to downgrade this Act. Should the UPA be given credit for this? Or did it happen in spite of the UPA? We had indeed expected a lot more. Is there time and, more important, the spirit to make a mid-term correction? Pessimism abounds, but let us hope for the best. Is there any alternative?
Dipankar Gupta is Professor, Social Sciences, JNU