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IPL? Let’s get real

As the IPL grabbed eyeballs, India gained 100 million poor people, the Maoists grew stronger and the tiger slid towards extinction, writes Samar Halarnkar.

columns Updated: May 26, 2010 21:45 IST
Samar Halarnkar

So, Shashi Tharoor has gone. Lalit Modi may follow. Or not.

Cricket’s great jamboree may be cleaned up. Or not.

Does it matter so much?

The Indian Premier League (IPL) brouhaha could not have come at a worse time. India was, finally, if reluctantly, starting to focus on long-festering-but-urgent issues that prevent this country from being a just, equitable democracy.

As Tharoor and Modi self-destructed, the circus around them diverted all attention from the perfect storm gathering over India. The tempest is a mélange of enduring destitution, growing violence and environmental disaster. The ominous acceleration in these issues, interlinked more than ever, requires urgent national discussions, broad consensus and a grand vision.

If you were not following the poverty debate unfolding between the top echelons of government and a small band of powerful civil-society activists last week, you might wonder how India agreed, almost overnight, to add 100 million to the 300 million people who live below the official poverty line (the ability of a person to spend Rs 17 per day in urban areas and Rs 12 in rural areas).

With pressure growing from UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi to recognise hunger and poverty as national issues, the government and its Planning Commission — the body that sets the poverty line — set about reviewing the absurd figure of less than 300 million poor Indians, eligible for benefits from a slew of social-security programmes, which, theoretically, run from cradle to grave.

The new figure of 400 million poor may sound like a lot in a country of 1.1 billion, but every expert will tell you this is a gross underestimation. If you were to raise the poverty line to $2 a day — or Rs 90, inadequate for a coffee at a five-star hotel — the number of poor would cross 800 million.

That’s how poor India really is.

These figures are contentious because they determine what the government will spend on social-security programmes.

So, there’s a split in the Planning Commission.

Those opposed to increasing the number of poor say the money needed for them will ruin the government’s effort to rein in India’s already huge fiscal deficit, which soared by 24 per cent to Rs 414,000 crore in 2009-10. (Largely because of the Rs 248,000 crore fiscal stimulus). Their argument: the poor will benefit eventually when the benefits of progress trickle down.

Those in favour of recognising more poor people say India’s hunger and poverty are a national shame, and it is imperative to spend more money on social-security programmes, including food subsidies. Their argument: if you give sops to industry and other pressure groups why can’t you do the same for the millions who can influence nothing? Consider what the IPL gets: entertainment-tax concessions (in Maharashtra); public security forces at a discount; and its income-tax dues haven’t even been assessed in three years.

With Supreme Court commissioners Harsh Mander and N.C. Saxena — both former bureaucrats in the action-now camp advising the highest court on hunger issues — tipped to be on Gandhi’s newly-revived National Advisory Council, the government is, for once, listening.

That’s how Kavita Srivastava of the dogged Right-to-Food campaign got a call from the Prime Minister’s Office on Monday asking what she opposed about the new poverty line. In another age, people like Srivastava would be ignored and reviled, much like Medha Patkar, the big-dam objector, once was.

As this newspaper’s ‘Tracking Hunger’ campaign shows, deprivation is endemic, exacerbated by a looming collapse of India’s social-security network. Since March 24, when the series began, my colleagues found: children eating mud to quell hunger in Jawaharlal Nehru’s old constituency in Uttar Pradesh, mass migrations and slow-malnutrition deaths of men and women in their 30s and 40s in Bolangir, Orissa, children eating wild berries and red ants in Jharkhand’s East Singhbhum district, children with distended bellies caused by disease and malnutrition lanced through their stomachs with red-hot rods — a tribal superstition meant to make them well. You can read these horror stories and the complex issues facing India at www.hindustantimes.com/trackinghunger.

Linked to this widening collapse of governance is the inexorable rise of the Maoists, who will again exploit our short attention span as they spur the rebellion with greater confidence and cunning.

On Tuesday, emboldened by the slaughter of 76 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) soldiers in an April 6 ambush in central India, the rebels launched heavy frontal attacks on CRPF camps in Chhattisgarh. In Bengal, the Maoists have successfully taken over the administration of a State school, ensuring it does not fall into decay.

The government considered drones and new approaches to confronting the Maoists only after the April 6 ambush. If the IPL or the next empty scandal grabs our eyeballs, the public pressure needed to keep India focussed will rapidly evaporate.

Hunger and Maoist violence are not unique to — but are largely centred on — India’s tribal lands, once home to the nation’s densest forests, systematically exploited by local governments, officials and private interests.

With the State in retreat, it’s no surprise that the national animal is fading from sight. The tiger’s decimation — 1,000 or less may be left — is so acute that the prime minister this week appealed to states for an extraordinary effort to save the predator that serves as a barometer for not just the health of the nation’s natural wealth but also of grassroots governance.

When was the last time you discussed how saving the tiger can save India?

Let’s talk — when we tear ourselves away from the IPL.