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Chart a new course

The government considers the poor as recipients of charity. This must change. And we too need to be part of this reconciliation process, writes Sagarika Ghose.

india Updated: Apr 14, 2010 00:36 IST
Sagarika Ghose

The Maoist attack in Dantewada has brought out two opposing arguments. One argument focuses on a savagely unequal socio-economic reality where State neglect and exploitation have spawned a fearsome response. The other view argues that unless the State forcefully stamps out the Maoists, all attempts at addressing development are futile. Yet there is a third view, a view distinct from the noblesse oblige of a welfarist argument that places charity at its centre and the Bismarckian blood-and-iron argument of those who believe in matching militancy with militancy. And that is the argument of reform. The revolution of the poor is calling for reform from the rich. The Naxal challenge, however criminalised and politically motivated it may be, is calling to us to create a new social contract based on a partnership of the rich and the poor.

The word ‘reform’ so far is sadly identified with finance markets and the industrial sector. Instead, if we are to reinvigorate the idea of India, we will have to widen the definition of liberalisation to mean a liberalisation of government, police, and a liberalisation of the way we think and live. Without reforming the mind, genuine liberalisation cannot succeed. How should an elite visualise itself in a country of the poor? As cornering the benefits of real growth for themselves and throwing sacks of grain or a few threadbare alphabet books at the ‘servants’? That’s the attitude of zamindars, not democrats.

Certain sections of the UPA seem to visualise a poor person as a bedraggled sufferer with his hand perpetually on the voting machine. Thus he must be the constant recipient of charity and the condescending kindness of a mai-baap sarkar. The Right to Food envisages throwing sacks of grain at these hungry mouths. The Right to Education aims at pushing alphabet books at the poor, and notch up numbers enrolled in any school of whatever definition. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act is providing the opportunity to create short-term earthworks and a minimum wage to tide over short-term destitution. At the heart of these schemes is a benevolent feudalism of feeding leftovers to the poor, not encouraging them to earn and aspire like the rich.

Meanwhile, newly-rich India is fast becoming a sheikhdom where the rich live in fortified castles, where spoilt brats draw up in limousines at privileged schools to get “stress-free” education and private guards ensure that there are virtually no points of contact between ‘master’ and ‘servant’ in any public arena. If India’s rich and poor had different colours of skin, we would be a society of apartheid based on wealth.

A manifesto for a new India is needed. A manifesto that builds social democracy in the mind and does not simply take recourse to populist welfare measures on the one hand and police brutality on the other. Instead of flinging sacks of grain at the poor, the government must regenerate productive capacity to such an extent that the Right to Food is replaced with the Right to Work and the Right to Employment. People like us are food secure because we have an income.

Schools are being created on similarly condescending lines. Instead of seeking to create “schools for the poor”, the government should aim to create good common schools where children from all classes can attend. Plan allocations for education are still far lower than in many other countries. When the rich go to good schools and the poor to bad schools, can we call ourselves a democracy?

The UPA’s charitable schemes are oddly juxtaposed with its encouragement of dynasty. Political parties should pledge that they will stamp out the perverse force of dynastic succession. Politics is the one means by which the poor can get a stake in the system, it is the unparalleled method of upward mobility. If politics becomes an oligarchy, no amount of food and education schemes will break our social apartheid.

Instead of the politics of handouts, the government should shed ideological timorousness and move to create widespread productivity and a reformed administration so that every citizen has a chance to answer his aspirations, attend a good school and get richer. Reform must be posited not as beneficial for the corporate sector but as an urgent necessity for the poor. Let the best officers journey to Dantewada to set up offices. That land acquisition should be through voluntary purchase and not by force is now universally recognised. Justice in land rights must not just be done but seen to be done. If villagers benefit dramatically from industrial projects, they will no longer support Maoists who insist only on confrontation and vetoing all projects.

But for an imaginative outreach we need a drastic reform in mindset. Let us banish the word ‘servant’ and the phrase ‘don’t-you-know-who-I-am’ from our vocabulary. Police should not be a colonial conqueror, but a partner. Let policymaking seminars shift venue from New Delhi to Jagdalpur and Ranchi. Let every Indian celebrity learn how so many Hollywood stars use their celebrity status to create awareness and change. Given its divergences, the Indian nation cannot be welded by brute force but by innovative negotiation and there is need for each one of us to become part of a new national reconciliation. Only if we do can Dantewada become a true turning point for us all.

Sagarika Ghose is Senior Editor, CNN-IBN

The views expressed by the author are personal