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Death for free saris mocks 'shining India'

The gruesome death of 22 poor women in an poll-related event where they clamoured for cheap saris being distributed free belies the picture of an "India Shining" that the ruling coalition is seeking to project.
PTI | By Deepshikha Ghosh (Indo-Asian News Service)
PUBLISHED ON APR 13, 2004 08:33 PM IST

The gruesome death of 22 poor women in an election-related event where they clamoured for cheap saris being distributed free belies the picture of an "India Shining" that the ruling coalition is seeking to project.

That the incident took place in Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's home turf Lucknow - one he has represented four times and is contesting from in the coming national elections - just underscores the irony.

Images of the bodies of women crushed in the mad rush for the Rs.40 apiece saris made of cotton at the birthday celebration of Vajpayee's election agent Lalji Tandon run parallel to the projections of a "feel-good factor" where citizens are said to be enjoying a better quality of life than ever before.

"It is a lesson for all those who make hollow claims of Shining India," said Prabhat Patnaik, a professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University here, a reference to the series of newspaper and television advertisements titled "India Shining" that seek to project the manifold achievements of the Vajpayee government.

"Thousands of women travelling long distances to be at a congregation for free saris... it is truly pathetic," he added.

Some 250 million people of India's one billion live in abject poverty -- that is to say they cannot afford even two square meals and survive on less than one dollar a day.

Eradicating chronic poverty has been the single most repeated line in political party manifestos since independence five decades ago, and experts feel it is one that will not go away in a hurry.

According to R. Venkatesan of the National Council for Applied Economic Research (NCAER), a high rate of economic growth, much more than current projections, is needed to remove poverty.

"It becomes a sociological and behavioural problem when people are willing to go to any lengths for goodies," he remarked.

At Monday's rally, some 5,000 women collected in 41 degree Celsius heat at the function marking the 70th birthday of BJP's Tandon - an event suspected to be in violation of the poll code of conduct with elections here barely weeks away - hungry for a sari or two.

The stampede followed Tandon's departure after doling out a dozen saris, after which BJP leaders reportedly started throwing bunches of them around like scraps.

The 45-minute scramble left 22 dead and many wounded - some of them died while being carted to the hospital.

Seeking re-election, Vajpayee rushed to the Uttar Pradesh capital where he files his nomination as a candidate Thursday.

Indeed, it is during elections that the poor get most attention, with political parties plying them with cash and freebies in exchange for their valuable vote.

Canvassing candidates hold the unspoken promise of free clothes, utensils, boxes of sweet, liquor, or even one meal, in those few days of electioneering leading up to the ballot.

They are rounded up from villages in hundreds and thousands, taken to public meetings to build up an impressive crowd, given something to eat and packed off. Sometimes the organisers pass up on the food.

The phenomenon is rampant in large parts of northern and eastern India that constitute the heart of darkness in India's rural poverty -- Bihar, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

Says Patnaik: "We have convoluted methods of calculating poverty. Based on consumption patterns, 70 percent of rural India suffers from chronic poverty.

"This means millions of people in rural India are unable to consume 2,400 calories a day - the benchmark for poverty.

"They say the number of absolute poor has come down in the past five decades - but that presumes people have not changed their eating patterns, either on their own volition or out of desperation."

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