Nowhere to go but up

Updated on Jan 01, 2012 02:22 AM IST

Stuck at the bottom of global social indicator rankings, we have huge battles ahead state and society, writes Biraj Patnaik.

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None | ByBiraj Patnaik
Around this time last year, I was on a road trip from India to the Gaza Strip, travelling through the Middle East with 50 intrepid souls. Two weeks after we returned, the Arab Spring had begun, irretrievably changing the political landscape of many countries we had passed through. We had no idea — nor indeed did the regimes that were toppled — that there was revolution in the air.

Closer home, I would have treated with disdain any prediction that the chattering classes in India would express outrage at the minimalist poverty line of ‘Rs 26 and Rs 32 per capita per day for rural and urban areas respectively at 2004-05 prices’, as the mandarins of Yojana Bhavan put it, cutely, in their affidavit in the Supreme Court. That this would force the government to remove the tyranny of the poverty caps — though they may yet return given the proclivities of the technocrats who have been continuing with the pretence of running this government, on behalf of the corporate mob, ever since UPA-II came to power.

Equally unpredictable was the turn of events relating to the anti-corruption debate and the redefinition of civil society. Who would have thought that senior cabinet ministers would perform pavanamuktasanas on airport tarmacs, all for the sake of fighting corruption? Or that the call to youth to take to the streets would be issued by an aging demagogue who stands for abstinence and prohibition?

The world would be a more fun place, if not a better one, if we moved firmly away from both abstinence and prohibition, and got on with the business of drafting a half-decent lokpal bill. The jury is out on whether our polity will move rightwards with the Anna movement, like it did with the JP movement in the 1970s and the anti-Mandal agitation two decades later.

What was more predictable was the debate about the national food security bill, with India moving closer to banishing hunger, even as we will fail to deal with malnutrition or agrarian distress through this legislation, which will perhaps be the most important bit of law-making for India’s poor. That we got the bill past a growth-obsessed Cabinet is a miracle.

As the cliché goes, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Gaza continues to be under siege from Israel. The flailing Indian state will end the year with the ignominy of remaining at the bottom of the rankings of virtually every single social indicator, as a country with one of the highest burdens of child malnutrition, severely wasted children, babies with low birth weights, maternal mortality and women with anaemia. And in case you hadn’t noticed, growth rates are falling, the rupee is in free fall, employment rates across sectors are declining, industrial output is down, food inflation peaked to its highest level in the preceding three decades and the government looks increasingly comatose. These are huge battles for the year ahead.

New Delhi-based Biraj Patnaik works as the principal adviser to the commissioners of the Supreme Court on the right to food. These views are personal.

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