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Twist with destiny

Having been a bureaucrat all his life, Singh may be forgiven for not realising that the interests of the bureaucracy as a class do not always coincide with those of the nation, writes Prem Shankar Jha.

india Updated: Aug 25, 2006 05:55 IST

In the Fifties and Sixties, Indians used to be accused of having a ‘post-dated’ image of themselves. By this their detractors meant that although their country was militarily and economically weak, Indians behaved as if India had already become a big power.

That criticism cannot easily be levelled against us today. We may still be among the poorer countries of the world, but our economy is not weak. In more and more sectors we are not only globally competitive but bidding fair to snatch the lead from the established leaders. Poverty continues to plague us but is decidedly on the decline. Most important of all, we have managed to combine rapid economic change with expanding democracy and civil rights in a manner that has few parallels in the 20th century.

So if Manmohan Singh had allowed himself a bit of self-congratulation when he spoke from the ramparts of the Red Fort, most of us would have joined him. But he chose instead to emphasise the challenges that India still faces: poverty and a widening gap between the rich and the poor; the economic marginalisation of a large segment of the population, and the persistence of corruption and divisiveness at every level of government.

Singh’s warning was both salutary and necessary. But if his purpose was to prevent Indians from wallowing in complacency and to galvanise them into making a still greater effort, it fell woefully short of the mark. The basic question it raised was: if the Prime Minister of India just tells us what needs to be done, who will do it? If the buck does not stop with him, where does it stop?

Had this speech been given by the President of India, it would have had an entirely different effect. The President does not command executive power and is, therefore, free to exhort. The Prime Minister, by contrast, is the fountainhead of all executive power in the Indian State. When he talks of what has not been done, most people see it as a confession of failure — a statement of what the Indian State has not been able to achieve. It therefore deepens their anxiety instead of alleviating it.

The truth is that there is an all-important difference between the way India was at 20 and the way it is today. When I became a journalist 40 years ago, peering at India’s future was a truly frightening exercise. Scarcity was all pervasive. Not just foodgrains and sugar but even milk was rationed. When the monsoons failed, as they did over large parts of the country in 1965 and 1966, we had to depend on American handouts under PL (Public Law) 480 to meet one-fifth of our foodgrain needs, as we did not have the foreign exchange to buy it.

We might not have had 14,000 farmers committing suicide every year but we were prone to periodic famines — such as the Bengal famine of 1943 and the Bihar famine of 1967 — which took a hundred to a thousand times as many lives.

Our share of the world’s foreign trade, which had never exceeded 1 per cent anyway, had declined to less than half that proportion. Except for textiles we could not produce a single manufactured product that could be sold in the world market. Foreign analysts were calling India a basket case and journalists like Neville Maxwell of The Times of London were freely predicting its disintegration. There was hardly an Indian commentator I knew who did not feel a deep, gnawing fear that India was simply not a viable polity. Our conversations, in the still small parlours of New Delhi, reflected this constant battle between hope and despair.

We are lightyears away from that condition today. Where once we used to look for rays of hope, we now look for areas of darkness. The Prime Minister’s pointed reference to the persistence of poverty, the spate of farmers’ suicides, the rising income gap and the deepening marginalisation of the poorest of the poor is thus a call to arms and not a cry of despair.

The general lament of 40 years ago has given place to specific causes of anxiety. And these causes have remedies. Today we are not only able to pinpoint the issues that remain to be tackled, but are able to identify the measures that need to be taken. The Prime Minister has already made pointed references to one such measure — the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme. This has provided an income-boosting lifeline for the poorest of the poor — 7.32 million had already taken advantage of it at my last count. What is more important, by insisting that half the projects in which the poor will be employed must originate at the village level, it has begun to empower village society and turn development administration from a top-down into a bottom-up process.

The Prime Minister also dwelt at length upon the importance of education, but given his preoccupation with reconciling our accelerated growth with equity, it is not easy to understand two crucial omissions from his speech. The first was any reference to a scheme for providing social insurance to the unorganised sector. Today 800 million workers and dependents live in paralysing insecurity for they do not enjoy sickness, life or disability insurance, maternity benefits or old age pension. Not surprisingly, studies have found that the poor spend as much as a year’s income when they fall ill and go into debt at ruinous rates of interest. But their greatest fear is that there will be no one to look after them in their old age when they can no longer work, for under the stress of urbanisation and poverty the joint family has begun to break up.

Three months ago the Arjun Sengupta Committeesubmitted a report delineating a model, self-financing, social insurance scheme that would provide life, health, accident and sickness insurance, maternity benefits and an old age pension to more than 300 million workers in the unorganised sector. A close examination of the scheme showed that with a few small modifications it could also provide handsome maternity benefits and a substantial old age pension to all agricultural and non-agricultural workers. Since this scheme was the Prime Minister’s baby, his omission of any reference to it was strange, to say the least.

Singh’s second omission was any reference to the possibility of replacing the present system of land acquisition for infrastructure projects — which relies on expropriation — with a system of annual royalty payments for the use of the land. As the Narmada scheme so starkly demonstrates, even the Supreme Court rulings have failed to protect the evacuees. The plight of the millions who have already been displaced by other schemes is infinitely worse. Making such people recipients of an annual royalty linked to the gross revenues earned by the project will transform them from victims of development into partners in development. It will also take the wind out of the sails of the gathering Maoist revolt in the tribal belt of the country. Yet, although Singh mentioned the plight of the displaced, he inexplicably made no mention of this simple and obvious remedy.

To those who watch policy-making in Delhi closely, the reasons for Singh’s omission are no secret. They know that the most adamant resistance to both ideas has come, and continues to come, from the bureaucracy. Having been a bureaucrat all his life, Singh may be forgiven for not realising that the interests of the bureaucracy as a class do not always coincide with those of the nation. He has less than three years left to learn this lesson.

The writer is the author of The Twilight of the Nation State (Vistaar/Sage)

First Published: Aug 25, 2006 05:55 IST