Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Poor in perpetuity: Indian experiment

Since Independence politics of poverty has generally been characterized by India's poverty of politics

Sopan Correspondent / New Delhi

In 1950, India adopted a democratic polity and declared it a republic, where highest decision makers are elected by people. This gave birth to electoral process in the country and every after five-year, people elected those, who not only decided their fate but gave direction to public policy. In the last 61 years, though many issues came and faded away, poverty remained a constant. Successive governments, since then, initiated, sustained, and refined many programs to help the poor and thus politics of poverty began in the country.
However, India's politics of poverty has generally been characterized by its poverty of politics. Although poverty is the overwhelming fact of the national life, it is hardly the theme of our politics despite various programmes initiated since independence. It is stunning rates of GDP growth that command the attention of Parliament and the media, hardly the accompanying deterioration in the Gini co-efficient that measures disparities in the economy, disparities that in our case are widening so obscenely as to threaten the very continuance of our democracy.
Ritually, in every session of Parliament, we debate drought, floods, unemployment and rural development. Unfailingly, the House empties as soon as these themes are taken up and the press gallery stares naked over the proceedings. Lucky is the MP who gets a line of what he says into the TV evening news or the papers next morning. A virtual blanking out from the minds of the dynamic, surging, media-guzzling middle class follows of the everyday lives of the vast majority of our people-the 836 million who live on less than Rs. 20 a day, as identified by the Arjun Sengupta Committee.
If Sengupta's assessment is believed then it is aghast to note here that the scenario exists despite - Community Development Programme (CDP) initiated in 1952, Indira Gandhi's 20-point programme with a slogan "garibi hatao", food for work initiated during late 70s and 80s or a similar programme like the present Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). All failed to eradicate poverty in the country. Instead, all these programmes perpetuated poverty and total number of poor increased. The latest figures show that present total number poor in the country is more than the total population of India at the time of Independence.
Even the UN Human Development Index (HDI) has placed India at 132. In 1994 India was at 134, so the country has slithered just two places up in the last 15 years despite a 15-fold increase in Central government budget spending on anti-poverty programmes, from around Rs. 7,500 crore in 1993-94 to well over Rs. 1,20,000 crore in the 2008-09 (in addition to another Rs. 70,000 crore of farmers' loan waivers). There is simply no correspondence between outlays and outcomes: outlays have soared; outcomes have remained derisory.
Under circumstance, food becomes the most precious issue among the poor amidst rising prices of essential commodities, as the poor spend about 80 percent of their income on food. The price of food is a major determinant of poverty. Often when food prices rise sharply, rioting and looting follow. Until the late 1970s, the government frequently had difficulty obtaining adequate grain supplies in years of poor harvests. During those times, states with surpluses of grain were cordoned off to force partial sales to public agencies and to keep private traders from shipping grain to deficit areas to secure very high prices; state governments in surplus-grain areas were often less than cooperative.
After the late 1970s, the central government, by holding reserve stocks and importing grain adequately and early, maintained sufficient supplies to meet the increased demand during drought years. It also provided more remunerative prices to farmers.
In rural areas, the government though undertook programs to mitigate the worst effects of adverse monsoon rainfall, which affects not only farmers but village artisans and traders when the price of grain rises. The government has supplied water by financing well digging and, since the early 1980s, by power-assisted well drilling; rescinded land taxes for drought areas; tried to maintain stable food prices; and provided food through a food-for-work program. The actual work accomplished through food-for-work programs is often a secondary consideration, but useful projects sometimes result. Employment is offered at a low daily wage, usually paid in grain, the rationale being that only the truly needy will take jobs at such low pay.
Probably the most important initiative has been the supply of basic commodities, particularly food at controlled prices, available throughout the country. But of late it is has been disbanded in favour Targeted PDS, which gave birth to dual pricing of food and thus a lot of pilferage leading to scarcity.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, Indian government programs attempted to provide basic needs at stable, low prices; to increase income through pricing and regulations, such as supplying water from irrigation works, fertilizer, and other inputs; to foster location of industry in backward areas; to increase access to basic social services, such as education, health, and potable water supply; and to help needy groups and deprived areas.
The total money spent on such programmes for the poor was not discernible from the budget data, but probably exceeded 10 percent of planned budget outlays. India has had a number of antipoverty programs since the early 1960s.

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