Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Are Things Getting Better?

Ajit Chaudhuri

Written in 1996 in response to a question posed to me by my Father
Published in Lokayan Journal (Bulletin 13, 1997)

I am constantly asked the question - are things in India getting better? The temptation would be to give a resounding yes in reply. After all, there are more cars on the roads, owned by a wider variety of people and looking increasingly (but not yet quite) what our role models in the west are driving. The shops have their shelves full, the variety available is far wider than, say, ten years back, and people are buying. Most homes have TVs, and the choice of what to watch is huge. The various indicators of progress such as GDP and Per Capita Income, when compared over time (though not with the figures for other countries) also point towards change for the better. Why, then, does one not feel completely comfortable with the answer.

To Indians of my generation and background, there are four pillars that have formed the India that we have lived and been brought up in. They are democracy, socialism, secularism and non-alignment *. It would be interesting to see how these have changed in the recent past, and how this change has affected the well-being of the vast majority of people in India.

Non alignment is dead. The less said about it the better. Suffice to say that it did not bother the ordinary person then, and the lack of it does not bother him/her now. Secularism is in the process of dying. People are dividing themselves into caste and communal lines, with a gradual erosion of the middle ground which is so necessary for one side to be able to talk to the other. The resultant social turmoil is taking place, along with a hardening of views and respectabilization (for want of a better word) of the likes of Thakeray and Singhal. This says a lot for the manner in which things have changed.

Democracy - it is without doubt still vibrant. Most people, of all castes, creeds and educational backgrounds, believe in it. Major changes, however, have taken place in India’s democratic process, most noticeable being the need for money and muscle to fight elections. And while money is available from several places, there is only one source for muscle - criminals. Criminalization of politics has led to a deterioration in the quality of politicians, who today have questionable antecedents and motives. It can safely be said that a majority of those sitting in the country’s parliament and legislative assemblies should actually be sitting in the country’s jails. And these are the people to whom have been entrusted the right to represent the people and decide the course of India’s future.

Socialism - this has been demolished over the course of the recent past in a systematic manner under the auspices of the New Economic Policy and the Structural Adjustment Programme. The NEP and the SAP were formulated by economists in the government and IMF/World Bank at a time when India was going through a budgetary crisis, its aims were to boost industrial production and exports, control trade deficits and revitalize the economy. The measures adopted were trade liberalization, devaluation, privatization and cutbacks in government expenditure.

A word about IMF advocated structural adjustment programmes in general - they are known not to succeed because the underlying philosophy behind them is that the rich are not rich enough and the poor are too rich and because the austerity measures are too harsh for too long to too many. In India the cutbacks have taken place in health and education and have come in tandem with privatization. The constitution still maintains that it is the government’s responsibility to provide basic health and education services to citizens, and the government still mouths this, but the fact is that while Apollo hospitals are coming up with top quality facilities for those who can pay, the majority of us have to go to understaffed, ill equipped Primary Health Centers where the quality of care, if available at all, is pathetic and rapidly deteriorating.

This has two inherent dangers. Firstly, people will naturally enquire as to why two percent of the country’s population should have these facilities while they go without (and this is already under way), and once this achieves a critical mass it is likely to boomerang into a movement. This may take a political form, leading to a change towards more equitable distribution of the resources and facilities available in the country through law and policy making institutions in India. On the other hand, given the poor quality of politicians and their inability to represent people, it is likely that such a movement will form outside of the political system leading to large scale social turmoil, increased crime, or terrorism. Some parts of the country have preceded others along these lines and the results are there for all to see.

The second danger is as serious - withdrawal of government responsibilities in an area such as health and privatization of the health care system would lead to a concentration on curative facilities and less attention to prevention, such as public health, immunization, etc. TB, the single largest killer in India and one which fifty percent of Indians are carriers to, costs approximately Rs. 6,000/- to cure in medicine alone. Can a country where forty percent of the population earn at levels below the minimum needed for survival afford a private health care system? And can a private health care system deal with malaria or TB in epidemic proportions? If the trend of a deteriorating government health system continues, we are all (and I mean all) likely to see a resurgence of such diseases in the country.

The accent on privatization has changed social systems within the country. While earlier there were strong community norms governing most activities, this has gradually broken down in favour of individualism. This has its good points - people are able to rise beyond the restrictions of caste, creed and community. The shit cleaner’s son can become a collector (though not yet vice-versa). It also has its negative ones - it is the powerful, the rich and the educated who are able to grab the benefits on offer, with nothing for those left out. An example at the family level is the breaking down of the joint family system. This leaves no mechanism for the care of the aged, widows, disabled and orphans. The conversion of common lands in villages into private property is another case in point - the poor are much more dependant upon common lands for their household fodder, fuel and water requirements, and these lands are getting less and less because of land grabs by the powerful (or the giving of these lands to institutions/industry by the government). Strong community norms acted as a restraint upon crimes and a judicial mechanism in case of disputes. Reduction of these norms has led to the need for people to turn to police and courts, both of which (as they are also ‘privatized’) are beyond the reach of the poor and the weak.

Have incomes really risen under NEP and SAP? Do people have better purchasing power than they had? Undoubtedly some people have gained. But what about others? What about small and marginal farmers, who are not able to derive the benefits of the country’s massive investments in irrigation and subsidized power and fertilizers, and are gradually selling their lands to large farmers, thereby becoming wage labourers without any assets of their own. What about traditional artisans and craftsmen, weavers and entertainers, whose markets have been eroded and who do not have the skills to change occupations. What about tribals, whose forest habitat, upon which they have traditionally been dependant for survival, is being destroyed in the name of development. What about migrant cattle herders, for whom common grazing pastures are being encroached upon by large farmers. What about unskilled labourers, who have migrated into urban areas and stay in shanty towns without basic sanitation, living on the wrong side of the laws of supply and demand. Have they gained in the recent past? Absolutely not. And are they some small minority who can be ignored in the name of general progress? No, they are only over eighty percent of India’s population.

Increased levels of awareness (different from education) undoubtedly exist, thanks to the spread of media. Aspirations have changed. But the means to realize these aspirations are still closed to those without education or capital, except in the areas of sports, films and crime. And entry level barriers are high in the former two.

To conclude! Change is a fact of life. Some gain more, some gain less, and some do not gain at all. It is beyond the purview of this paper to suggest remedies for the problems cited above. But it is necessary for some emphasis on the part of the government towards enabling people to withstand change, or to use change to their advantage. And this is not served by it ducking its responsibilities on the fronts of health and education. Or encouraging differentials in society through policies decided behind closed doors by people whose credentials are debatable.
* An article by Prof. T.K Ray in the India Today of May 15, 1996

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