"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." - Upton Sinclair
Tuesday, 26 August 2014
The barefoot government
Bunker Roy in The Indian Express
Since 1947, Indians have not spoken out so strongly and clearly for a completely new brand of people running government. Mercifully, there are no ministers educated abroad. Thankfully, none of them has been brainwashed at Harvard, Stanford, Cambridge, the World Bank or the IMF, subtly forcing expensive Western solutions on typically Indian problems at the cost of the poor. Look what the high-powered, foreign-returned degree-wallahs have reduced this country to. They wasted opportunities to show the inner strength of what is essentially Indian because they never really knew their own people living in Bharat. In the eyes of the world, we have lost our self-respect, dignity and identity.
All the ministers now have gone through average government schools. Some have never been to college. Many have experienced poverty, exploitation, injustice and discrimination at some point of time in their lives. It is truly the first barefoot government ever to be voted into power in independent India. Where else in the world would you have a one-time tea-seller on a railway station becoming prime minister, shaping the destiny of more than one billion people?
The first example the Modi government must set is by drastically reducing the perks and privileges of MPs. Free power, food, housing, travel to those whose personal assets run into crores and a Rs 2 crore annual fund for development (read patronage) for over 500 MPs is costing the exchequer nearly Rs 2,000 crore. Only the prime minister will be able to make it happen and, at the same time, stifle any dissent from BJP MPs. The time is now.
No other government in the world has a Class 12-pass woman minister speaking as an equal to almost 120 heavily qualified, on paper, vice chancellors (90 per cent male). Today, as we judge them, the VCs are all too intellectually and morally fatigued. There is something dreadfully wrong with an education system that produces graduates from even private, expensive, snobbish schools and colleges who are still prejudiced about caste, class, religion, sex and colour. These “graduates”, who roam the streets of small towns and cities by the thousands, call themselves “educated”, practice the worst forms of cruelty, slavery and crimes against humanity, against society and in their own families. Indeed, some of them rose to the level of their incompetence by becoming ministers in previous governments, reinforcing the status quo, wasting vast public resources by implementing silly Western ideas, listening to foreign-returned “experts” and making a hopeless mess of this country. The tragedy is that they cannot see the colossal damage they have done to the very fabric of this country.
Now they will call me a “namak haram” because I went to Doon School and St Stephen’s College and I am trashing my own kind. They deserve it. Their snobbish elitist education has made them arrogant, inaccessible, insensitive and devoid of any humanity or humility. Just because they received a Western education, they think they know their country. Superficially, they may know urban India but they are clueless about rural Bharat.
Alvin Toffler, in his book Future Shock, said, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be someone who cannot read or write. It will be someone who is not prepared to learn, unlearn and relearn.” In the 40 years that I have lived and worked with the rural poor in Rajasthan, what have I learnt that I did not manage to make my own kind “unlearn and relearn”?
It was not for want of trying. What did the prime minister, the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission and finance minister of the decimated UPA government have in common? They were all “educated” abroad. They were all for subsidising the rich and cutting subsidies for the poor. They had no idea about real poverty and hunger and how the rural poor survived, expecting the whole country to be gullible enough to believe that the rural poor today could survive on Rs 27 per day.
Out of sheer ignorance of rural realities and showing extremely poor political judgement, the three of them almost managed to strangle the MGNREGA. The MGNREGA prevented migration by the millions into cities. The bungling and corruption by village officials notwithstanding, the rural poor now have more money to spend on food, clothing, housing and essentials. So, of course, prices will go up.
The prime minister is evidently serious about improving the quality of life of the rural poor, as he eloquently stated in his speech on Independence Day. So what are the out of the box solutions that need to be considered urgently?
The MGNREGA should stay with “Modi-fications”. Pay minimum wages, which the Congress’s three armchair foreign-returned economists so stubbornly and unethically refused to do, in spite of a high court order. Make it more transparent and accountable, take action against corrupt officials exposed in social audits to set an example. Pass the public grievance bill in Parliament as soon as possible. Call a meeting of respected grassroot practitioners across political ideologies who know the MGNREGA from the village level and follow up on their recommendations.
The focus has to be on innovative job creation in the rural areas. Provide 100 days of employment at minimum wages to construct low-cost toilets for girls and rooftop rainwater harvesting tanks for drinking water, tree plantations and flush toilets in rural schools by the thousands. Construct rural godowns to store food grains instead of letting nearly 5 million tonnes of grain just rot in the open. Start community colleges on Gandhian lines instead of sending delegations of “experts” on education to study the American model. There are enough indigenous examples to replicate and scale up.
Civil society is riddled with defeated politicians and retired bureaucrats who, having lost their power, influence and privileges, have started NGOs. While they were in power, they did not lift a finger to help them. When these has-beens have nothing better to do, they start NGOs. They give genuine small civil society organisations a bad name. Maybe it is time to revive the debate of the 1980s on the need for a code of conduct for NGOs. The code would expect them to have a simple lifestyle, take a living wage instead of a market wage and observe the laws of the country.
If we are fighting against crony capitalism, we should also fight against cronyism in NGOs. When the Council for Advancement of People’s Action and Rural Technology (CAPART) was closed down and replaced by a Bharat Rural Livelihood Foundation (BRLF) in September 2013, it was done in complete secrecy. The BRLF was never widely publicised and civil society was never invited to contribute to its formation. It is designed to benefit a handful of select organisations — cronyism of the worst kind. It was so much in contrast to the open debate that galvanised the voluntary sector over the code of conduct and which preceded the merger of the People’s Action for Development India (PADI) and the Council for Advancement of Rural Technology (CART) to form CAPART in 1986.
What needs to be done? Replace the national advisory council (NAC) with a voluntary action commission (VAC). The mandate of the VAC should be to identify the thousands of genuine grassroots groups who have an FCRA registration and submit their report to the home ministry. It is not the job of the home ministry to judge the incredible work of community-based organisations. A lot of effort has gone into the formulation of the BRLF. Let it remain. But demand of the existing management if they have the self-respect to resign en masse and let the new government bring in new members.