Could India's mock war on poverty ever turn real?

India became independent 63 years ago. Since Independence the country has implemented 10 Five Year Plans and a few Annual Plans. Currently the 11th Plan is being executed. Efforts made during the last six decades have resulted in the modernisation of a stagnant economy and India's emergence as a major industrial power. This period also witnessed remarkable progress in agricultural production.

But India has failed miserably in its efforts to alleviate poverty and create a more equal society. The Arjun Sengupta Committee concluded that some 77 per cent of Indians live on less than Rs.20 a day. According to the Global Hunger Index compiled by the International Food Policy Research Institute, India ranks 67 among 88 developing countries. In the course of economic growth the disparities have widened. The hope held out by the distinguished economist Simon Kuznets decades ago that economic growth under enlightened capitalism would have a favourable impact on income distribution has not materialised in India's case. It is high time India introduced effective measures to abolish extreme forms of deprivation, reduce gross disparities and provide a level playing field to the wretched of the land.

Mock war

In the first two decades of planning it was hoped that the implementation of land reform measures would transform the agrarian structure, release the productive energies of the long-suffering peasantry and usher in an egalitarian social order. Primarily because of the absence of political will, land reform failed to achieve the objectives set out in the Five Year Plans. The experience of the East Asian countries in the post-Second World War period demonstrated that land reform could indeed play a significant role in reducing rural poverty. The extent of redistribution was 43 per cent in the People's Republic of China, 37 per cent in Taiwan, 33 per cent in Japan and 32 per cent in South Korea. Against these, the extent of redistribution in India was a negligible six per cent.

As part of the Second Five Year Plan, India launched a well-thought-out Community Development Programme aimed at the all-round development of villages. It laid emphasis on agricultural extension, minor irrigation, education, comprehensive health care and other developmental activities. After making steady progress for a while the programme collapsed because of the failure to induct suitable personnel and owing to thoughtless mismanagement. To cite one instance, the Chief Minister of a major State in his wisdom, or rather the lack of it, passed an order allowing each MLA to seek the transfer of two Block Development Officers. In course of time, the Community Development Programme collapsed.

After the historic split in the Congress in the late-1960s, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi came out with the catchy slogan of “Garibi Hatao.” In the war on poverty, emphasis was laid on revising land reform laws and implementing them efficiently. Simultaneously, a number of other schemes were launched with fanfare. From a vantage point as the Central Land Reforms Commissioner during the 1970s, this writer had an insider's view of the phoney war on poverty. It was really an exercise in hypocrisy aimed at bamboozling the people. Though several token efforts were made, there was no significant reduction in poverty.

The framers of the Sixth Plan correctly identified three cardinal failures of Indian planning. These were: the failure to achieve full employment, the failure to eradicate poverty and the failure to create a more equal society. Then the planners proceeded to spell out a strategy for the drastic reduction of poverty. The essential elements of that strategy were enlarged employment opportunities in industry and agriculture, a minimum-needs programme aimed to improve the living conditions of the poor and a few measures aimed to reduce disparities in income and wealth. After a detailed analysis of the proposals in the draft plan, I came to the conclusion that the Sixth Plan was not likely to make a dent on poverty in India. That critique was published in Kurukshetra on May 1, 1979. As expected, the measures suggested to solve the problem proved to be inadequate. With the liberalisation of the economy in the mid-1990s there has, of course, been a marked increase in the annual rate of growth of GDP but without any impact on the incidence of poverty. If anything, economic disparities have widened.

11th Plan initiatives

In the context of the political conditions prevailing in India, it is unrealistic to expect any radical measures being adopted. The only feasible approach is to augment employment opportunities, provide easy access to quality school education and healthcare, and operate a universal public distribution system guaranteeing monthly supply of foodgrains at subsidised prices to the poor. And this is what the recent initiatives offer.

Here, a word of caution will be in order. The government often speaks with a forked tongue. Among those who operate the levers of power, there are many who subscribe to the Washington Consensus and neoliberal shibboleths that constitute an antagonistic contradiction to the Indian Constitution, particularly the noble sentiments enshrined in the Preamble and Part IV on Directive Principles of State Policy.

Consider the Prime Minister's announcement regarding the opening of 6,000 Navodaya-type schools. Without losing time the Planning Commission announced that 3,500 of them would be in the public sector and 2,500 in the private sector — without bothering to note that in recent years school education has become a commercial activity. It should be squarely the responsibility of governments at the Central, State and lower levels to provide schooling to the poor. Similarly, in healthcare there is the mistaken emphasis on providing health insurance for the poor. These insidious attempts have to be identified and nipped in the bud to ensure that the governance of this country is in accordance with the Constitution.

The three new measures capable of making a dent on poverty are the NREGA (now rechristened MGNREGA), the Right to Education Act and the proposed right to food legislation. If some glaring inadequacies in these schemes are rectified and they are properly implemented, the poor will get considerable relief. In an article published in The Hindu on September 15, 2009, I made certain suggestions to improve access to the disadvantaged sections of the population to quality school education. In an article published on October 14, 2009, I made suggestions to expand and re-orient the NREGA. Regarding the recent recommendation of the National Advisory Committee on the Food Security Bill, I support the suggestion made in an editorial in The Hindu (October 26, 2010) that the Bill should provide for universal entitlement to cereals and other components of a food basket. Recast on these lines, the three legal guarantees could turn out to be a veritable Magna Carta for the poor.

It is difficult to answer the question whether the phoney war would ever turn real. If the laws are suitably modified and efficiently implemented, it may become possible to make a dent on India's abysmal poverty. But considering that India's administration has become dysfunctional, the panchayati raj system is a shambles, pervasive corruption is eating into the country's vitals, and governance has evaporated, there is not much room for optimism.

Writing about conditions in France on the eve of the Revolution, Hilaire Belloc famously observed: “Government is a thing that guides, and if need be, compels. Visible in France there is not such a thing.” Regrettably, India is heading towards that kind of situation.

(P.S. Appu is a former Chief Secretary of Bihar and a former Director of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration in Mussoorie. He can be reached at psappu@hotmail.com)

More In: Comment | Opinion