SUNDAY MAGAZINE

People as puppets

Cruel fate ... working for days on end and still hungry.  

THE bitter blow to the food and employment security of the masses inflicted by the previous National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government by destroying the Public Distribution System (PDS), making a mockery of the Below Poverty Line (BPL) surveys and callously disregarding the crisis in rural India, even as it carried on its fraudulent "India Shining" campaign, seem to be merely a very severe patch in the long history of state denial of the basic rights of the poor of this country.

There was euphoria when the Congress party manifesto surprisingly promised to make the right to work a reality by passing an Employment Guarantee Act. Wags say that the Congress (I) probably included it because it never expected to win the election and did not think that it would ever be called upon to stand by its promise. But now the cat is out of the bag. The promise has turned out to be an empty one, as far as this year's budget goes. Activists who met at Bhopal recently in a convention on the Right to Food and Work had precisely feared such a denouement. They knew that their struggle would have to continue and that the end is not yet near. "The government's name and colour are changing, but their work is not changing," pointed out Harsh Mander.

The state in our country seems to have become like a ghoulish monster which plays wicked tricks on the hungry masses for its perverted entertainment. It is like a giant puppeteer holding all the strings in its hands, at the ends of which hang sacks of grain. But the sacks of grain are hidden under different coloured cards at different times — now red, now green, now yellow — called BPL cards. The people can claim the cards which entitle them to the grain only after they answer a quiz correctly.

As was revealed by Brinda Karat of the All India Democratic Women's Federation at the Bhopal convention, the state asks: "How many rotis did you eat today?" If you say that you had rotis twice on the same day, then, sorry, no, says the state, you don't qualify for the coloured cards. "How many sons do you have?" asks the state. If you say that you have two sons, sorry, no, then too you don't qualify to be BPL. It doesn't matter that your sons are currently two and six years old. "When your sons grow up and start earning, you will be well looked after. What more do you want?" says the state.

Whatever the people answer, their answer is wrong and the coloured cards are swung out of their reach along with the sacks of grain by the master puppeteer. The people are left guessing the correct answers to the quiz and jumping over one another in their effort to reach the cards.

The puppeteer has ever different games up his sleeve. He jumbles all the letters of the alphabet and creates various acronyms out of them, like NREP, RLEGS, SGRY, ad infinitum, and dangles them in the form of various employment and welfare schemes before the masses. He merges and splits the various acronyms periodically to baffle and confuse the masses. He tells them that if only they work for this many days under this or that jumble of letters, the grain will be theirs. The masses elbow each other and line up behind the various acronyms for work. They work for days and months, but the master puppeteer — like a child who shows off his piece of chocolate to other children before having it all by himself — again pulls the strings with the sacks of grain out of their reach. The functionaries of the State promise the grain to the hungry only to divert them fraudulently to waiting flour mills or smugglers. The hungry are left dreaming for food that appeared to be so near and yet so far. These games of deception go on until the people are completely exhausted reaching for the sacks which elude them. Then with a malevolent last cackle, the giant puppeteer pulls back all the strings with the sacks of grain in one fell swoop and throws them out of the country to waiting sheep, pigs and cattle in other countries.

That the state seems to be doing this to spite its own people is obvious from the fact that the money it gets from the foreign countries for this exported grain is less than what it asks its own people to pay for it.

The puppeteer, the state, is also running a macabre lottery scheme for deciding who among the widowed or destitute in a village deserve the crumbs it chooses to throw at them in the form of the National Social Assistance Scheme. There are only two or three prizes per village in this lottery scheme.

Too bad if there are 15 destitutes and 20 widows in this village who deserve assistance. They will have to wait for one of the winners of the lottery to die so that they can try to win the lottery next.

The poor looking for land on which they can grow their own grain to quell their hunger fare no better. The state sends them on a hunt much like the treasure hunt that is arranged for children at birthday parties: you have to search in nooks and crannies for the pieces of paper which will guide you to the treasure. The masses run through a maze of official corridors and a jigsaw puzzle of tables searching for that right piece of paper which will give them the right to cultivate a miserly patch of land.

As Paul Diwaker of the National Federation for Dalit Human Rights pointed out, the people find at the end of the hunt that they are either clutching the wrong piece of paper or are cultivating the wrong patch of land.

The land they are cultivating will be in the name of another or the paper they possess will be for land another person is cultivating. The Forest Department will contest their right to cultivate land given to them by the Revenue Department and vice-versa.

Land that has been acquired under land ceiling laws, which should have been distributed, will lie undistributed, while land that is distributed will have several claimants. The state seems to be like the owner of a merry-go-round who benefits by sending people running around in endless circles.

The poor either give up the treasure hunt midway or lose the hunt and come away crestfallen and landless.

As Madhuri of Jagruth Dalit Mahila Sanghatan pointed out: the people are the creators of the wealth in the country and they are the rightful owners. The government is only a watchman of the grain produced by them. It is not the owner. But the government thinks that it is doing a favour by throwing a few crumbs at the poor.

When people ask for the right to work, the government says it has no money. "The money in the treasury is ours," says Madhuri, "but the government is taking our money and building bombs. The government is selling our forest, land and water. The watchman is selling the goods he is supposed to watch over, as if he is the owner. We don't want such a watchman."

... a redefinition of the poverty level.

... a redefinition of the poverty level.  

YET another game the puppeteer enjoys playing is that of "snakes and ladders". Much as the masses try to reach their goal of a better life in this game, they find themselves being pulled down to greater depths of hunger and poverty by the "snakes" the state continually places in their path — of displacement, unemployment, high interest rates, an abysmally low level of minimum wages, reckless opening up of markets, ever-reducing produce prices and ever-increasing input prices.

And yet, the state will claim that the poor have not been pulled down by the "snakes" but that they have indeed come out of poverty by climbing "ladders". The "ladders" are nothing but re-definitions of the poverty level by which masses are declared to have come above the poverty line by shifting the index downwards. Utsa Patnaik, Professor of Economics at the Centre for Economics Studies and Planning of Jawaharlal Nehru University, using a direct method of estimation of consumer expenditure, found that the poverty-level expenditure that can provide 2403 calories (the norm is 2,400) in 1999-2000 was Rs. 566.60 per month per capita in rural areas and that 70 per cent of all people were below this level. But the NDA government created the myth that the population below the poverty line has come down drastically, in fact, from about 27 per cent to 17 per cent in 1999-2000. Behind these figures was the assumption that the quantities people consumed remained unchanged since 30 years ago in 1973-74.

Never mind that home-delivered pizzas, hamburgers, colas and ice-creams figure at least once a week in many urban homes; the rural family will be presumed to be above the poverty line even if it is subsisting on — or rather — starving on a particular calorific value generated from a diet consisting wholly of just watery gruel. Never mind that all the macro-economic trends, such as falling per capita foodgrains output and absorption, declining agricultural growth rates, sharply rising rural unemployment were completely inconsistent with any story of declining rural poverty. These did not deter the state in any way from declaring that the poor had gone up "ladders" and not down "snakes".