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In the age of a vast swindle

In the age of a vast swindle
Every age has its trademark way of making big bucks on the side. In the Indira Gandhi years, it was smuggling of practically everything, thanks to the high tariff wall she’d built, in which she was ably assisted by her young finance minister who is her party’s nominee as the president of India today. The smuggling culture of the era, presaged by popular film like Deewar, had many offshoots that haunt us even today, like a strongly networked and almost stateless Islamic underworld which has long since graduated from stuffing gold or heroin under false suitcase bottoms to cradling operators of international terror.

In today’s India, the new fountain of unaccounted wealth of a few is the ever expanding size of the government’s social service expenditure – from 13.38 per cent of the total expenditure including rural development in 2006-07 to 18.47 per cent in 2011-12 – which, by its definition, is mostly spent through Urban Local Bodies (ULB) or Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI). Social service expenditure has managed to stay below the radar of rigorous audit till now because Comptroller and Auditor General’s role so far is limited to giving only technical guidance and supervision to ULB and PRI. A social project as large as Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREG) submits its account book only to something called 'social audit,' which in most cases begins and ends with the signature, if not the fingerprint, of a
panchayat
official who may not be particularly familiar with the art of book-keeping.

In the Indian big cities, a sizeable part of the nouveau riche is somehow connected with the social welfare projects, be it related to water supply and housing or health and family welfare. These have produced a new contractor class that far outnumbers the limited-entry circle of Public Works Department (PWD) contractors of the past. In a nation struggling with mass poverty, the latter obviously had smaller amounts to play with. To the new generation of contractors, however, project size has no limit. For instance the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, begun in December 2005, would spend no less than $20 billion before it terminates with the end of this year. But the cities’ gains from it are questionable. The low-floor public buses funded by the project have record breakdowns, raising questions about the integrity of the tendering process for acquisition of the buses. The slum houses built under the project are so poorly constructed that many of their inmates, who should live in them like proud home owners, do prefer to continue living in their shanties.

The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission's 'sub-mission for urban infrastructure and governance' has its focus on water supply and sanitation, solid waste management, road network, urban transport and redevelopment of old city areas. In the project’s seven years of life, there is visible improvement only in the urban road network. But old cities continue to be as decadent as before, with pavements in Mumbai still occupied by those worthies who live in structures built there by their parents, if not grandparents. In the Parel area, the stink from the roads reaches the top floors of the new skyscrapers. Solid waste is being better managed at the landfills but its collection is still primitive, with waste dumps left on roadside and rag pickers at work from morning. The gap between money spent and visible improvement strongly suggests corruption at all levels.

The aam aadmi government at the Centre never tires of increasing spend on social services but the bulk of it mysteriously disappears along the way. Education claims its largest share (4.63 per cent in 2011-12). The government takes credit for Right to Education (RTE), the law that makes primary education available to all, but, despite it, the drop-out rates within the primary range is rising in a third of the states. The state doesn’t seem to know why kids are leaving schools. Besides, some key literacy figures are so horrible that one cannot but lose hope for improvement in one generation. For example, literacy rate for women in the 15 to 24 age group, consisting of those who are mothers or will be soon, is still 76 per cent, which is way below the average 87 per cent of lower and middle income countries (LMIC).

The entry of private sector in education, which was once hoped to be a panacea, has been a disaster, best illustrated in popular novelist Chetan Bhagat’s Revolution 2020
. The private colleges are degree supermarkets admitting even the dullest of students as long as the parents are ready to pay a fortune. It has greatly devalued the country’s reputation as a repository of young talents. Already three-quarters of India’s 4,00,000 annual technology graduates and 90 per cent of the 2.5 million general college graduates are out of jobs. Employers say it is not just because there are not enough jobs, but also due to an appalling lack of skill.

India’s inability to cross the milestones of social progress, despite impressive state spending, is showing in every sector. Health has a respectable share of 2.10 per cent of union government expenditure, in addition to what the state governments allocate. But the results are pitiably low. With 60 per thousand under-five child mortality, India falls much below Bangladesh, not to speak of China. India’s life expectancy at birth of 65 years is lower than the average 67 years of the LMIC figure.

The more India screams that it has an 'inclusive' model of development, and pushes its treasury to the edge of bankruptcy by spending on the social sectors, the more its social backwardness becomes visible. Of the 15 per cent of people in the world who defecate under the sky, 60 per cent are Indians. Everything has a political explanation, it seems. Was it more in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime? Is the number going down after the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)?

Does it matter? Certainly not. What matters is that somebody should fix the problem now. If the government can’t do it, it will forever be haunted by the suspicion that its development programmes are a sham, and the JNNURM, MGNREGA, RTE, Total Sanitation Campaign etc., are a vast swindle to enrich an army of contractors and their political and bureaucratic masters.
Sumit Mitra

Sumit Mitra

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