India's poor deserve better
Decades of mismanagement and poor policymaking have finally led India’s poor migrant workers to utter desolation in the face of the current pandemic and lockdown
The oft used cliché: 'there is no such thing as a free lunch', is thrown around a lot by economists, rich corporates, lenders and leaders elected to govern. We are reminded on a daily basis that nothing is free and we must pay for every benefit the State or its instruments deliver. Indeed, even for those due but are not delivered. The people are really a statistical symbol to the state as voters or taxpayers, of human consequence only to their own family and sometimes not even that. Those who are poor and illiterate make do with an existence in the doghouse of our exalted ancient civilization. These are roughly 75 per cent of our 1.3 odd billion people. Bereft of access to regular employment, ever unsure of two meals a day, where even a minor illness is a major misfortune, the poor remain so, voiceless and dependent on humiliating wages for their labour or subsidised rations from a state showing its concern or welfare face. There is a wall, high layer after layer, to be scaled for a chance at the betterment of their lot through education and employment. Scarcity of hope and money are the two constants in their life on this earth. The current lockdown imposed with barely any notice has compounded their misery tenfold and brought their existence to a pause.
'Garibi Hatao' and poverty alleviation are the two standard political slogans of our 70 plus years of post-independence struggles for making a prosperous India. Admittedly, the challenge was a steep one. Rural India was largely undeveloped. Few roads, no schools, no civic infrastructure, next to no irrigation and we could go on and on. In many areas, even the access could take a 20-mile walk through forests to reach a village. Agriculture was limited, being monsoon dependent and seed varieties scarce. Often, crops would be lost to unseasonal rains or just plain droughts. Employment was even more scarce with education and vocation learning lacking, the average villager was unskilled and hence could choose either to till his smallholding or become a labourer for hire on some construction site or a road-building project. And years went by, there was no improvement in sight in the lives of the rural population. Generations lived on the margins and died on the margins as well, unsung, unnoticed and unheard of. Agriculture offered a bare living, land laws and their administration was mired in a maze of bureaucratic labyrinths and the marginal farmer was at the mercy of the middle man to negotiate his title and allied needs from the tehsildar's office. He was also at the mercy of the middlemen to sell his produce in mandis. The result was he was shortchanged at every intersection.
Education and health care access was limited too, if and when available. Rural populations resorted to local quacks and home remedies and in serious ailments, they generally succumbed before they could reach the city hospital. The worst of it was the lack of schools and colleges in their proximity. The schools that were there, lacked basic amenities and the teachers were infrequent in attendance. Social prejudices and local inhibitions prevented the girl child from acquiring any formal education and a vast human resource potential was lost to the country and its economy for a minimum of two generations. We continue with our below-par performance in providing quality education and health care to our rural brethren despite the country's politics being replete with slogans of 'health for all', 'beti padaho, beti bachao' and many more resonating phrases as if to say that hope is around the next corner.
This is not to say that these challenges were easy to surmount. Equally, it would not be correct to say that we were short of ideas. More importantly, it would be far fetched to say that our policymakers, generally men of vision and integrity, failed in providing a direction to our dreams of a prosperous India. But cumulatively there was a failure in implementation due to a gross lack of integrity and timely correctives to policy structures. Despite the centrally directed planning for development, our growth rate had hardly any pace or verve through and up to the beginning of the 90s. The ability of the State to manage its business was overstretched just as much as its inability to enforce equity and fairness to open markets and competition for access by the people. Non-availability of road links to the hinterland, power, water, education and medical care acted as constant barriers for the poor in the rural heartland of the country. Our socialistic governance ensured one outcome: equitable distribution of poverty for 85 per cent of the population. The political economy was centred on alleviation and not on institutional support systems that could generate the needed inputs of capital and know-how at the local level. The village and block level institutions became decrepit as soon as they were set up and good money continued to chase these bad instruments. So 73 years down the line we have a 100 days employment guarantee scheme to help the poor in times of total distress. It is a pittance by any stretch and cannot feed the family of the poor for round the year. Alas, this is the only safety net for them. Rest of the eco-system, from access to opportunity and markets or employment, remains in the unorganised sector. Barring a few states like Kerala, quality education is beyond the means of the poor. Access to justice is remote and expensive and the panchayats dispense favours and justice on a biased basis. All in all, it is but an existence and not a life they yearn for.
A man's instinct is to seek the yonder. The cities began to attract more and more youth from villages all over the country. It was bound to happen as they appeared to offer a better life. With cities holding a mystic attraction for a better future and better wages, people poured in hundreds, then thousands and then hundreds of thousands. Unskilled or semi-skilled men and some womenfolk formed the ubiquitous service sector that cushioned the lifestyles of the city populace. The city could provide employment but our urban planners just forgot to provide any kind of shelter with human dignity for the vital providers of necessities of city life. Not only shelter but other vital civic needs also were not available. As the cities expanded in size, the heartless nature of human life grew. Service given, service paid, period. Humanity went out of the window. The poor found refuge in slums where crime prevailed as much as the uncertainty of tenure and civic amenities. We are guilty, the city managers and the city planners for misreading the economy essential for vibrant cities. Volumes became unmanageable and years of neglect have made our urban environment toxic in every way. Empty promises of political leaders became the bearers of hope of a better day for the slum dwellers. Another set of poverty alleviation agendas became big business for all concerned except the poor. Thus prospered builders, politicians and apathetic city managers.
At a rough count, the service providers, also called migrant labour, or the rural poor who came to seek a livelihood in the city are 100 million-plus of all ages, sexes, skilled and unskilled, house helps of all kinds. These are the people who earned daily and lived daily. For them, the wheels of the economy have to keep moving. They are at the mercy of the employers and touts for their jobs and survival. Their shelter and their jobs have no certainties. In fact, they are temporary. It is little wonder that the spectacle of human misery has indeed unfolded on such a scale due to the shutdown imposed by the spread of COVID-19. The failures of governance have compounded the misery of millions of people who needed to be with their loved ones. The sight of infants, young mothers, expecting mothers, young men leading them home covering hundreds of miles on foot, cycles or crated carts would be and should be an unforgettable sight to millions of us who failed them in this grave hour. All governance collapsed and is out there in the open, hot summer sun.
Governance is an outcome of institutional capability and if we dilute its integrity to seek the response moderated to answer the wishes of the political or bureaucratic desire, they will fail when they are needed most. Civic bodies, village-level leadership, district authorities have collectively fallen short of acting with humanity and leading the people's resilient will to survive against odds. The odds have suddenly grown bigger and as for institutions equipped to handle our crises, we can only say that what is lost in fires, will be found in the ashes. And from these ashes, we will need to restore the vitality of our failed institutions.
The writer is the Director of the India Habitat Centre. Views expressed are personal