x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Wooing the poor

Ahead of elections next year, Indian politicians are putting poverty high on the agenda, but critics say they are more interested in securing votes than tackling hunger, writes Hasan Suroor

Sonia Gandhi, the head of India’s ruling Congress party, shakes hands with well-wishers. In a country with so many poor, no election can be won without their support. Ajit Solanki / AP Photo
Sonia Gandhi, the head of India’s ruling Congress party, shakes hands with well-wishers. In a country with so many poor, no election can be won without their support. Ajit Solanki / AP Photo

Indians of a certain age may be forgiven for feeling they are witnessing a slow-motion replay of history as political parties gear up to woo the poor in an election year. The ruling Congress party has just launched an ambitious US$22 billion (Dh80bn) food security programme to feed the “poorest of the poor”, sparking a bitter political row over the party’s motives and the cost of the scheme at a time of deep economic crisis.

It is all so reminiscent of the controversy over the late prime minister Indira Gandhi’s much-touted garibi hatao (abolish poverty) programme on the back of which the Congress won a spectacular victory in the 1971 general election. But the programme soon petered out because of a lack of political will to sustain it, and systemic corruption and inefficiency. The ensuing public backlash paved the way for a nationwide movement for “total revolution”, led by the socialist activist Jayaprakash Narayan. The Congress never recovered from the setback to its historical claim to be the party of the poor.

Forty-two years later, Indira Gandhi’s daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi, who now leads the Congress, is attempting to repair the party’s damaged image and regain the trust of the poor with her own version of garibi hatao. Since the Congress returned to power in 2004 at the head of a coalition of broadly centre-left parties – the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) – it has embarked on a social justice agenda that is sharply focused on the country’s poorest, a segment of society estimated to be in the region of 400 million people, a third of India’s total population. Opinion is divided over whether a slew of poverty-alleviation schemes introduced by the government would actually benefit the poor with critics, mostly on the right, dismissing them as populist and expensive vote-gathering gimmicks: a product of the so-called “Sonia-nomics” driven by short-term political gains.

Nothing in India gets quite as politicised as poverty. There is a joke that India’s ruling class not only loves the poor, but wants them to remain poor. For there are votes to be had, and money to be made from exploiting them. Given the enormous size of India’s poor population, no party can ever win an election without its support; and such is the scale of corruption that every publicly funded project is a potential money-spinner for corrupt politicians, bureaucrats and contractors.

The late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, son of Indira Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi’s husband, famously admitted that for every rupee the government spent on anti-poverty programmes, only 20 paise (two tenths of a rupee) reached the poor.

This, then, is the scale of the challenge, and the backdrop to the current debate around the government’s social justice agenda. The UPA claims that its policies are qualitatively different from previous welfare reforms in that, for the first time, people’s right to employment, food, security and education are being guaranteed by putting them on the statute. They can sue the government if their rights are breached.

A sudden burst of “initiatives” means that the country is awash with schemes designed to “empower” the most socially and economically disadvantaged sections. These have Sonia Gandhi’s personal backing because she is keen for the Congress to reach out to its traditional support base: the poor, religious minorities, especially Muslims, and low-caste Hindus.

By far the most successful of the new initiatives has been the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA). Claimed to be the largest cash-for-work programme in the world, it promises 100 days of work a year to at least one adult in every rural household at a predetermined minimum wage rate with at least 50 per cent of the work reserved for women. According to government figures, 160 million people had benefited from the scheme, which was launched in 2006/2007, by 2011.

Buoyed by MNREGA’s success, the government has hiked the minimum wage by 17 per cent, expanded the categories of work in which people can be employed, and plans to integrate it with other development schemes.

“MNREGA has brought momentum in the financial inclusion of our rural population. Besides direct financial benefit, the scheme has given many indirect benefits to the people and brought down the migration graph,” said Manmohan Singh, the prime minister.

It has even won rare praise from the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader L K Advani.

However, thanks to political posturing ahead of next year’s elections, it is the food security scheme that has come to define the government’s anti-poverty drive. For all the official hype (it is billed as the world’s largest programme of its kind), it is not a wholly new idea. It supplements the existing nationwide public distribution system through which essential commodities such as rice, wheat, sugar and cooking oil are sold to the poor at highly subsidised prices.

What is new is its ambitious reach and the fact that for the first time it imposes an obligation on the state to make sure that the “poorest of the poor do not go to bed hungry”, according to Sonia Gandhi.

“Nothing of this kind has been attempted before in this country,” said the Congress party spokesman Abhishek Singhvi.

Some 800 million people (67 per cent of the population) will be eligible to buy five kilograms of rice a month for three rupees a kilogram, wheat for two rupees a kilogram, and cereals for one rupee a kilogram. It also provides pregnant women, lactating mothers and children up to age 14 with free meals.

Critics say the scheme is ill-timed, given the state of the economy; puts an intolerable burden on an already stretched and inefficient public distribution system; promotes a “culture of entitlement”; and is aimed at securing votes.

Even many of its supporters fear that its benefits may not reach those who need them most because of the corruption in the system, as the bill does not plug loopholes that allow those who administer the public distribution system (mostly local shopkeepers licensed to distribute subsidised items) to divert stocks to the open market. Experts claim that the poor would benefit more if they were given cash instead of cereals. They could then buy things like eggs, milk and fruit which, they say, are better sources of nutrition than cereals. With nearly half of the country’s children malnourished, it is a problem that urgently needs to be addressed. According to Unicef, one in three malnourished children worldwide live in India.

Another measure that has generated controversy seeks to provide “justice” to small farmers by regulating acquisition of their land by private developers. The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill provides stringent safeguards against “arbitrary and indiscriminate” acquisition. Farmers will be paid up to four times the market value for land acquired in rural areas, and two times the market value in urban areas.

The bill replaces a colonial-era law that allowed companies to acquire agricultural land without paying fair compensation, leading to protests and litigation. The government argues that it is simply replacing an “outdated” bill and redressing a “historical injustice”, but critics claim it is “anti-growth”, will hamper industrialisation and push up land prices.

It is the second major farmer-friendly measure after a one-off loan-waiver scheme under which government loans owed by thousands of indigent farmers were written off. It was hailed as a potential lifesaver at a time when there was a wave of farmer suicides after a bad crop.

“Empowerment” of women, especially rural women, is a big plank of the UPA’s social justice agenda. Experts have been particularly impressed by the Rajiv Gandhi Scheme for Empowerment of Adolescent Girls, which helps girls in the 11-18 age group access public services such as health care, education and vocational training.

The government is also credited with investing in the improvement of long-neglected public services in rural areas and building infrastructure to connect villages to towns and cities.

Critics are right to accuse the government of over-egging its achievements. But the UPA’s record must be judged against that of its predecessor – the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance – whose six-year rule was marked by a complete disregard for the poor. The NDA government’s priority was opening up the economy in the name of “globalisation”. No doubt, the economy boomed but the poor did not benefit. The gap between the rich and the poor widened and millions of Indians felt excluded from the country’s much-vaunted economic boom. No wonder, its “India Shining” slogan in the run up to the 2004 elections was met with scorn by angry voters to whom the claim sounded like an insult.

The UPA came to power promising social justice for the aam admi (common man). Nine years later, poverty is still widespread and the gap between the rich and the poor remains embarrassingly wide, but at least the government is seen to be trying to do something about it, even if its approach is often flawed and politically driven.

The fact that garibi hatao is back on the national agenda at all after the poor were virtually written out of the “India story” is to be welcomed. That’s the reality of modern India.

Hasan Suroor is a London-based Indian journalist.