Commitment phobia

The National Advisory Council (NAC) has the advantage of having Congress president Sonia Gandhi as its chairperson, and its members include eminent social workers like Jean Dreze and Aruna Roy, and one of the top agricultural experts in India, M.S. Swaminathan. Yet, of late, the NAC seems to be losing its clout in influencing major decisions of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s poverty alleviation and rural development programmes.
The government’s recent responses to a good number of important proposals made by the NAC have started fueling the fear that the NAC is turning into just another one of the several councils and committees created by the government whose working the public remains oblivious to. If the NAC continues to be ignored, it will cease to be an important advisory body for the government on several issues, particularly those mentioned in Part IV of the Constitution (Article 36-51). For instance, NAC-I had suggested 15 amendments to the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, but the ministry of home affairs rejected all. Similarly, the rural development ministry rejected the proposal of the NAC to guarantee minimum wage under the Rural Employment Guarantee scheme. As a result, in many parts of the country the wages paid are more than `100 under the Employment Guarantee Act.
The NAC would also not have been pleased with the government’s decision that all NAC recommendations related to the implementation of the Forest Rights Act should first be submitted to the ministries of tribal affairs and environment for review by an inter-ministerial group. Thus, matters affecting the tribals which should have receive immediate attention will now be very much delayed because of the new protocol. Equally disappointing is the decision of the government to reject the recommendations of the NAC to offer subsidised food grains to at least 72 per cent of the population entitled to the benefits of the Right to Food Act. This decision of the government was guided by the Economic Advisory Council (EAC) under the chairmanship of C. Rangarajan. The EAC, another council appointed by the Prime Minister, felt that the NAC’s advice was not practical because of limited grain availability and the huge expenditure of `92,000 crores required for implementing the proposal. The government, hence, decided that subsidised food grains will be available only to those falling below poverty line — i.e. 46 per cent of the population in rural areas and 28 per cent in urban areas.
Judging by the reaction of the government to NAC’s proposals, one wonders how serious the UPA is about alleviating the rigors of poverty and if it is still wedded to the theory that poverty can only be reduced by first increasing the size of the “cake”.
While availability of funds is always an important consideration, it cannot be the sole or even the main consideration in implementing social programmes designed to fight India’s dehumanising poverty.
For six decades we have been pursuing the route of increasing the size of the “cake” first. The size of the “cake” has no doubt increased substantially — in a decade, the wealth per person in India had gone up from $2,000 to $5,000. But what about equity and justice in distribution? Today, about 36 billionaires of India own wealth that amounts to 25 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product. Increase in the income of the poorer sections of the population has been nowhere near the increase of income of the affluent sections. That 77 per cent in the unorganised sector subsist on daily wages of `20 tells its own story of the error in waiting for the “cake” to grow in size.
Most of our political leaders seem to believe that their main job is to win elections. And after they are elected to state legislatures and Parliament, their main concern is to bag ministerial berths. No one seem interested even in making suggestions about how we can solve some of the problems that are threatening the nation’s integrity — Maoists’ insurrections in certain states, the cruelties still being perpetrated on dalits and the denial of basic civic rights to certain classes and communities in several parts of the country.
Political parties at the local level are often scared of losing the support of certain ultra conservative sections of society, some of which still insist on enforcing the decisions of caste panchayats to the point of murdering young people after shameful mock trials. No political leader dares to oppose them.
In all genuine democracies, political leaders at all levels are engaged in constant studies of social problems, particularly in the health and educational fields, and they apply moral force on their government to adopt the right programmes. It is only through the direct involvement and interest of political leaders at all levels that the government of the day will give the desired priority to basic problems like hunger, healthcare and education. In fact, several senior leaders prefer to remain outside the government, in the role of critics, and do what they can in at least creating the required public opinion in favour of more helpful measures.
But in India, no political party seems to have appointed think tanks to consider solutions to the difficult problems of delivery of public health and elementary education in remote villages.
We do not consider it a matter of shame to have in our midst huge numbers of people who cannot have a proper meal before going to sleep and who do not hesitate to commit suicide because of debt or dearth of food. India still ranks 66 on the Global Hunger Index of 88 countries released by the Washington-based International Food Policy and Research Institute. No doubt, India’s hunger rate has fallen by nine points since 1990, but the institute’s report categorically states that “the major threat of hunger is in 33 countries, including India”.

P.C. Alexander is a former governor of Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra

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