Fifth column: A failed legacy

Nearly 70 years of glorious Independence later it is shameful that we are still discussing manual scavenging.

Written by Tavleen Singh | Published:March 30, 2014 1:40 am
Nearly 70 years of glorious Independence later it is shameful that we are still discussing manual scavenging. (PTI) Nearly 70 years of glorious Independence later it is shameful that we are still discussing manual scavenging. (PTI)

Last week, the Supreme Court awarded Rs 10 lakh as compensation to families who lost someone from diseases caused by what is euphemistically called ‘manual scavenging’. This evil practice was banned 20 years ago but more than 7,50,000 Indians, according to the 2011 census, are still forced by extreme poverty to physically (with their bare hands) clean high caste excrement. The Supreme Court has now declared it a crime for municipal officials to send anyone to clean septic tanks without protective gear and ordered the Indian Railways, which employs the largest number of manual scavengers, to come up with a ‘time-bound strategy’ to clean railway tracks in a modern way.

Why do I bring this up in the first paragraph of this week’s column? For the reason that no government since Indira Gandhi’s gareebi hatao days has made more noise about its anti-poverty programmes than the Sonia-Manmohan government has. So why is the Railways still being allowed to exploit the poorest of poor Indians in this sickening way? Could it not, at the very least, have been forced to invest in protective gear for those forced by extreme poverty to perform the filthiest of tasks?

At the risk of blasphemy may I say that had Gandhiji not glorified this evil by very publicly doing it himself, and led a movement for modern sanitation instead, India would have been a different country today. More than half our healthcare problems would not have existed. Nearly 70 years of glorious Independence later it is shameful that we are still discussing manual scavenging, especially after a decade of rule by a government that has supposedly worked only for the poor.

Sonia Gandhi has personally lent her name to programmes like MNREGA and the food security Bill to make it clear that, like her mother-in-law, she is dead keen on abolishing poverty. Now that the election campaign is heating up, not a day goes by without her son and heir Rahul mentioning in his speeches that his Congress believes in working for the poor while the opposition (read the BJP), only works for rich people. He would do well to mention this less because it draws attention to what is probably the biggest failure of the legacy Mummy’s government leaves behind: the shocking malfunction of the anti-poverty programmes on which thousands of crores have been wasted.

Had this not been true, why would 68.7 per cent Indians still be eking out an existence on less than $2 a day? It is my belief, stated as often as possible in this column, that the anti-poverty schemes launched so grandly by Sonia’s National Advisory Council were doomed to fail even before they got off the ground. Had her advisors done some serious research before splurging taxpayers’ money on unwieldy and expensive schemes, they would have found that they had failed in the past. Welfare programmes of this kind have been around since the ’70s and they have failed for exactly the same reason: they leak like sieves. The only people who really benefit are corrupt officials all the way down the line.

So one of the first things that our next prime minister must do is find better ways of purging India of the curse of poverty. Having just wandered about some of the poorest villages in Bihar, may I suggest that free kitchens in villages where extreme poverty exists would be more effective than using an already leaky public distribution system to distribute vast amounts of food grain? May I suggest huge investments in better schools and health services instead of pouring more money down the MNREGA drain? But, that is in the future.

For the moment, let us concentrate on the amount of public money that has been squandered in the past decade in the name of removing poverty. Let us concentrate on asking why, despite so much money having been spent on anti-poverty programmes, there is no indication that poverty has come down in any serious way. These questions are important because until answers are found we can be quite sure that the next government will follow in the same tired footsteps and fail yet again.

Countries much poorer than India have succeeded in winning the war against poverty. So if we continue to fail it must be because we have been chasing the wrong solutions. Or could it be that the real reason why we continue to fail is because our political leaders are really not that serious about finding solutions? My own tendency is always to take the more cynical view, so I am inclined to believe that the whole, vast anti-poverty infrastructure is a sham. If this were not true, the very least that should have happened, under a government so boastfully concerned about the poor, is abolition of manual scavenging on railway tracks.

Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh

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    Anuj Kapoor
    Mar 30, 2014 at 6:42 am
    Dear Ms. Singh , the problem here is not of the last ten years of (non) governance but 50 years of sham that has been repeated Government after Government. Laying blame squarely on the shoulders of mummy would be giving her too much credit. she is only following the policies of the Father in law and her mother in law, Only the scale has changed due to the growth of economy and that too due to the change in policies during the Rao-Vajpayee period when family's influence was at its lowest.
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    Desi dude
    Mar 31, 2014 at 5:28 pm
    Tavleenji there is nothing glorious about India's independence. 70 years of what?? Garibi would have disappeared if our so called netas and their boot lickers would not have looted this nation like no tomorrow. Before Independece we blamed British for looting but our own have looting this nation that it put's shame to USA's debt ceiling. In the past 10 years under Sonia's leadership MMS kept quite to the scams that would top guiness book of records. What do we have to be so proud of??? General public is down trodden by you name it, Justice system, Police, Politicians and their chamchas and their next of kins. Indira got rid of Rajas and Maharajas and instead brought so called CMs who are even worse then those Rajas maharajas looting their aam janta to the point where they are busy lining their pockets and pleasing secularism. NOTHING SO GLORIOUS OF 70 YEARS OF INDEPENDENCE....
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    dfsl10
    Mar 30, 2014 at 9:08 am
    The rotten caste culture is so destructive and oppressive we continue to tolerate manual scavenging so long as it is done by lower caste people. What Supreme Court should be doing is to demand the system a time bound plan of action to irradiate this century old deable act and punish the officials for failure to achieve the policy outcome and targets. But the question is do the officials and politicians have the will and commitment to clean up this terrible practice. May be Indian will wake up when this practice get international publicity and discussed in UN Human Rights forum.
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    Fatima
    Apr 1, 2014 at 1:30 pm
    Agreed, and also one must remember that in 66 years of India's independence, BJP was in power only for 5 years. So the blame for the failure of 'gareebi hatao' should be proportional to that.
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    Shahbaz Khan
    Mar 30, 2014 at 7:05 am
    poverty reduced from 37.6 to 21.9 percent between 2004-05 to 2012.It declined from 45.3 to 37.6 between 1992-93 to 2004UPA bashing is the bread and butter for many a journalist nowadays. However highly recommended that next time when they bish about money wasted on poverty reduction they backup with data.Otherwise a pretty good article raising relevant points about manual scavenging
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    Shiva
    Mar 30, 2014 at 2:01 pm
    How genuine are these figures? Almost 70% Indians still leave for less than USD 2 per day, the internationally accepted poverty level.
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