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.
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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