On a footpath in Mumbai live two little girls called Rekha and Deepa. They are aged seven and six. I know them because I have known their mother Mangala since she was a little girl. Mangala has spent her whole life eking out an existence on the streets of this metropolis and is determined that her daughters not suffer the hunger and deprivation she did. So she asked if I could help. This is what I have been trying to do for the past 10 days, and have found myself in the usual Kafkaesque nightmare that unfolds every time Indian officialdom is involved.
It is not possible to put street children in a private shelter without the permission of a Child Welfare Committee (CWC), and the officials that control this body know well how to make life hell for those who dare to seek their help. So I have spent long days running from one official to the next, writing letters and making phone calls to officials who refuse to take my calls. It was like hitting my head against a concrete wall, and all I sought was permission to help two very needy little girls.
My experience came as a harsh reminder that ‘parivartan’ has not begun to happen in officialdom despite Narendra Modi’s promise of ‘minimum government and maximum governance’. As someone who travelled widely during the 2014 election campaign, I can say with certainty that it was this promise that won Modi a full majority. Wherever I went, I met people who said they were fed up with electing people who paid no attention to their legitimate demands once they got elected. So instead of trying to conquer more states through non-electoral means, the Prime Minister would be well advised to find out why states already run by BJP chief ministers have failed to provide a new model of governance.
Huge tracts of rural Maharashtra have been in the throes of a horrible drought for many months. There should by now have been a massive relief programme in place that involved alternative means to provide water and food to needy farmers and their cattle. This has not happened. Nor are there any signs of the urgency that the situation demands. This is just one example of how little has changed in areas where real change has been needed for decades.
The Congress party’s biggest failures in its long history of ruling our ancient land have been in the areas of human development. Like the colonials who ruled before them, they never considered it important to provide us natives with such things as decent schools, hospitals or even just clean water. They knew that neither they nor their children would need to use the lousy public services they built, and that the natives were mostly too illiterate and too poor to protest.
This has changed dramatically with the rise of the Indian middle classes, and it was these middle classes who helped give Modi the first full majority in 30 years. As someone who has covered many, many elections, I can report that it was in the 2014 general election that I saw larger numbers of impatient, aspirational and educated voters than ever before. These are not people who are prepared to put up with colonial governance.
This should be more than obvious to BJP chief ministers, but somehow they appear not to have noticed. So instead of whipping their officials into shape and instead of improving basic public services, they have wasted time on whipping up hysteria over beef and Bharat Mata.
The person who will pay heavily for this is the Prime Minister because the faith and hope that his speeches inspired in 2014 is sadly fading, and we approach only the second anniversary of his government.
If he wants to win again in 2019, he would do well to call his chief ministers to Delhi and ask them some really tough questions. How much have schools improved? How much has malnourishment in children come down? How have water resources improved? What have they done to make ordinary people believe that something is really being done to improve their miserable lives?
Instead of cyber babble about e-governance, can we just make it easier for little girls like Rekha and Deepa to come across officials who show basic humanity? Till the time that I write this, I have not been able to get that letter from the CWC. When and if I do, I will be able to put them in the BJ Home run by a Parsi trust that gives Mumbai’s neediest children a chance to regain the simple joys of childhood and a chance to transform their lives. Two girls I rescued five years ago have grown into talented, educated young ladies. This is what Mangala wants for her girls.