Populists always claim that they work for the poor. The cause of the poor was already at the heart of Indira Gandhi’s rhetoric in the 1970s, when in answer to those who were chanting “Indira hatao!”, she came back with the slogan “Garibi hatao!”.
Narendra Modi also seeks to exploit this repertoire. In his first address to the Lok Sabha in 2014, he pledged “to serve the poorest of the poor”. But it was during the course of demonetisation that this rhetoric reached new heights. The speeches he made on the topic during the campaign for the 2017 UP assembly elections reveal his talent for turning the perspective his way, and even reversing roles. He explained that the measure was intended to fight corruption by withdrawing black money from circulation and that the rich would be hit much harder than the poor. In the famous speech he gave on the theme in Moradabad, in the space of 50 minutes, he used the words “poor” and “poverty” dozens of times.
Retrospectively, it is clear that the poor were more affected than the rich by demonetisation. But other decisions had aggravating effects, including those made about the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). Initiated by the UPA government, it was one of the most ambitious programmes to help the rural poor that India has ever known, as the state committed to providing 100 days of work paid at minimum wage for any rural family suffering from chronic underemployment. The amount that the Manmohan Singh government earmarked for the programme represented up to 0.6 per cent of India’s GDP. It provided work to 50 million households and brought 14 millions people out of poverty, not only by giving them an income, but also by revising the minimum wage in rural areas (which rose from 65 rupees per day in 2005 to 162 rupees in 2013). The average annual growth of per capita rural income went from 2.7 per cent between 1999 and 2004 to 9.7 per cent between 2006 and 2011.
Yet Modi considered the programme a disaster. Speaking to Congress MPs in Parliament, he declared, this is “a monument to your failures since Independence. After 60 years, you are still making people dig holes”.
As the budget sessions proceeded, enormous amounts continued to be allocated to the MGNREGA programme, but during the fiscal year, either the funds were not distributed, or drastic cuts were made, reducing the size of the envelope. The Supreme Court was obliged to intervene in May 2016 to compel the government to disburse the funds earmarked for MGNREGA. But local government officials in charge of the programme, grouped by the state into a WhatsApp group, received instructions via the social network not to disburse the funds, with little concern for administrative transparency.
As a result, the number of people who worked 100 days per year fell from 4,70,000 in 2013-14 to 250,000 in 2014-15 and to 1,70,000 in 2015-16. The number of days worked dropped from 230.33 crore in 2012-13, to 221.15 in 2013-2014 and to 166.32 crore in 2014-15. The average number of days worked by a beneficiary in the framework of the programme fell from 46 in 2013-2014 to 39 in 2014-15. It went up to 45 in 2017-18, but fell to 38.5 in 2018-19, a year when the total allocation to MGNREGA rose to a record figure: Rs 61,0184 crore. But all this money was not to be distributed as 15 states had a negative balance of more than Rs 4,000 crore. The situation also worsened because the wages provided in the framework of the MGNREGA fell below the minimum agricultural wage in 28 out of 36 states and UTs, a trend that accelerated after the finance ministry rejected the recommendation of two committees set up by the rural development ministry. Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu are the only exception to this “rule”, and in Gujarat, the gap between the MGNREGA wage (Rs 194) and the minimum agricultural wage (Rs 298) is the largest.
Besides, those who worked had to endure delays in their wage payments. In 2014-2015, only 28 per cent of the beneficiaries were paid 15 days after they had worked, whereas the law stipulated that these people, who live from hand to mouth, should not have to wait longer than that for their money. This proportion came up to 40 per cent after the Supreme Court’s intervention, but fell back to 28 per cent in 2017. The scheme’s decline especially penalised the poor villagers in states declared to be in a situation of natural disaster due to drought. While by law these people were entitled to 150 work days, the clause benefited only 7 per cent of them in 2015-2016, a particularly harsh year during which a third of the country was officially affected by drought. At the same time, the minister of communication and information technology announced a year-end bonus of Rs 14,724 crore for government employees.
The way poor villagers were affected stands in stark contrast to the growing affluence of the rich, in a country that has become one of the most inegalitarian in the world. A 2017 Oxfam report revealed that 10 per cent of the richest Indians garnered 73 per cent of the nation’s wealth and that 58 per cent of it was in the hands of India’s “one per cent” (while the world average is 50 per cent). The earnings made by this handful of people in 2017 was equal to India’s budget for that year. In 2017, the fortune of India’s 100 richest tycoons leaped by 26 per cent. During the same period, India lost ground in terms of malnutrition, according to the ranking established by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), which placed it 100 in a list of 119 countries studied.
In the ongoing election campaign, Narendra Modi has committed himself to fight poverty and declared, in one speech, “Poverty cannot be eradicated as long as the Congress exists”. Rajnath Singh said the same thing in another speech: “I can assure you India will become free of poverty the day it becomes Congress-free”. To describe these kinds of speeches, George Orwell had coined a useful word: Newspeak. The most famous instances of Newspeak in 1984 is, “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” But there is another citation from Orwell that needs to be quoted too: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought”.
This article first appeared in the April 30, 2019 print edition under the title ‘Newspeak on poverty’
(The writer is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris, professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London)