When Rahul Gandhi speaks in public, he speaks with a schoolboyish glee that is the exact opposite of gravitas. And, it was in this smug, gleeful way last week that he announced his new scheme that he promised would be the final assault on Indian poverty. He declared that if the Congress is voted to power, every ‘poor’ Indian will get Rs 72,000 a year ‘delivered straight into his bank account’. If Narendra Modi can give rich people money, he clarified, then a Congress government could give money to the poor.
His explanation of the Nyuntam Aay Yojana (NYAY) was muddled so it was left to his managers to explain later that 50 million Indian families in the poorest 20 per cent of India’s population would get Rs 6,000 monthly. Taxpayers will pay Rs 3.6 lakh crore extra to support this scheme that some describe as ‘Gareebi Hatao 2.0’. Rahul’s grandmother launched the first version of this scheme in 1971 and won a spectacular victory in the general election that year.
Congress spokesmen have gone to great lengths to explain that experts and renowned economists were consulted before it was agreed that the poorest Indians were those who live on Rs 6,000 a month. So helping them with another Rs 6,000 would lift them out of poverty.
This confirmed what I already believe. The ‘experts’ and ‘renowned economists’ who draw up schemes of this kind are people who have never met a poor Indian in their lives. If they had, they would have discovered long ago that the reason why schemes like this have failed to lift people out of poverty is because poverty in India is caused by complex factors. In rural India its main cause is caste. And, for those who do not believe this, may I recommend a book called Joothan by Omprakash Valmiki. This Dalit writer has explained in heartbreaking detail his struggle to escape the degradation of his Dalit fate by trying to get an education. But, in the village school, the upper caste teachers tried to keep him away from learning to read and write by forcing him to sweep the schoolyard daily.
Dalit children face this awful reality every time they try, like Omprakash did, to break the caste boundaries that confine them to poverty and humiliation. Sadly, one of the failures of Narendra Modi’s tenure has been that he did not order his chief ministers to make primary schools more inclusive. The best rural schools in any case offer abysmal standards of learning and there has been no ‘parivartan’ here either.
In urban India, caste is not the main reason why millions remain in poverty, but illiteracy certainly is. As is the inability to find a roof for shelter. Not one Indian city or town has built sufficient low-income housing. In the street in which I live in Mumbai also live many ‘pavement-dwellers’, some whom I have known since they were children. One of them, Roopa, has managed to get a job as a night attendant in a public toilet. She gets paid Rs 8,000 a month but faces the daily harassment of municipal officials who take her daughters into government care because they sleep on the pavement.
In my efforts to help Roopa and her sister Surekha, I sent their brothers and husbands to driving school. They learned how to drive but nobody would hire them because they were of no fixed address. So they survive by parking rich people’s cars, selling flowers at traffic lights and doing sundry menial jobs whereby they earn between Rs 100 and Rs 200 a day. Their ultimate dream is to rent a hovel in one of Mumbai’s many slums, but they cannot afford even this so they are forced to live on pavements. Their biggest enemy is the pitiless Indian State. They live in constant terror of police and municipal officials who treat them with contempt and brutality.
If Rahul Gandhi believes his NYAY is going to make a difference, he is wrong. Modi was on the right track when he mocked MNREGA and schemes like it, but sadly he got frightened into following the Congress path because his advisors warned him that once an anti-poverty scheme comes into existence, it cannot be done away with. Proof that these huge schemes always fail is that other grand scheme devised by Rahul’s Mummy, the food security programme. If it had worked, would every other Indian child be officially suffering from malnutrition?
The only period in which millions of Indians were lifted out of poverty and into the middle classes was in that brief period when the licence raj ended and millions of new jobs got created by private enterprise. What India needs is more private enterprise so that there can be real prosperity one day. What we do not need is more statism and more schemes like NYAY.
This column appeared in print under the title ‘Not another NYAY’