First, allow me to mention a milestone in the life of this column. The Fifth Column began its existence in September 1987, so it has just turned 30. I consider this an achievement because when I first started writing it, I was advised by male colleagues to stop bringing ‘human interest type stories’ into a political column. A political column should be just about politics, they said, so if you want it to survive then you should stick to political analysis. In the Eighties, there were almost no political columns written by women, so they felt entitled to guide me. But, I did not listen to them.
Today, I believe that this column has survived this long because I raise issues in it from time to time that go beyond the narrow definitions of political column-writing. With that preface, let me say that this week I am going to ignore the bickering and backbiting that Yashwant Sinha’s article in this newspaper caused and write about something I consider to be of much more lasting importance. That is the Modi government’s inexplicable failure to rectify the mistakes of Nehruvian socialism.
These are mostly in the social sector and it is because of them that millions of Indians continue to live in extreme poverty. When economists talk of reform, they usually mean only economic reforms that would make it easier to do business in India. But, there are other reforms that in my humble opinion are equally important. Reforms in public education, healthcare and in welfare programmes that affect our poorest and most vulnerable citizens. Government institutions in charge of these things remain hopeless.
In today’s column, I want to draw attention specifically to the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) in Mumbai where I spent a morning last week in the hope of getting permission to place two street children in a private children’s home run by a Parsi trust. Without the assent of the CWC, this is impossible, and it was denied because of an obdurate official who refused even to accept the application I wrote on behalf of the children’s mother. She must write it herself, he said, even when I pointed out that she was illiterate. And, he insisted on proof of residence despite my pointing out that the family lived on a pavement. The children need help and shelter urgently because they are regularly arrested for vagrancy and then locked up in a home attached to the CWC court that makes the word Dickensian sound insufficient. Conditions in it are worse than on the pavements of Mumbai.
There is a BJP government in Maharashtra, so why has there been no ‘parivartan’ in the attitude of CWC officials or in conditions in their children’s home? There are BJP governments now in most of our big states, so why do we not see better State schools, hospitals and welfare homes? Why do we not see serious efforts to rectify bad laws and policies made by the Sonia-Manmohan government that, on the pretence of giving people ‘rights-based governance’, actually absolved the State of its most fundamental responsibilities? Why is so useless a law as the Right to Education still with us? Why are the vast resources invested annually in MGNREGA not being spent on creating real jobs? Why are such simple solutions to urban poverty as soup kitchens and homeless shelters not even being discussed?
If there were one BJP chief minister who veered away from the Congress model of governance and invested in those areas in which there has been criminal negligence for the past 70 years, his state would today be a shining symbol of hope. And, in 2019, the Prime Minister would probably be assured of a full mandate on the basis of just this. So why is he not whipping his chief ministers into shape? At the BJP national executive meeting last week there were verbose, sycophantic resolutions praising the Prime Minister for demonetisation and GST, but not one resolution praising a chief minister?
It is not just a failure of governance that we have seen in BJP chief ministers, but an inexcusable failure of imagination. Is it any wonder then that India continues to trundle along in much the same way that it did in Nehruvian socialist times? The Prime Minister has shown with the Swachh Bharat programme that he can make change happen very fast when he wants to. I have personally seen villages where, to use V S Naipaul’s cruel words, Indians no longer ‘defecate everywhere’.
All he needs to do is force his chief ministers to concentrate their energies on improving governance in the social sector. Let them expend at least as much energy on this as they have done on saving cows, and we could see the Prime Minister’s dream of a new India materialise sooner than he himself believes.