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Welfare haves and have-nots

The government seems determined to create a de-industrialised moonscape across India

Written by Jaithirth Rao | Published: September 9, 2013 12:39:38 am

The government seems determined to create a de-industrialised moonscape across India

We have seen a spate of rights-based welfare schemes being started by our omniscient and honourable Sultanate in Delhi. I am sure I am getting the names of our new laws wrong. But,what’s in a name? Right to Poor Quality Education Act,Right to Carbohydrates Act,Right to Village Control over Forests and Mines Act are doubtless “welfare-inducive”. Those of us who live far away from Delhi may lament that these laws will destroy our society. This may not happen in two or three years. But over 20 or 50 years,clientelist societies get there.

In the old BBC miniseries Smiley’s People,there is a scene in a de-industrialised landscape in Europe where a bunch of punk welfare recipients live. They are surly and aggressive and indulge in gratuitous violence,breaking up visitors’ cars and cannibalising. In V.S. Naipaul’s Magic Seeds,in his spare,unemotional style,he weaves the narrative of poorly educated single women in Britain responding to the perverse incentive provided by the state to keep having more children out of wedlock,children who in turn will be badly educated. When such welfare programmes were started,they were definitely well intentioned. But over time,they corrode the moral basis of society. Obviously,we need to help single mothers who are poor. But if we do it as a programme,we run the risk of the horror show that Naipaul presents.

I had a dream — possibly a nightmare — of India in 30 years. Half the population live in towns/ cities,are educated and work. The other half live in villages,are not educated,do not work — they live off welfare and subsidies. An internal visa system prohibits villagers from entering towns and cities. We tell them that they are being paid so that they do not get violent or revolt. When city dwellers visit villages as part of quaint tourism,they are accompanied by security forces. Our internal security budget,a prerequisite for ensuring that the poor remain where they are,consumes increasing amounts of money. Finally,everything falls apart.

Our stupidity is entirely self-inflicted. Our state thinks of the poor as objects of charity,as if they have no agency of their own. In the latest government suggestions,they plan to use assets and other criteria to define who is below the poverty line (BPL). Two suggestions are in play. One,those who have toilets inside their homes will not be classified as BPL and hence will not get support under several welfare schemes. What do you think that does to the decision-making process of a poor family just about to build an internal toilet? Two,a family where any individual has a permanent account number with income tax authorities will be classified as non-BPL. What does this do to some family members who desire to earn more legitimately and become taxpayers? But their desires and aspirations as individuals do not count. They just belong to that amorphous mass of BPL families whom we fear.

We are shutting down mines and our few factories,convinced that these actions are pro-poor. We de-industrialise Coimbatore and Ludhiana,by forcing 16-18 hour power cuts on them,even before we have successful industrialisation. Incidentally,while by no means the only one,power-cuts were a significant factor in de-industrialising West Bengal. Some 20 years ago,I had gone to pay a visit to Mr Dugar,who was my company’s landlord in Kolkata. After several generations of Dugars doing business in difficult terrains in Assam,he was busy selling his tea gardens in Assam and buying some in Munnar. I congratulated him on the improvement of the power situation in Kolkata. “Dugar saab,ab to power cuts ka problem chala gaya hai,aapke Kalkatte mein.” He actually started crying.

“Rao saab,aisa mat kahiye. Kalkatte key sab kaarkhaane band ho gaye hain. Isi liye power ka problem kum ho gaya hai. Yeh koi tareeka hai power cut ki samasya ko solve karne ka? Yeh to bahut hee bura hua hai.” As you look at the chunks of land all around Kolkata,Howrah,Sealdah,Garden Reach,where factories are shut,the equipment is rusting,grass is growing in areas that were earlier paved,one begins to understand Dugar. In the coming years,get prepared to see these sights in other parts of the country too. There is a saying: What Bengal thinks/ does today,the rest of India thinks/ does tomorrow. We are determined to create a de-industrialised moonscape across India. All of India in 2035 could,and probably will,look like Bengal does today.

The writer is a Mumbai-based entrepreneur

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