Blessed be the Poor

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Author's Note: This  story draws directly upon my experience of investigating the targeted Public Distribution programme in Bihar between 1996- 2002. The cost of lost opportunity to the poor in this grievously miscarried programme may have been to the tune of Rs. 3,500 to 4,000 crores. Midway the government divested me of the investigation and handed it over to the Vigilance. Not much has been heard of it since then. A thumbnail version of a larger project - the parable of the well paid public servant - implementation of poverty alleviation programmes in Bihar. The wise Mr Dang has a counterpart in real life as indeed any one who cares to read my post The Poor Must Prevail.

 

Blessed be the Poor

The poor who failed to enter the Kingdom of God ended up in the Republic of Banana, which is perhaps just as well, because the camels that had got past the eye of a needle also, unaccountably, landed in this same Republic.

I make haste to add that this is by no means being cited as a double refutation of any religious text. A brief explanation as to how this state of things came to pass is, therefore, necessary. The camels getting past the eye of a needle has never been historically ascertained, but a very assiduous and devoted priest carried out his research into this strange coincidence. For his efforts, he received his Doctor of Divinity degree from the University of Belsund.

He was interviewed for the popular channel As It Happened.

Interviewer: Dr Blunderbuss, welcome to our popular programme "Celebrities".

Dr. Blunderbuss: Thanks very much.

Interviewer: Could you tell us something about your area of research and the findings?

Dr. Blunderbuss: In the seventh century b. p (Before the Year of the Poor) (Corresponding to 3rd century b.c) the Republic of Banana exported great quantities of spiritual wisdom to neighbouring countries as aid and charity. So, despite being the market leaders in spiritual property, the Republic was in huge deficit of forex. My research has shown that it is during this period that all these straying camels landed up in the Republic of Banana. The Republic was flush with spiritual assets but little material wealth. So, any addition to its material resources was welcome, but never openly acknowledged. In this land, the slaughter of animals was forbidden, even though it made no economic sense. So, some clever entrepreneurs took to the smuggling of these plentiful straying camels across to the neighbouring republic and made fast bucks from the profitable, but clandestine, trade in raw hides. It appears that the strict scrutiny at the various check posts that the republic had established to prohibit this contraband trade was spoken of, metaphorically, as the eye of the needle.

Interviewer: But getting past the needle of the eye refers to the exiting camels. Does not that present a discrepancy in the narration, Dr. Blunderbuss?

Dr. Blunderbuss: Exactly, but over a long period of time such extrapolations and temporal mix-ups do occur. Eminent historians have encountered such difficulty in the account of the rise of Minoan civilization and the dating of the events of the time of the Sumerian Kings. The cultural anthropologists and the experts at hermeneutics also throw their weight behind this thesis of the "exiting camels."

Interviewer: So this simple flaw in the linearity of the narration does not affect the basic thesis?

Dr. Blunderbuss: Absolutely not. This is how the Republic of Banana came to have, broadly speaking, only two categories of people. Those who had defied the Biblical injunction indulged in contraband trade and other illegal activities and become rich. They became the ruling class. Those who had taken the Biblical road map seriously and had abstained from theft remained poor and provided the ruling class with endless scope for working for the welfare of the poor.

Interviewer: Thanks very much Dr. Blunderbuss, for your very informative and convincing exposition. Hope to have you with us on some other occasion.

The rulers of the banana republic knew that it was the poor who would ultimately inherit the earth. The Directive Principle of the Constitution of the Republic enshrined as its goal the determination to create conditions for the poor to multiply by leaps and bounds. A beatific smile spreading across the face of a poor man dreaming of bread was embossed at the centre of the impressive national emblem.

Professor Lal Singh, Director of the National Art Gallery, was paid an honorarium of One Billion Rupees for this inspirational motif. The banana republic, it may be added, had got rid of the out-dated Christian calendar, Vikrami Samvat, Gregorian and Julian calendars. The year in which it made the first survey to locate the poor was designated as Year 1. In all official business it was obligatory to mention in the year of the poor i.e. "y.p."

The census of people living below the poverty line, in fact, was a very happy, even pious pastime, which was undertaken from time to time. The economists and the planners engaged with the ferocity of the great ecclesiastical debates of the middle ages on what constitutes poverty, who was poor, and whether there was a failsafe method to recognize the poor when one actually encountered one.

So when in the Y.P.2060 the Republic decided to have a fresh survey, it was not an easy task to choose the right man - someone who was practical and not dogmatic, had no-nonsense approach and could deliver results. The President retired to his chamber, put on his thinking cap, smoked long and hard from his favourite pipe. After days of waiting, he finally said "Let Mr. Dang conduct this survey. He is the most responsible and the wisest of all the civil servants."

Many who were opposed to Mr. Dang on account of professional rivalry, and many more who were jealous of his go-getter image, raised several objections, but the president was curt and dismissive.  "Mr. Dang has been nominated, and Mr. Dang it shall be".

So this onerous task fell to the lot of Mr. Dang.

Mr. Dang, it must be said, had many sterling qualities and had distinguished himself in many a critical assignment. He was a conjuror of sorts. Admittedly, he could not produce a rabbit out of hat, but surely he, and only he, could make a budget for Rs. 8000 Crores, with virtually nothing in the kitty. He would often add nothing to nothing and produce something. Some of his uncharitable critics attributed this to the fact that he was arithmetically challenged. But there were a large number of people who could vouch that he was a mathematical genius. However, the fact that he had occupied all the key positions in the government and gone on to head the civil service gave lie to the claims of his detractors. The government could err once, even perhaps twice, but could it err all the time?

Mr. Dang, meanwhile, took up the most challenging assignment of his life time with his characteristic verve and enthusiasm. He declared that he would very soon announce the methodology and all that. Saying so, he went into a long hibernation. Insiders say that he locked himself up in a room with all the available literature on the subject, an abacus, and thousands of marbles.

He burned the midnight oil struggling with calorific values and genie co-efficient, grappled with exclusion and inclusion criterion. He started off by making bunches of six; one bunch designated a poor family of six. He made a few bunches of seven marbles to account for the decimal in the average family size of 6.28. By the time he had got to seven families he discovered that 7 bunches of 6 each, and 6 bunches of 7 each added up to the same number. How can 7x6 be same as 6x7?

Mr. Dang spent reams of paper in lengthy calculation but he could not come up with a suitable formula to account for this anomaly and just when he was about to give up, a beautiful and failsafe method of identifying the poor was born out of his despair.

He decreed that a long rope-earlier used as a clothes line - be strung at a particular height. Those who could walk under the line in an upright position without touching the rope would be designated as living below the poverty line.

This method was found to be the most objective, safe and impartial. It was an instant hit with the bureaucracy because, apart from saving them from back breaking paperwork, it was also flexible, and what better incentive to keep the bureaucratic brotherhood together than the occasion of fiddling with flexible rules.

The task of identifying the poor was going on at a brisk pace. The bureaucracy could lower the rope or let them crouch, as and when it suited them. This came to be known as the bureaucratic rope-trick. It consisted in raising the rope suitably to let those people crossover who otherwise would not have but for the fact that they had ingratiated the rope man. It could be lowered to stop those who did not find favour. It was an act doubly blessed and the offerings meant for the poor were split equally between the performers and the participants of the rope trick.

The list of the poor was ready in record time and the Republic of Banana went into an overdrive to provide them with various benefits. Mr. Dang was not lacking in fame, earned by such popular innovative schemes in his earlier assignment. But this was his crowning glory and earned him accolades from his peers and common people alike.

The banana republic launched a massive programme of housing the poor. In a given timeframe, the President decreed, each one of them must have a roof over his head. It appears one of the district officers took his statement quite literally, and built roofs without walls and was quite surprised to see that they came crashing over the heads of the poor dwellers. Even while the government was grappling with this tragedy where in about 400 poor people had died, Mr. Dang received the following communication from the D.M. of a far-flung district.

Sir,

We have found that the programme to provide decent housing to the poor has run into some difficulty. Seventy thousand houses built in the last three months have not been occupied by them. They say that these are no good because they provide shelter neither from the sun nor rain from above. Many of them in fact most of them save one claimed that they could not even see them. It is worthwhile to mention here that we had constructed these houses with utmost care and used the most durable material available. But it appears that because of some as yet undiagnosed ocular infection or mass delusion the poor have refused to occupy these houses. The government may like to get this matter investigated by an expert committee.

Yours faithfully etc…

The great discrepancy between the two views of reality was proving to be very intractable. In view of the great urgency and extreme sensitivity of the matter a full-fledged multi-disciplinary research project, with a budgetary provision of Five Billion Rupees, was commissioned at the National Physical Laboratory, to which experts in optics and ophthalmology, economists and ethnographers, psychologists and psychiatrists, entomologists and even ventriloquists, faith-healers and shamans were appointed.

That was in the year 2064Y.P.In the year 2069 Y. P. it was announced that the findings were due any time, but as the final touches were being given to the report it was discovered that some of the data was fake, some out-dated, and some based on erroneous assumptions. The committee was reconstituted with even wider terms of reference. Optimistic estimates suggest that it won’t take more than a few years now for the experts to submit their report.

Meanwhile Mr. Dang himself chose to inquire into the death of the poor people in the house collapse accident. He made a local inspection; spoke to the relatives and the survivors; wondered aloud how and why they had survived. Photographs were taken, the whole scene of occurrence was videotaped and Mr. Dang flew back to the capital. In his report he held the speech writer of the president squarely guilty of the mishap. He recommended his immediate dismissal and launching of a criminal prosecution for the murder of 400 innocent poor. It was he who had put that bit about "roof over the head of every poor family", in the speech of the President which had led to the misunderstanding leading to the accident.

As to the district officer, he commended him for his financial prudence and acumen-"if at all", the report said, "Someone can be commended in such unhappy circumstances, regrettable though the incident is, the District Officer managed to save Rs. 699, 99, 99,600.00 of the taxpayers’ money. The following is the detailed break up.

By merely building the roof the officer had saved Rs. 700 Crores. Subtract the figure of 400 the number of lives lost from the money thus saved and you arrive at the figure quoted above."

The report was placed in all the public fora where the matter had been agitated. The President of the Republic himself congratulated Mr. Dang for his sagacity, his judgment and above all his great compassion for the poor. It was decided to present the budget to the people at large in a rally, which should be known as the mother of all rallies. To showcase the activities of a compassionate, caring Republic, the administration took out massive advertisements, published souvenirs and sponsored sporting events.

The administration conveyed the poor to the central park in their full regalia of tattered clothes. Great feasts and cultural events were staged in their honour. Every district of the Republic, to showcase its achievements, took out expensive advertisements in newspapers and other media. The World Bank sent observers to independently assess the numbers, because there were complaints that some of the republics were deliberately inflating the numbers to earn some brownie points. Mr. Dang got to put a maddening chorus of applause to enlighten those assembled there about the efforts made by government. The report on the measures taken for the welfare of the poor was read out of the total budget amount of Rs. 50 billion, Rs. 49.995 billon were spent on designing a suitable emblem, hoardings, and other publicity materials. The organization of rallies and commemorative souvenirs, holding of enquiries etc. publicizing the scheme and educating the journalists were the other significant items of expenditure.

The rest was spent for the benefit of the poor. The huge congregation went into raptures as shouts of "long live Mr. Dang", rent the sky making God himself feel a little uncertain whether his oversight in booking the poor for a wrong destination wasn’t better for the poor after all.


India Today magazine once referred to Manoje Nath, a 1973-batch IPS officer, as being fiercely independent, honest, and upright. Besides his numerous official reports on various issues exposing corruption in the bureaucracy in Bihar, Nath is also a writer extraordinaire expressing his thoughts on subjects ranging from science fiction to the effects of globalization. His sense of humor was evident through his extremely popular series named "Gulliver in Patiliputra" and "Modest Proposals" that were published in the local newspapers.

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