Why the Poor Stay Poor

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‘Garibi Hatao’, a slogan that Mrs. Gandhi deployed to reap electoral dividends is still a blue-chip issue and Mr. Rahul Gandhi has discovered the magical properties of the mantra, never mind that more than fifty years (out of which Congress was in power for forty and the BJP, in its turn, was too busy catering to the ultra-rich) have elapsed between the two initiatives.

The Indian National Congress is heavily invested in poverty, and helpfully, the poor who have stayed poor, come in handy for the grandson as well. When the ‘Nyay Yojana’ is being touted as a transformative project I thought it topical to share my considerable experience on the implementation of anti-poverty programmes.

I had the occasion to investigate many of the anti-poverty programmes, in united Bihar, one of the poorest states, during my various assignments where I closely observed the nuts and bolts of the delivery apparatus as well as the mechanics of the programme implementation.

This article is a radically summarised version of a larger project - which has since been abandoned - The Parable of the Well Paid Public Servant: A Review of Three Major Poverty Alleviation Programmes (Targeted Public Distribution System, the Dhoti Sari scheme and the Indira Gandhi Awas Yojana, the whole ensemble of Roti, Kapada and Makan.)

The write-up referred to is more in the nature of a police report - heeding the advice of Pierre Bordeau, the noted French sociologist, that one must avoid the temptation to turn these stories in to “literature”. The best thing Bordeau says is “to make our readers see that raw absurdity, without any special effects. …. to allow these stories to retain their extraordinary and almost unbearable violence.”

These generalizations draw upon my experience of investigating a slew of anti-poverty programmes but only Targeted Public Distribution Scheme (Red Card, Antyoday) has been cited, given the limited scope of an article and the fact that this particular incident has for long been in the public domain.

This relates to the pre-ADHAR regime when identification and targeting errors were the norm.

I propose to state my conclusions in the first part. In the next two I would try to validate those conclusions on the basis of hard, documented facts.

1. In a market-driven society, the poor cannot create demand nor step up the market, hence they stand in stark contradiction to the logic of the neo-liberal order. Yet there is a very unusual political consensus that will not oppose, either on pragmatic considerations or, for reasons of economic viability, the allocation of resources to poverty eradication programmes, even though there has been routine and unedifying lack of achievement and orientation in meeting the targets.

A certain agreed inefficiency in the management of these programmes is also perhaps part of the same consensus. Every culture obligates its citizens to set apart a sum of money towards charity, Dan, or Zakat, where the recipient is an anonymous, incidental medium for ensuring one’s own rites of passage. Poverty alleviation programmes, more than a palliative economic measure, may sometimes appear to be a mode of political correctness and expiation.

2. To introduce some clarity in our thinking, it would be useful to differentiate the role of various agencies. The professional economists, statisticians etc. devise the parameters for defining poverty and methods of arriving at poverty estimates. The government makes the necessary allocation and the budget is approved by the legislature. The problem of identifying the actual poor in accordance with given norms and ensuring that the subsidy reaches the deserving poor –essentially a managerial problem –is the exclusive domain of the bureaucratic apparatus of the state government. The focus of my write up is the numbing indifference and callousness of the bureaucracy and the formidable challenge that it can throw in face of the most determined efforts to unravel the glaring and gross miscarriages of the programme.

3. We are still wedded to the old colonial concept - salvation only at the hands of the district magistrate. The district administration is a preexistent arrangement to be assigned any and every task, howsoever, over-worked, or ill-equipped in terms of both motivation and skills it may be. The poor achievements in the poverty alleviation programmes can be largely attributed to the fact that the system geared to the task of delivering the benefits is rigid, attitudinally inadequate and unbending to the task in hand.

Traditionally the authority of the district magistrate is rooted, largely, in the fact that he commands the obedience of the district police force. But whereas it is advantageous in maintaining law and order, reigning in the malcontents, performing regulatory functions, the law and order cast of mind has a countervailing disadvantage for this kind of a task.

The poor, in their inability to articulate their concerns, in claiming their due are vulnerable and helpless like newborn babies. It is not enough to make allocations; it is more important to reach it to his doorsteps and empower him to claim it as his right. The newborn baby and the poor are alike in their helplessness- they are stricken with hunger but cannot articulate it, nor may reach for food howsoever plentiful the availability. Just as the baby has to be helped to the mother’s breast for nourishment, a lot of flexibility and hand holding is required in reaching the relief to the poor households.

4. For the poor to benefit from any programme one has to understand the narrow realities of his life and above all have great compassion and commitment. The bureaucracy is also in the monopolistic possession of information, and it can always manage and manipulate it, to its advantage. But more importantly, performance in this major sector of the state activity and the career rewards of civil servants are not aligned on the same plain. How cavalier can some civil servants be will be evident presently.

5. The poor are mere numbers in the government records and these numbers can be suitably manipulated, doctored and dressed up to paint a cozy scenario which is furthest from truth. So, in the government records the poor may flourish, while they continue to languish in reality, hardly touched by the grandiose conception.

6. A fact that has escaped the notice of poverty economists is that the poverty alleviation programmes almost necessarily lead to a large-scale impoverishment of the public sphere and the debasement of the values of the community. Since the per capita subsidy is extremely low, a very large number of the poor have to be excoriated to make a decent pile. Thus, a formidable nexus of graft and rent seeking and fraud on a grand scale develops which engulfs the poor also in a big way. It is the poor who underwrote the values of probity in public life and my contention is that these programmes have irredeemably driven us to this amoral swamp. Think of MNREGA and you will know what I mean!

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