The battle of the Indian bulge I

  • 14/09/2004

In Nagpur city, women gather outside a court. In broad daylight they lynch a local serial rapist. When four women are arrested, few hundred women own up to the crime. They say they killed Akku Yadav because the local police did little to stop his criminal reign of terror; they feared the court would release him and took matters in their hand. But why am I writing about vigilante killings?

To me, this incident is less about the women. It is more about their fear that they would not get justice. Their desperation shows just how disabled the state has become. The apparatus - of services, or law and order - is today thoroughly compromised. Broken in spirit, the state's capacities stand decimated, through deliberate abuse or apathy. For Nagpur's women, there is no state.

Now switch to another scene: an evening lecture in Delhi. A middle-class audience is discussing the pollution of the river Yamuna, which flows through their city. This pollution is also about how the city's rich use water and the sewage system, but are loathe to pay for it. The real pollution is this subsidy the rich enjoy, in the name of the poor, so that a public utility is unable to manage its business. But that is not the way this audience sees it.

They are categorical about their angst vis-a-vis the state. It should wither away, they believe. "We generate our own electricity with generators, we buy bottled water to drink, we have our own security agencies to guard us, we go to private hospitals to be treated." "Why should we pay for these services, why should we pay anything to the government?" So goes the rhetoric, of these rich vigilante citizens.

Was it then a coincidence, that in his Independence Day address to the nation, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had to remind us "governments cannot be wished away"? What does it mean when a nation's leader has to defend the right of the state to literally go about its business?

Whether it is a case of the state failing its citizens - Nagpur - or citizens failing the state - Delhi's rich - the fact is that, today, a system is being worked to death. We are working it to death. And helping us is the bureaucracy - the state's managers - by conveniently handing over its work to "whosoever it may concern" without losing the perks that come with their non-jobs. This is visible in every sphere of our lives: education, health, transport or water.

First, we deliberately disable our public institutions. We do this by not investing adequately in these services, and then in creating an interest in running inefficient and incompetent institutions for the sake of it. Most public institutions today run to pay salaries, not to deliver services to the people they are meant for. In public health service institutions, for instance, salaries gobble up 70-80 per cent of the total (meagre) funds allocated to this sector. How can such a system deliver? If its managers compromise the public system, its workers maul it; whatever is left becomes the playground of the very rich. And all of this happens in the name of the poor.

Let's look at the health sector. In 1990, we spent 1.3 per cent of our gross domestic product on public health services; by 2002, this had reduced to a scandalous 0.9 per cent. Is it surprising then that private health services have blossomed? In this poor country as much as 82 per cent of all outpatient visits take place in the private sector today. And government's tactical support is evident. It gives away land at throwaway prices, subsidises the private sector, in the name of the poor. The rich hospitals are 'expected' to use their largesse to provide free or accessible services for the poor. But this rarely happens. Why should it? In this way, public health services are completely compromised. Worse, given the enormous disparities in income, the poor are denied access. Only an efficient and high-quality public support system can provide health care for all. But by now, too much has been lost.

Second, we create vested interests, which then work against change. Transport is a perfect example of this. We have decimated the public transport infrastructure - railways and city buses - so that today, at best, it is a playground for petty trade union politics, which survives on state largesse. In its place, there has come up a massive industry built on private transport - trucks, cars and scooters. The private sector has been given a free run, the argument being that it would be profitable and efficient. But few of us realise that all road infrastructure projects, being built by the "efficient" private sector, are subsidised by the state - as much as 20-30 per cent of the land acquisition costs are borne by the exchequer in these projects.

All this is always done in the name of the poor. Just last week, a leading Left politician met the chief minister of Delhi, to make a case for "poor transporters" suffering because of high diesel prices. A leading automobile manufacturer also met her, arguing for the same concession. Only his interest was his private diesel cars, which he sells to the rich, using a fuel subsidised for poor people's sake.

No wonder the poor end up as losers. No wonder that the real profiteers end up being the managers of the state. Electoral politics dictates that their interests are not fiddled with. They have even less to do, but can make more money by milking the private sector for personal gains. They have the ultimate interest in weakening the government. So, if Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is serious about the business of governance, which I suspect he is, he will have to learn that the beast he has to fight is within. It is this battle of the Indian bulge that will determine our futures.

How? More on this, next fortnight.

- Sunita Narain

Related Content