The newspapers are filled with current headlines about the severe cold wave gripping all of northern India. So far it has been reported that more than 100 poor people have died in Uttar Pradesh alone. You can make your own guess as to what the real number is. I will wager a bet with you that the real number is far higher. But then again, this is hardly news. Last year the cold wave with severe fog had gripped eastern U.P. for over two weeks. Many more within the ranks of the same poor people died last year as well, just like the year before that, and so on.
Yesterday, my wife and I were out distributing blankets for the elderly and warm clothing for the children. We went from village to village, home to home looking for those in real need. We were out for a period of some 8 hours. Both of us travelled in a car and were clad with several layers of warm clothing. Still by the time we returned home we were practically frozen feeling numb all over.
As we sat sipping tea and warming ourselves we reminisced the experience. We saw mothers nursing young babies clad with nothing more than worn out saris. The babies were clinging to them perhaps to get warmth from their bodies that simply had nothing to give. They lived in mud huts with openings that appeared like windows and doors with no protection from the chilly bone biting prevailing westerly wind. The roofs on most of them were made from thatched straws with the dew from the fog dripping down through them on the mud floor below. The babies gave us a blank stare. We didn’t dare trying to make them smile. The mothers shivered and stuttered as they spoke to us. Each time we thought of them we shivered again.
But who are these people anyway?
Eastern U.P has a population of over 60 million (depends on how you demarcate it) people. Over 60% of them are villagers. Over 50% of these villagers are essentially local labors living hand to mouth on a day by day basis. Most of them live below the poverty line as defined by Indian standards. Approximately 80% of their women are uneducated. Most of the young men educated from the local private, government or government funded intermediate colleges cannot write their names and addresses without making glaring mistakes. Eastern U.P. is one of the most impoverished areas in our country and could easily compete with the entire planet for high honors in race toward poverty. My wife and I are products of this impoverished land and these people are our fellow citizens.
Why are they so poor?
If you ask them they will startle you with their answers. They say it is because they are uneducated; born in a poor family; beset with bad luck; abandoned by their children. If you keep pushing them for more reasons they simply repeat: This is Their Fate.
Not once did any one blame the government for his/her poverty. They always blamed themselves directly or indirectly. If you prompt them about their government, they say it is hopeless to expect anything from it. There is no concept (however rudimentary) of nationhood and citizenship; the right of a citizen to demand a dignified basic living from his/her country and the opportunity to participate in building its future.
We just read Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh’s address during the recent Indian Pravasi Divas. He said the Indian "democracy and our systems are sturdy, vibrant and have their own in-built mechanisms for redressal and course correction." Talking about the country's progress, the prime minister told the Indian Diaspora that the economic recovery was progressing well despite "uncertain" global scenario and the growth is expected to be 9-10% from next year. Singh underlined that high growth rate is vital to fund India's ambitious social development programs and create employment for its young population.
We have a dichotomy here. The rosy picture that Dr. Singh paints about the country and the bleak outlook and despair you see in the faces of millions of India’s poor.
Dr. Singh’s statement (I don’t doubt his sincerity) only talks about the additional revenues that would become available for social development. It does not address the daunting challenge of how much of it would really reach the poor. These statistics are meaningless. A more useful measure would be how much of the planned social services the government actually puts in the hands of the poor. We should generate and monitor this as an index. Therefore, Dr. Singh's statement may pass all the economic metrics and sound financial projections tests, but it does not pass the simple smell test. It simply just doesn’t smell right.
Even at the current rate of economic growth India has adequate resources to lift its 400 million plus poor from their desperate state to give them a dignified basic living and help them slowly empower themselves to participate in building the nation’s future. What a waste of a vast human resource reservoir? How many of us truly believe that if India’s economic growth rate climbs to 10% next year, the fate of our poor and un-empowered would start changing? The higher growth of the economy will create billions of rupees of additional revenues for the government, but a whopping portion of it will be consumed within or mismanaged by the corrupt politicians and the bureaucrats.
Dr. Singh (for that matter UPA, NDA and a myriad of other central and regional political parties) is essentially at a loss to offer a solution to this corruption problem. UPA is working on a five point plan to get us out of this mess. I just don’t want to hold my breath for it to offer us life giving oxygen. All these parties only point fingers at each other blaming the other for more corruption. No one has the conviction and the moral authority to offer a solution. They are all caught with their hands in the cookie jar.
Corruption in our government is a common multiplier with a numeric value close to zero. When you multiply it with any program no matter how enormous in its undertaking and potential impact, the net output is close to zero. The increased amount of welfare funding and meticulously planned and outlined social development programs will continue to produce negligible results as they are piped through our hopelessly corrupt central and state government leadership and bureaucracy.
Meanwhile, as we wake up tomorrow more poor people will have died in the eastern Uttar Pradesh from the cold wave.