Unequal Attention to Equally Important Issues: Relative Poverty in India

There are two kinds of poverty measurements: relative & absolute. Absolute poverty is the measurement of the percentage of people below the set poverty line in a given society. In the midst of intense political attention & debate on absolute poverty in the wake of the recent NSSO survey, the recently published statistics on relative poverty is on the backburner. Measurement of relative poverty brings economic inequality to surface. And according to a recent NSSO survey, economic inequality has been on a constant rise over the last 15 years or so. In between 1999-2000 and 2011-12, for the 5% of the most affluent rural population, consumption expenditure has increased more than 60%; on the other hand, over the same period, for the 5% of the poorest rural population, this rate of increase is 33%. For the 5% urban & rural population of the same categories, the rates of increase are respectively 63% and 30%.

If one analyzes these data from a different perspective, one finds, in the year 2000, the richest urban socio-economic unit would spend 12 times more than the poorest urban socio-economic unit. In 2012, the former spends 15 times more than the latter. In the rural areas, this gap has grown to 9% from the previous 7%. There are two conclusions to be drawn from this body of statistics.

First, inequality, across urban and rural regions, in terms of lifestyle, has increased. Second, advantages of economic reforms or liberalization and national income growth have not trickled down to the lower economic sections of the nation. Past experiences of economic surveys show that the inequality in terms of expenditure has generally been lower than the inequality in terms of income. So the overall picture appears to be bleaker.

The result of the survey is ominous. There are worries on two fronts: political and economic. This kind of an economic inequality is dangerous for political stability. Maoist insurgency has been gaining a rapid momentum once again. Political unrest in both Kashmir and the north-eastern states is not on the wane either. Social and economic inequality of such a degree will strengthen extremists’ hands in near future. Our study of politically volatile and vulnerable nations proves that social and economic inequalities widen political instability.

Economists like Raghuram Rajan have shown how economic inequality led to the economic downturn in the USA in 2008. Indian middle classes have been benefitted from the IT boom and economic liberalization in late 1980s to early 2000s. But the poorer and especially rural population has not come to terms with the changed economic infrastructure. Spread of education is not yet a pan-Indian phenomenon. Amartya Sen and Jean Drez, in their recently published book have reminded of such a possibility. If our policymakers don’t pay attention to this ever-widening gap between economic conditions and remain obsessed with GDP growth, Indian economy will keep suffering in the long run.

The Kabul Question: India’s Concerns

Besides the turbulent political scenario in the middle-east, the world is closely watching Afghanistan. Western democracies and NATO members will pull out their military personnel from the land by the end of 2014. What kind of a turn will Afghanistan take in terms of administrative, diplomatic and political structures? This question has been haunting not only the NATO nations but also Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors like Pakistan, Iran, India and China.

India has already invested millions of crores in the development of Afghan roads, education, health infrastructure, electricity, public distribution and a number of other sectors. A large number of Indian professionals are working in Afghanistan. On top of that, New Delhi has recently initiated a programme to train the Afghan police and military forces. So India is not happy when the news of a Taliban comeback is gradually gaining momentum. India is evidently dissatisfied with the American effort of collaborating with Taliban representatives in the administrative and political structures of new Afghanistan. This dissatisfaction was conveyed to the US Vice President Joseph Biden when he had come to India a few days back.

Pakistan has an altogether novel stance on the issue. With the new Nawaz Sharif government at the helm of affairs, it has toned down its hardliner approach to the issues involving Afghanistan. Pakistan is now open to strike up collaboration with India. The Islamic neighbor of India was, once upon a time, an intermediary in Afghanistan’s communication with the west. NATO, through Pakistan, used to supply weaponry and stocks to the Afghan Mujahidins and then to the Talibans. But now, owing to the changed domestic political equations and sudden rise of Pakistan Taliban and Hakwani group, Pakistan is more sensible as a democratically elected regime. Salman Bashir, the Pak high-commissioner to India has recently observed that all of the neighboring states including India have right to take part in the Afghan transition.

Hamid Karzai, the present Afghan president is hard on the Talibans. On the other hand, the Talibans are committed to oust the Karzai regime at any cost. Their effort will be strengthened with the exit of the NATO forces. The Talibans have their internal conflicts along the lines of religious ideology, language and origin. It will not be possible for them to build up a harmonized and smooth regime. So the Taliban question is critical for India at this moment as it is a stakeholder in the organization of a democratic Afghanistan.

The North Block needed an assurance of collaboration from the rest of the stakeholders like the USA and Pakistan. It seems that India’s wish has been fulfilled for now. The recent India tour of Joseph Biden appears to be positive. Pakistan’s new government is cooperative on many fronts. Let’s wait for 2014 and keep our fingers crossed.

Politicians’ Poor Performance: in the Light of the Recent NSSO Survey

When the theatre of the absurd had been gaining currency in post-war Europe of the 1950s, obsession with excessive reasoning and logic was being criticized. The empirical understandings of post-colonial Europe and war-happy North America experienced a sudden blow, not in economic terms but in the formation of a thinly united third world ideology. India, a leader of the third world and the subsequent Non-alignment movement, was filled with optimism of a newly liberated nation. Things were difficult but the political class, at large, had a vision that led the nation through the heated up silence of the cold war nuclear politics.

Nearly 70 years after, an Indian citizen superficially aware of political course in the country will be remembered of the idea of the theatre of the absurd. A recently conducted survey by the NSSO has stirred up the old debate of poverty reduction statistics, the parameters and definitions of poverty. Our political parties are so obsessed with number that they are missing out the wood for the tree. There are some political leaders who are circulating frivolous statements which seriously question their ability of representing masses. For example, Raj Babbar, a congress spokesperson, has recently said that rural people can have a tomato or a mango from their own fields or trees whenever they wish, no one asks them to pay for those things.  And Prakash Javedkar, a BJP spokesperson has identified the NSSO report as ‘a ploy of Congress against the poor’. The way the important report is being used by the political camps to score electoral brownie points doesn’t make us hopeful as citizens of this glorious nation.

This is not a novel trend as far as Indian politics is concerned. Every time our politicians get hold of a statistics for or against them, unhealthy pandemonium is let loose. It is no exception this time.

The report reveals a sharp decline in the number of Indian people belonging to the below-poverty-line. In the fiscal 2011-12, the number of BPL people in India stands at 21.9% of the population. It was 29.8% in 2009-10 and 37.2% in 2004-05.

The UPA has started circulating the data as a summit of their success stories. With the general elections in 2014 around the corner, the ruling coalition has finally got an oasis in the long arid stretch of their second regime. Corruption, economic downturn, and policy paralysis- everything seems to be a closed chapter and with the NSSO survey report in hand, they are in search of a mandate once again.

If Congress comes, can BJP be far behind? They are leaving no stone unturned to resist the UPA from garnering political sympathy towards the closing period of the ruling coalition’s second term. Theories of ploy, stratagem, tricks, and misuse of governmental power are doing the rounds.

If we closely look at the facts, this battle of words appears to be an utterly futile exercise. The best performing states, according to the survey, are Bihar and Orissa. Regional parties outside both the UPA and the NDA are at the helm of affairs in both these states. The two states- Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat- ruled by BJP reflect opposing scenario. So do two UPA ruled states Manipur and Kerala.

There should have been a conciliatory approach in the political strategies and both the coalitions should have worked together for the betterment of the nation. When will our politicians be matured enough to lead the country?

The Conference Adjourned: Looking Into the Aspirations in Ladakh

The Demand for self-rule has been a burning agenda of political activities in Ladakh for ages. An overwhelming urge for self-rule, across the globe, often leads to secessionist movements. Ladakh is not an exception. But the state authorities don’t address this concern in a proper sensible way until the situation takes an uncontrollable turn. Representatives of the agitators are called upon; conditions and provisions of self-rule are negotiated on the table; a council is formed with or without a mandate of the masses; and then funds are transferred to the concerned councils. The state government of Jammu and Kashmir had formed a council long ago. Recently the chief minister has decided to form a separate police administration for the region. It will now be easier for police to enforce law and order in the remote region which is 400 kilometres from the state capital Srinagar.

Administrative decentralization has been a joint demand of the Buddhists and the Muslims of Leh for long. In this heated up context of Muslim-Buddhist rivalry across the subcontinent (Buddhist resistance in Myanmar and alleged involvement of Indian Mujahedeen in the blasts in Bodhgaya), the success of this joint movement becomes extremely significant. Both Kargil and Leh are demanding more autonomy from Srinagar; they want to carve out a division consisting of the two districts. It, according to them, will make them more independent of the state in matters other than administrative. The two districts are now parts of the Kashmir division.

Omar Abdulla is not yet ready to concede all that much. Huryat Conference leadership, too, is firm on its stance. Extremist Huryat leader Syed Shah Gilani has already termed the accession to autonomy as an ‘evil ploy’ to divide Kashmir. But Huryat, for ages, has been vocal about Kashmiri sovereignty and has been a dedicated organizer of violent movements to achieve this. By Kashmir, they mean the entire state, putting aside the fact that the Hindu and the Buddhist peoples of the state have always been apprehensive about joining in their proposed sovereign structure.

People of Ladakh do not want to be a part of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. If Huryat’s reluctance of being part of India is justified, so is the Ladakhis’ reluctance of being Pakistani citizens. Huryat, at this point of time, should think over why the Muslims of Ladakh are setting aside the issues of cultural and religious similarities in their perception of political identity. Does this point out a failure on the Huryat’s part to organize an inclusive mass movement? Huryat leaders have to engage in a scorching self-introspection to find out the answer.

Writing off the Right to Information

Presence of a particularly favored class and the consequent disparity in the social and political orders are not healthy for a democracy. Unfortunately, the Indian democracy mirrors this kind of situation more often than not. We shall find ample examples of politicians who are above the law; even if their misdeeds are proven legally, it is not a cakewalk for the concerned administration to catch them. The common man, having been a witness to this preferential treatment for years, is getting frustrated with the political class as a whole.  Reforms in the political and electoral procedures could be a means to gain back their support and admiration. But the leading political parties in India are naturally anti-reforms. It was proved once again when they opposed the recommendation of the Central Information Commission to bring Indian political parties under the purview of the Right to Information Act. Our lawmakers are even toying with the idea of framing an ordinance in the parliament to rebuff the proposal. This means that the act or bill to negate the recommendation will make its passage without a series of debates among the legislators. I hope that such a rapid exhibition of consensus will take this nation forward.

There are a couple of points in this widely accepted opposition. First, Indian political parties do not want to be defined as public authorities. Any governmental body, bodies that receive government grants and bodies formed under constitutional provisions are public authorities and comes under the purview of the RTI Act. Political parties are formed under constitutional provisions and they receive government grants on many occasions. I can’t understand how the parties entrusted with the task of representing public can detach themselves from the definition of public authority. Second, they fear that coming under the purview of the RTI act might necessitate a disclosure of their internal strategies and programs. And competitors may garner unfair advantages due to this.  But the article 8(1) of the RTI Act ensures that a body cannot be compelled to disclose any information that will discriminate it in the field of competition. And above all, one can always approach the Central Information Commission or the judiciary if they have problems with disclosing information.

So the opposition to the recommendation is contrary to the idea of democratic clarity and encourages a form of preferential treatment. In this age of widespread public anger involving the issue of corruption, it would be better for our political parties to cooperate in the process of smooth implementation of the RTI Act.

Food for Some Serious Thought: On the Food Security Bill

The Food Security Bill is on its way. It is making its headway through an ordinance instead of a rigorous debate in the houses of the parliament. The president has conceded his signature. And AICC has started claiming that such a beneficial bill for the poor has not been introduced in India ever before. And the oppositions, as usual, are presenting it as a political stratagem. According to the data released by the central government, the implementation of the bill requires an additional expenditure of 50 thousands to 1 lakh crores of rupees. The flickering economy of the nation will have to bear that burden. The million dollar question, in this context, is whether the poor common man will gain something out of it.

The bill is categorizing Indians into three broad groups. At first, there is the poorest of poor section which is conceded maximum advantages. A person belonging to this category will be able to consume a maximum quantity of 7 kg of rice for Rs. 3 per kg or wheat for Rs. 2 per Kg or Joar-Bajra for Re. 1 per kg in a month. A family of this economic category will be permitted to consume a maximum quantity of 35 kg of the abovementioned food grains at the same rates. Following this is another category, membership to which enables a person to consume a maximum quantity of 3 kg food grains. They will consume these food grains by paying a half of the price that the government will be paying to the producers. Following this group is the group of ‘well-off’ Indians who, the government thinks, can take care of itself.

The Food security bill claims to cover 75% of the rural population and 50% of the urban population in India. Among them, 46% of the rural population and 28% of the urban population belong to the first category that is profiting most of the advantages. Apart from this, the bill sanctions special provisions for the pregnant and breast-feeding mothers, children, homeless and poorest of poor.

This seems to be a pretty fine arrangement on the surface level. But there are some points raised by economists and activist groups which merit a serious attention.

Is India capable of producing such a huge quantity of food grains? And what will a poor family do with the excess money it will get by consuming subsidized food?

In a survey recently conducted by NSSO, the surveyors divided the urban and rural consumers into ten broader groups. The lowest income group was marked with number 1 and the highest income group with number 10. Nearly 10% of Indian population is included in a single group. The upward you go from 1 to 10, per capita consumption gradually increases. For example, per capita food consumption in rural areas among the lowest group is in about ten and half kg; for the highest income group, it is slightly above 12 kg. For the lowest income group in the urban areas, per capita food consumption increases with a hike in income but one cannot formulate such an equation for the higher income groups. The most important data released by this survey is the significantly decreasing amount of food consumption with increasing amount of income in case of over 60% of overall population. Fast moving consumer goods like soaps, combs or cellular phones are in higher demand than food grains in comparatively well-off households in the rural areas. And well-off families in the urban areas are consuming costlier protein intakes and vegetables instead of elementary food grains.

One thing is certainly clear. Excess money gives way to better food consumption in the rural regions. So with the excess money a rural family gets hold of by consuming subsidized food grains, it will consume more food grains from the open market. So the proper implementation of the Food Security Bill will ensure a hike in the demand for food grains in the rural markets. The problem lies in the fact that production cannot be increased overnight to satisfy that demand. At present, forex reserve of Indian economy is not sufficient enough to balance this inequality of supply and demand. So inflation becomes the only available tool to manage the situation.

This price-rise will affect the poorest families in worst possible ways. After the full implementation of the Food Security Bill, the lowest income groups in rural areas will consume a share of their consumption from the open market. The NSSO survey reveals that per capita food consumption among the lowest income group is around 11 kg and the provisions in the Food Security bill concede only 7 kg of this. So both the income groups outside the purview of subsidy and the lower income groups within it will have to consume overpriced food grains from the open market. In addition to that, the lower income groups will consume extra food grains with the excess money in hand. And the higher income groups outside the purview of subsidy, with sufficient income capabilities, will not lower their demand for food grains. In the midst of it, prices of necessary food grains will get skyrocketed.

So the question is ‘who is going to get benefitted from the huge amount of subsidy provided in the Food Security Bill?’ A certain portion will surely flow into the sectors other than agriculture but the lion’s share will be deposited in the hands of a few big businessmen and stockers in the agricultural sector.

Everybody with a minimum knowledge about Indian public distribution system is aware that it needs radical reforms. The Food Security bill pledges to bring a sea-change in PDS’s workings but no one knows how long it will take. So implementing the bill before PDS reforms paves the way for corruption and futility. A large number of poor people in India don’t hold a ration card owing to the lack of proper PDS infrastructure. If inflation hits the open market, they will be affected most.

Summarily, there are two points to make. First, subsidizing food grains without a massive increase in production is not a solution. Second, without introducing radical reforms in public distribution system, food security cannot be provided for such a large number of people.

I hope that our policy-makers will give some thought to it.

Student Politics in India: A Perspective

A few months back, after the brutal rape and murder of the young lady in New Delhi, young people across communities took to the streets. Their rage was directed at the political class. Most of the people gathered in New Delhi to protest against the largely passive reaction of the political personalities and lengthy judicial proceedings of India belonged to the student community. Their reactions to the brutality as aired through media reveal a strange interplay between the student community and the political class at large. Besides this, some recent phenomena circling around colleges’ union-body elections in West Bengal bring to surface a debate on the nature of students’ involvement to politics. In this context, this article tries to look back to the celebrated tradition of students’ association with politics and its significance in India.

Philip Altbach, an US based political scientist, in his 1968 book describes student movements as either normative or value oriented, and according to him, all the political actions by students either focus on an etudialist or a societal issue. The normative course of a movement revolves around a specific and micro issue and the value orientation centres on broader ideological motives like breaking down class barriers and so.

In India, organized student movement developed as an integral part of the anti-colonial struggle. In 1928, during the visit of the Simon Commission, Indian National Congress leaders organized students to demand the recommendation for political independence. Later on, student movement in India started operating through separate bodies led and organized by students. It achieved a different dimension with the growing political strength of the leftist movement in pre-independence India. The All India Student Federation (AISF) was formed in 1936 under the guidance of CPI. This organization acquires a glorious part of the organized student movement in Indian history. It had a radical and loosely national agenda initially; the primary demand was the freedom India from the colonial yoke. AISF had very active cultural fronts which worked in the grassroots to reach the rural population. Later on, it essayed a pivotal role in the formation of IPTA. The first conference of AISF was held in Lucknow and adopted 25 resolutions and a 23-points charter of demands. A students’ organ called The Students’ Tribune was planned to be initiated. Reduction of fees, democratization and reformation of the colonial education system, adapting to a student-friendly language policy and many other issues involving a number of social, economic and cultural dimensions were among the resolutions and the charter.

The more or less unified structure of the Indian student movement suffered a considerable blow with the formation of All-India Muslim Student Federation (AIMSF) in 1937. AIMSF demanded a separate Muslim state and contributed immensely to the formation of Pakistan in 1947.

The Second World War is a decisive as well as divisive turnaround in Indian student movements’ history. Internal conflict of opinion within AISF led to a rift which resulted in the formation of All India Student Congress (AISC) in early 1940s. The rift surfaced because of a debate on the issue of USSR’s participation in the war. AISC went on to become one of the preeminent student organizations in pre-independence India.

Indian independence and partition brought in more fractionalization within the student movement. Many nationalist student leaders were disenchanted with Indian National Congress for its alleged compromises for independence. The Socialist Congress Party and its youth organizations suffered heavy blow for this kind of disillusionment. The communists were dissatisfied with the declaration of partition and following independence. Leftist leaders, across the nation, took to the streets with slogans like Yeh Aazaadi Jhoota hai (This Is a False Independence). The Communist Party, in the years immediately subsequent to the independence, went into underground. As a result, the leftist student movement was put to disarray in the late 40s and early 50s.

The newly independent nation and its government adopted an education policy that stresses on the massive expansion of the education sector. Number of university graduates rapidly increased in the years following independence. So did the number of unemployed young men and women. Discrimination on the basis of political ideology gained currency in the domain of civil service and other public sector recruitment. A generation of students became disillusioned with the dream of an independent and secured nation. The seeds of the extremist and ultra-leftist student movements were being sown in during the course of the late 50s and 60s.

The political landscape of international politics was bipolar. With the 1961 Cuban Missile Crisis, cold war between the USA and the USSR reached a zenith. AISF used to receive financial aids from the USSR by upholding its traditional support for the cause of a supposed communist world revolution. AISC got dissolved in 1948. In this context, an effort was initiated to build a non-political student body by the students opposed to AISF. Formed in 1950, National Union of Students (NUS) was a precursor to this idea. But owing to internal disputes, NSU stopped operating in 1958. Then in the early 1960s, anti-communist and anti-AISF students formed an organization called National Council of University Students of India (NCUSI). The international forces opposed to the USSR wanted to use this organization to balance the Soviet influence in Indian student politics.

Internal conflicts within both AISF and NCUSI weakened the student movement to a great extent and student movement, for the time being, lost its macro goal and got involved with only campus related micro issues. In 1970, as a result of the official split in CPI half a decade back over the question of loyalty to the Chinese and Soviet Communist parties, Student Federation of India (SFI) was formed out of AISF. It is the largest student organization in India today.  With its slogan of independence, democracy and socialism, SFI is a self-proclaimed crusader against imperialism and oppression of the global capital.

Then came the 70s. With the annihilation of feudal powers and nationalization of the banking sector across the nation, peasants and labourers were filled in with new optimism. On the other hand, growing unemployment, inflation and social disparity gave birth to a kind of agitation in the minds of urban educated middle class. University students, mostly in states with a considerable communist presence, dreamt of changing the systems of bourgeoisie liberal democracy. In interior rural pockets like Naxalbari in north Bengal, fresh university graduates under the leadership of seasoned extremist politicians built political base and tried to organize a large scale mass movement with the help of peasants and labourers. The state apparatus came down heavily upon this extremist politics and within a decade, the movement started being remembered and studied only as a failed, misguided and romanticized attempt by a frustrated and educated student community.

In April 1977, Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) was formed in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh. Its declared agenda was to free Indian students from the influence of western materialistic culture and establish a Muslim code of conduct. Allegations of spreading terrorist ideology have repeatedly been made against SIMI in the subsequent years. The Supreme Court marked it as a secessionist movement in 2007 and prior to that, the government of India banned the organization in 2001. A CBI report recently claims that SIMI operates in India in the name of Indian Mujahedeen which is a declared terrorist organization.

Parallel to that Islamist extremism, there is a moderate extremist Hindu ideology of student politics propagated by Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), an affiliate to BJP and RSS. It was formed right after the independence in 1948. It upholds the traditional Indian Vedic values and avowedly communal in some respects. In the campuses where ABVP holds sway, one finds a different kind of cultural practice. Bowing down to the seniors and keeping a safe distance from the opposite gender is two of the dictates of ABVP. It is organizationally strong in JNU, Banaras Hindu University and many universities of north and south India.

Student movements in the north-eastern states of India merit a different article on its own. Ethnic politics and distance from the rest of India have made the north-eastern states a sensitive battleground of student movements. I shall possibly be back with an article on the student movement in the north-east in near future.

Once upon a time, in the tapovanas of ancient India, students used to chant Vedic mantras and when someone like Satyakama entered the forest in pursuit of knowledge, the caste-ridden social hierarchy used to laugh at them. We have left it behind long ago and we don’t need another Ekalavya who would not be able to join in because of his social standing. The sooner Indian student movements come to terms with this realization, better would it be for the nation.