January 25, 2020
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The Issues No One Talks About At All

Power-crazy politicians hardly care for the real problems facing India: health, population, education

The Issues No One Talks About At All
  •  More than half the world's 842 million illiterates are Indians.
  •  Over 170 million Indians—one in every six—don't have access to safe drinking water.
  •  Nine Indians are born every ten seconds.

    Who gives a damn? Not the power-hungry politician. Not the career bureaucrat. Not even the suffering masses themselves—they have got used to their wretchedness. Grave problems. But when did you last see, hear or read about your local MLA or MP sitting on a hunger strike when the hospital next door did not have a doctor for six months? Or when the primary school functioned without a teacher. Or when...

    These are the real issues the Indian electorate faces, election after election, year after year, day after day: water, health, education, security, jobs—life. Issues that are born within the 1 billion mass everyday, that are highlighted on the election platform, and that die with every election victory. Lip service: yes; real solutions: no.

    Andre Beteille, professor of sociology at the Delhi School of Economics, says that the lack of proper focus in these areas is inherent in democratic politics, where interest groups sway policies to suit themselves. Naturally, therefore, it is easier to raise a collective voice for say, women's reservation in Parliament, than ensure increased allocation of resources for primary education for the girl child in villages. Echoes Syed Shahabuddin, former parliamentarian: "Parliament is too preoccupied with survival or internecine struggles to bother about these issues."

     Outlook presents the real issues that the Indian electorate faces today, that it has been facing for the last 50 years, and that lie buried deep in the chasm of apathy.

    EDUCATION: While political parties are unanimous in their commitment to literacy, five decades after Independence, the state has failed to ensure primary education for all children. In fact, the Indian government had been given all the raw material to implement this way back in the 1960s by the Kothari Commission. The report recommended that the government should spend 6 per cent of the GDP on education. Thirty years later, we spend a little over half that much on it.

    Accuses Abusaleh Shariff, principal economist at the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER): "Sometimes, it is intentionally done by the government." Reason: in the business of result-oriented politics, where the returns on governance have to be seen in crores of rupees, or  constituency-specific projects, an investment in education will not bear fruit within the stipulated five-year span of an MP or an MLA. It is, therefore, in the interest of the elected politician to go in for populist schemes—rice for Rs 1 a kg, or free meals for the girl child in primary schools—with short-term, five-year gains in mind.

    It is the inadequacy of resources, coupled with denial of opportunity at the rural level which hurts the lowest sections most. This, in turn, pushes them into a vortex of poverty and unemployment. Or else, what can explain the fact that in only five districts in Bihar has the percentage of literate scheduled caste (SC) women in rural areas touched double digits? According to the 1991 census, only 0.6 per cent SC women are literate in Varanasi, and 3.6 per cent in the country's first prime minister's hometown, Allahabad.

    At the time of framing the Constitution, the chapter on the directive principles of state policy provided the only quantifica-tion in the case of providing children with free education up to the age of 14. "Not living up to the promise made to our children is our biggest failure," says Shahabuddin.No wonder that the 450 million illiterates in the country are the biggest mass of its kind on the planet. And since the problem is not being addressed at the root, it can only get worse in the coming years.

    Says Shariff: "Whenever we talk about development, it should be seen as a process." He laments the fact that the importance of education was never thought of as something fundamental to development. Besides, there is also the need to take care of related factors—electricity, water, roads—to improve general levels of literacy. As both agriculture and industry now need a minimum level of education for efficient returns, the need for an educated India is more vital than ever before. And equally ignored.

    HEALTH: Intrinsically linked to the problem of public health is the education of the girl child. High infant mortality rates and low rates of immunisation are some of the ills that result because of an illiterate girl child, who grows up to be an uninformed mother. Yet, the focus of the state apparatus has somehow been blurred on this.

    In a recent study by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), it was found that the poorest tenth of the population in educated Kerala spent 10 paise for every rupee of expenditure on health. In contrast, the figure stood at Rs 2.30 in illiterate states like UP, Rajasthan, Bihar—people are borrowing money, simply to live.Statistics state that India spends about 7 per cent of its GDP on health. But 75 per cent of this comes from individual households.

    Exclude that and the real figure—government spending on health—plummets sharply to 1.3 per cent, below China's, which commenced on its path of growth around the same time as India. While agreeing that the performance of China has been better than India in the social sector, Beteille says that the Chinese have paid a bigger price for it: social liberty.

    But you forget social liberty when you bear your child in a slum, when your child doesn't survive, when you can't get her immunised. Only one in every four deliveries takes place in institutions. More than two million infant deaths occur every year. Just one in every three children between ages one and two years are fully immunised. Six out of every 10 children are anaemic. The sole jus-tification offered to explain these miserable figures is the abysmal lack of facilities at the rural level, which accounts for nearly 70 per cent of the Indian population.

    With 3,333 people to a nurse, India is far behind Lesotho's 2,000, Cameroon's 1,852 and Zimbabwe's 1,639. As for the amount spent on the health sector as a percentage of its GDP, India at 1.3 per cent follows Zambia (2.2), Zimbabwe (3.2) and Nicaragua (6.7). Given these figures, it is not surprising that life expectancy in Honduras (68.4 years), Algeria (67.8) and Morocco (65.3) is better than India's 61.3 years.

    POPULATION: Give the policy makers another 20 years, and India will have earned the dubious distinction of being the most populated nation on earth.

    Not that planners are uninformed. Population growth simply follows poor education and health. The more literate and healthy states have witnessed a marked fall in the rate of growth of population. Compared to intimidating growth rates of Rajasthan (24.8 per cent), Bihar (22.1) and Uttar Pradesh (24.4), it is states like Kerala (11.3) and Tamil Nadu (11.1) that have managed to pull down India's overall population growth. Likewise for infant mortality: UP, at 88 deaths per 1,000 born, Rajasthan (84) and Bihar (66) are among the highest in the country, while Kerala (16) is better off.

    As usual, it is the implementation that holds the key. It might come as a surprise, but India was the first country in the world to have a government-sponsored family planning programme. But it doesn't shock to learn that the government's largest department has achieved everything but its objective—the rapidly-growing numbers bear testimony to that.

    Population could have been an asset, but jobs—largely in urban centres—are simply not keeping pace. The resultant migration to the metropolitan centres is bursting cities like Mumbai, New Delhi, Chennai among others, at the seams. This has given rise to a paradox where the growth of cities have attracted more people from the villages, which has in turn put a strain on whatever social services that are available in the cities.

    Next step: poverty. According to the 1997 Human Development Report of the UNDP, India ranks 47 on the human poverty index well below Mexico (7), Mongolia (16), Botswana (29) and Lesotho (35). India's human development index, at 138, is below Ghana (132), Vanuatu (124), Gabon (120) and Morocco (119). These shameful figures continue to dog the nation at the national level too. Nearly 100,000 women die every year—majority in the rural areas—during pregnancy and childbirth. For the newborn too, destiny lies in economic geography—since infant mortality is 52 per cent higher in rural areas.

    Who is to blame? Those who have invested in large families as support structures for their old age, or those who have failed to provide the social infrastructure so that children are not required to serve as evening crutches?

    ENVIRONMENT & WATER: It is the imbalance of development which is now rearing its menacing head in the form of a polluted environment. While state governments have altogether failed to provide drinking water to some people, the quality of water when provided, is a cause for worry.

    Recent tests carried out by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) at 250 locations in Haryana, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh revealed dangerous levels of toxic substances in the groundwater. Large amounts of pesticides were found in 65 per cent of the samples, apart from the presence of flourine and iron in it. These can cause digestive disorders, skin diseases and dental problems.

     Excessive use of vehicles in Delhi—2.8 million—is contributing to clouds of pollution, and the accompanying diseases, in its own way. The industries which have cropped up even in non-conforming areas are adding further to the pollution. India's fastest growing metropolis, Bangalore, has nearly 1.9 million vehicles—the second-largest number in the country. The result: no roads to drive, no fresh air to breathe, no clean water to drink—you inhale what your car exhales, you drink your own treated urine.

    Meanwhile, the pressure on the cities continues to build up as millions migrate in search of jobs. With unplanned growth, the quality of living conditions and drinking water is the first casualty. While the national scenario is dismal, at the international level, against 81 per cent of Indians having access to safe water, Bangladesh has 97 per cent, Botswana 93 per cent and Tunisia 98 per cent.

    Things have begun to move; only, the country has to take the last resort: the courts. In August last year, the Gujarat High Court ordered the immediate closure of 1,200 dyeing and printing units in Jetpur. Since these industries are highly polluting, they have been banned in the west. As a result, the business—and the mess—has increasingly moved towards countries like India.The much needed order, however, had to be revoked.

    Reason: along with nearly 500 other allied industrial units manufacturing chemicals and dyes, these units provided employment to nearly 30,000 people. What the employees chose to overlook was that these industrial units had completely contaminated the groundwater and local river. The court order was not quite a victory for the local population because a month later, the units were allowed to reopen, on a petition before the court that the livelihood of 30,000 people was at stake. The court revoked the order, but on the condition that effluent treatment plants would be installed—a physically impossible feat.

    THE WAY OUT: To bring about a positive change, Beteille suggests that policy makers "need to decide that some of the social services should be universally available, irrespective of caste, creed, sex or age." In other words, merit or need should not be a consideration for basic, social infrastrucutre. He further says that if in the course of providing these services, the state contributes a little to the increase in inequality among the middle and upper segments, it should not be a cause for worry.

    Shahabuddin talks of universalisation of national resources since part of the national genius is lost in depriving a section of the population of the benefits of development. According to Dr Manmohan Singh, it is the people who have to vote for these issues. He concedes that the country lacks the resources for tackling these problems, but "if the public finances are mismanaged as they have been for the last few years, then there is no hope for India." Renowned management thinker Peter Drucker wrote that today there are no underdeveloped economies, only mismanaged ones. He could well have been referring to India.

    If management of scarce resources is the only issue, then the candidate you should vote for is someone who stands for these issues. It might start as a trickle, but if some heads among all the contestants for the 12th Lok Sabha polls want to truly serve the teeming mass called India, they will have to look at managing a tired economy and go in for a real policy rethink—not merely realpolitic.

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