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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Four Horsemen of Apocalypse stalk India


What a difference one year makes. A year ago, the country was in a celebratory mood. The United Progressive Alliance had just won a trust vote in Parliament and the Indo-US nuclear deal signifying a major shift in the approach of world powers to India had more-or-less been clinched.
But today as the PM addresses the nation, he cannot but help noticing the four horses of apocalypse hovering in the horizon named Pestilence, Famine, War and Death.



(Drawing by R. Prasad)

Though this year has begun spectacularly well for the UPA, which won the elections hands down— and for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who returned to office politically stronger— the country’s ambiance has not been that sanguine. Uncertainty and doubt remain over the macro-economic situation and now famine and disease stalk the land.
The PM has made it clear that the government will fight them with all the authority at his command and, no doubt, today he will repeat that message from the ramparts of the Red Fort. He will promise food for all, education, healthcare, employment and everything that a patronage-oriented political party has to offer.
But he could well be speaking against the wind. Last year he had money to throw at the problem, this year he is likely to have only goodwill. According to the Economic Survey 2007-2008, revenue receipts of the government had increased from Rs 230,834 crores in 2002-03 to Rs 486,422 in 2007-2008. But in one short year, the 6th Pay Commission outgoings, the farm loan waiver and the economic stimulus packages have rapidly depleted government finances.
Beyond money and promises there are sound reasons to believe that the government would find the going tough in handling the challenges that have emerged anyway. The problems with the delivery system are obvious. A corrupt bureaucracy will prevent the money you throw at the problems from reaching the intended beneficiaries. An even more corrupt police force will connive in the process rather than root it out. The politician, will of course, preside over this system and gain from it.
But this system of governance, if you can call it that, has reached the limit of its already limited efficacy. More money, more bureaucrats, more schemes, will produce not produce the needed outcome, which is presumably the winning of more elections. The major reason for this is that the four horsemen could change the state of play.

Famine

In a country where 60 per cent of the crop is grown on non-irrigated land, monsoon is a game-changer, and this failed monsoon could well be one as well. 177 of the 600 or so districts of the country have been declared drought hit. Though India is operating with record production and procurement of food-grains in 2007 and 2008, it has to contend with a deficit of some six million hectares in paddy alone. These figures will not convey the individual tragedies that will accompany a failed monsoon—hunger, unemployment, displacement and disease, layered over already existing deprivation and destitution.
There is another problem as well—ossified thinking. Even in normal years, half the children under the age of five are malnourished. What will happen in a “famine” year? Food for the poor, as our political elites see it, is getting rice to them at a subsidised rate. There is never talk of dal, vegetables or milk. You will be surprised to know that the consumption of dal, the only source of protein for the poor has actually declined in India. It averaged 65 grams per person per day in the 1951-1955 period but in the last five years the figure is just 33 grams. True, the production of milk, eggs and fish has shot up exponentially, but these are things many of our countrymen never get to see, let alone eat.
Our politicians need to aim not at just getting rice into the hands of the poor, but to ensure all-round nourishment which will enable the young to reach their full mental and physical potential. This requires dal, vegetables, fruits and milk products. No government in India seems to be talking about these.
Naysayers will argue that we can reach that point only after we can ensure enough rice for the hungry. But that is mechanical thinking. India is the largest producer of milk in the world and it has the world’s largest bovine population. What it needs is imagination and capable hands at the helm to boost production even further. The same could be said about the humble dal which has become so elusive these days.

Pestilence

Along with the failed monsoon we have a pandemic. The H1N1 or Swine flu has so far created more panic than death. But it has the potential of being as virulent as the Great Flu — the pandemic that began in March 1918 and lasted till 1920. An estimated 500 million people —some one-third of the world’s population at the time — were affected and anywhere between 50-100 million died, an estimated 17 million in India alone. The current epidemic is in its early form. It is not yet as virulent as even some other kinds of flu. But all that could change. But it has already brought out the infirmity of our public health system which is more likely to encourage the spread of the disease. There are reports of masks being hoarded, fake Tamiflu being sold and even of policemen using it to con money from the unwary.
The government has, of course, promised to fight the good fight against the flu. But does it have the weapons to do so? The ongoing H1N1 pandemic has revealed the inadequacies of our public health system in a city like New Delhi. What about the rest of the country. If we do not have a system that can fight infant diarrhea that takes the lives of hundreds of thousands of young children, where will we have the ability to fight a flu pandemic? You may find government dispensaries, but they will be minus the most rudimentary facility, and even doctors. The H1N1, for example attacks the lungs, making breathing difficult and for this ventilators are needed, and perhaps oxygen.
India’s public health care system is a scandal. It has been underfunded to the point where 85 per cent of the health care delivered is by the private sector, which means that the really poor are completely outside the healthcare net. The flu epidemic is an opportunity for the government to get back into health care in one form or the other.
Like hunger, war is endemic in India. But like the other plagues, chronic insurgencies, too, are showing signs of changing qualitatively and becoming malignant diseases.

War

A more dangerous situation is emerging—the steady hardening of China’s attitude towards India. There are no easy explanations as to why this is happening. But despite two decades of steady dialogue and agreements, the situation today is again causing disquiet. Perhaps it has to do with an assertive China, or maybe some inner-party struggle in Beijing, but the fact of the matter is that we have an unresolved boundary with China and a disputed boundary can always offer a cassus belli.
Coincidentally or otherwise, the UPA’s second term could be dramatically different from its first, not necessarily for the better. The Congress party and its government needs to understand that some of the key problems of the country — hunger, disease, illiteracy and war — have developed a resistance to the usual medicine they have been given.
Just as dumping Tamiflu will not check H1N1, nor will the current patronage politics of the Congress party. The need of the hour is to modernise our government, but for that we first need a sophisticated understanding of our problems.
This article appeared in Mail Today August 15, 2009

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