If one of the thousands of Lok Sabha candidates were to ask what kind of India I would like after the, I would have no hesitation in saying one that had regained its sense of caring. A country where politicians didn’t only bribe people for their votes by saying what they would do if they were elected but where they made and actually kept such promises even without votes. Maneka Gandhi sounded hard when she offered a conditional commitment to Sultanpur Muslims but at least it seemed like an honest bargain.
Across the political divide, Palaniappan Chidambaram announced that Rahul Gandhi’s promised minimum income guarantee scheme, Nyuntam Aay Yojana (Nyay), would cost less than one per cent of the GDP to ensure a minimum income of Rs 6,000 per month (Rs 72,000 annually) for five crore of India’s ‘poorest families’, or 25 crore people. “If a country can’t set apart less than one per cent for 20 per cent (the estimated share below the poverty line) it is heartless”, he said in a TV interview.
Indians are anything but according to Rudyard Kipling, whom many shortsighted and simple-minded people mistakenly regard as an enemy. One of Kipling’s finest stories, The Miracle of Purun Bhagat, claims that “so long as there is a morsel to divide in India, neither priest nor beggar starves.”
India takes pride in its youth dividend. Yet, it’s a wonder that these young people of whom we have such hopes have survived at all since more children under the age of five died in India than anywhere else in the world in 2011. The number was an appalling 1.7 million or more than 4,650 child deaths a day, according to the UNICEF.
For every 1,000 children born here, 61 are lucky to make it to their fifth birthday. Despite the rising prosperity made possible by the reforms introduced by P V Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh, India has the highest number of malnourished children in the world. When the Hunger and Malnutrition report was published in 2011, Dr Manmohan Singh, by then prime minister, observed that it was indeed a matter of national shame that 42 per cent of India’s 160 million children are underweight and malnourished.
According to the WHO’s global hunger index, a composite of three equally weighted indicators (the proportion of the population that is undernourished, the proportion of children who are underweight and under-five child mortality), India fared worse in 2011 than the previous year. At the other end, a UN survey revealed last year that 62 per cent of elderly Indians lack long-term, palliative care. Increasing longevity has made matters worse.
After retiring from formal employment, 65 per cent of the elderly are without money and forced to live a life of humiliation, abuse and isolation. The time of which Kipling wrote so optimistically did once exist. Democratic forms of governance and modern systems of management hadn’t evolved and the market economy was in its infancy.
But the rich had a sense of obligation to the poor. Princely landowners kept open kitchens to feed the hungry, and dug wells and built fountains to ease the thirst of travellers. Temples, ashrams, dharamsalas and gurdwaras operated seraikhanas and langars where everybody, irrespective of race or religion, could rest and eat. The British adopted dak bungalows from an extant tradition.
The modern world’s answer to all those assets of the feudal past is the welfare state. Some historians believe that Emperor Ashoka first put forward the idea in the 3rd century BC. Going beyond high-sounding phrases, he envisioned dharma as state policy in the service of the people, declaring that “All men are my children”.
Jawaharlal Nehru conveyed the same sentiment when he declared there were no orphans in India because all the boys and girls were the children of Bharat Mata. Narasimha Rao whose vision towered over the aims of mere economists put it in concrete form. A welfare state was the purpose of liberalisation, he said.
“There will be blood on the streets” if he waited for the ripple effect of foreign investment to solve the problem of India’s grinding poverty. I was interviewing him for Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper in 1994 when he gave a humanitarian rationale for reforms I couldn’t remember hearing before. The real reason for foreign capital was to free domestic resources for social welfare and infrastructure. “We need roads, houses, schools, hospitals. We must build them ourselves!”
Perhaps foreign investment did not live up to expectations. Perhaps Narasimha Rao’s successors did not share his idealism. Perhaps the money was stolen internally in one of the world’s most corrupt economies. Perhaps later prime ministers thought it more important to buy guns and fighter aircraft and carry out lightning raids in Pakistan than build the “roads, houses, schools, hospitals” Narasimha Rao dreamt of doing.
Whatever the reason, progress in education and sanitation has been at snail’s pace despite high-powered publicity. According to the World Health Organisation, India is home to the most number of people who defecate in the open. At one time, India accounted for 59 per cent of the 1.1 billion people globally that engage in this unhygienic practice.
Even some of the poorer neighbouring countries of South Asia — Bangladesh and Bhutan for instance- boast greater access to improved sanitation than India. Education is another field where claims on paper don’t reflect reality. Officially, every child may have access to a school. In practice, the school may be a tumbledown shed without a teacher (or a part-time teacher who finds other work more lucrative), and, usually in rural areas, without books or any other rudimentary facility for teaching.
Narasimha Rao’s vision of changing all this recalled the 1942 Beveridge Report, officially titled Social Insurance and Allied Services, which influenced Clement Attlee, Britain’s Labour prime minister, in introducing the cradle-to-grave system of caring that still endures.
It is a coincidence that the report’s author, the Liberal economist, William Beveridge, was born in Rangpur in undivided Bengal, and that his father, Henry Beveridge, an Indian Civil Service officer, was then district officer and judge.
His mother, Annette Ackroyd, had come to India originally to teach in a school in Calcutta run by the Brahmo Samaj reformer, Acharya Keshub Chunder Sen. Although a scholarly man, the senior Beveridge didn’t rise high in the administration because of his liberal pro-Indian views.
His son proposed widespread reforms to the system of social welfare to address what he called the five “Giant Evils” of British society — squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease. They are still the five Giant Evils I would like India’s post-election government to make some attempt to tackle.
Sunanda K Datta-Ray is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.