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August - September 2004


Manmohan Singh: Playing Robin Hood?...But How will it help the poor?

by Krishan Ralleigh

The PR sleuths of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government in India might have thought it as a stroke of genius when the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh went to a village in Andhra Pradesh to distribute a few lakhs of rupees to the poor peasants' families who had committed suicides unable to bear the disaster caused by crop failure and heavy burden of loan from private money lenders.

The first symbolical gesture of the new Prime Minister, an economist of high order, to alleviate rural poverty in one region of India by playing the role of Robin Hood (giving tax-payers money to the poor peasants of Andhra Pradesh) will not be approved by either Karl Marx or John Keynes and certainly not Milton Friedman. Even Mahatma Gandhi, a great believer in self-help, would not be happy about it. It is promoting begging. The drama staged was more a hollow political gesture than a policy based on any economic principle. It is more in line with the Lalu Prasad Yadav-type of politics.

It would have been more fruitful if the Prime Minister had announced a minimum monthly pension given by an insurance company where the money could have been deposited by the government in the name of the family. The Prime Minister also could have announced the setting up of a proper enquiry commission to investigate the causes of continuous crop failures in that region and finding ways to eradicate these causes. It should also investigate the role of money lenders, local 'patwaris', village panchayat, block and district officials in such tragic situations; and recommend the means by which early warnings can be given and responsibility allocated.

Unfortunately for the poor peasant and his family, the money hand-out by the Prime Minister is going to be shared by all these officials plus the local police man; and if the poor peasant has a married daughter, the son-in law will also lay claim to the paltry sum which will be left to the grieving family. It will, in the end, promote more suicides, an easy way to end misery and poverty.

It is an old adage that you give a hungry man a fish and he will not starve for a day; but teach him how to fish and he will never starve. The Prime Minister has already indicated in h is first address to the nation (on television) and I quote; "I am convinced that the government at every level, is today not adequately equipped to deal with this challenge and many aspirations of the people….to do so, we require the reform of government and public institutions."

That is true Mr Prime Minister. But the Congress government under Narasimha Rao in (1991-93), of which you were a part, was not interested in that ..nor will it be under your stewardship now. That is because you and your ministers are being tempted by small gestures which do not make any economic sense. Eradication of rural poverty has remained a hollow slogan since 1976 when Mrs. Indira Gandhi used it to make Emergency palatable to the masses. Unfortunately, neither the Congress governments nor BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government gave any priority to the removal or rural poverty.

Any hand-out, even in millions, with the aim of ameliorating the lot of Indian peasant is mere chimera. It never works. It increases corruption, makes people prone to sycophancy, lethargy and unwilling to work. Political leaders turn into feudal lords. Village peasant remains exploited by all - from village headman to local MLA or MP. This has been going on for centuries, and will continue till there is a revolution - a revolution in the thinking of urban India about people living in villages. The BJP has its roots in urban India. It grew out of middle class Hindu businessmen - shopkeepers and traders. So did the Congress in early days of its formation, till Mahatma Gandhi came on the scene and turned Indian National Congress into a mass movement in which villagers became equal partners. How many congressmen of today even know about Champaran and the great revolution brought by Sardar Patel in that small village community.

Coming back to Manmohan Singh and the present leaders who are in power today mainly because of rural India's loyalty to Congress. In his address to the nation the Prime Minister promised that he, "could not accept disparities between its people and regions: disparities between men and women and chronic poverty among the poor and backward people. Millions of our citizens are backward people still plagues by illiteracy, disease, want, hunger and malnutrition."

In the context of these huge problems diagnosed by the learned doctor himself , the role of Robin Hood, played by Dr. Manmohan Singh seems pathetic and unwanted. The Prime Minister has to get on with the work of bring into motion the government machinery at h is disposal now to bring revolutionary changes in public institutions which have direct impact on rural population. The most visible of these are village schools, hospitals, police stations, roads, railway stations, electricity and local rural councils (Panchayats) elected fairly by local people with secret ballot or the new electronic machines.

Retired officers from IAS, armed forces and even returning NRIs should be able to have farm houses and cottages in villages and not in the suburbs of Delhi, Mumbai or Bangalore. This is possible only when all the modern amenities are available in every village. It is a tall order but not impossible. The government officials at the centre and in states have been accustomed to living in sophisticated urban environment. If the Prime Minister had decided to live for a month in that village of Andhra Pradesh where he gave out millions of tax payer's money without any returns, he would have found the real causes of rural poverty and the means of eradicating them.

In his address Masnmohan Singh also said that "The decline of morals and ethics in public life is an incipient threat to democracy in India". Rightly so. But who is responsible for it? Indian National Congress led by Jawahar Lal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, her son Rajiv Gandhi and now Sonia Gandhi. It will be difficult for Manmohan Singh to turn the tide, howsoever, spiritual, religious and upright he may be in his personal life. India lost her soul when the fathers of the constitution wrote the word 'secular' in the Constitution.

The word should have been 'righteous', according to 'Dharma'. India should have been a nation guided by 'Dharma' which translated into English means righteousness. Secular is worldly, material, mundane. Who can blame the leaders if they are secular i.e. worldly, materialistic and mundane? Morals and ethics have become alien to them. Manmohan Singh, a devout Sikh, should remember what Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru, said: "Ham eh kaaj jagat mein aai; Dharam heth Gurudev Pathai"

If all political leaders, whether inside the government or outside, base their political life in accordance with 'Dharma' the future of India will indeed be bright.But then, as I said about rural poverty, it is a very tall order.

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