Thursday, April 15, 2010

Destitution, India’s Greatest Internal Danger

The Hindustan Times is a leading herald of the developmental path that the current Indian government vows to carry forward in the main. Namely, the route that goes through free-market fundamentalism, fiscal prudence, and greater and greater transfer of wealth into private entrepreneurship. Which includes dis investing public equity in what it sees as inefficient, corrupt and retarding Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs). Never mind that precisely the PSUs prepared the ground over some four decades of Independent India for the industrial and technological prowess that corporate India never fails to flaunt. For example, by making such core inputs as coal, oil, and steel available to a nascent national bourgeoisie at subsidized rates! No problem with subsidies then.

So when you notice that this Daily has been running an admirably laudable series on hunger in the hinterland, complete with brutally honest statistics, you cannot but acknowledge how dire Indian destitution must be.

And it does not matter a jot what its motives might be.

Do recall that Edmund Burke did not for a moment wish the British empire to be liquidated; which is why he was to become the most trenchant arraigner of the Company’s barbaric excesses in the Colony. And who can say that he made a mistake in initiating impeachment against Hastings.

Or that it was that arch Tory prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, who first coined the phrase “two nations” in an unreadable novel called Sybil, or the Two Nations (the “two nations” being the rich and the poor). Or that Thomas Carlyle wrote some of the most moving tracts on behalf of “reform” because he was terrified that were the Whigs not to make a gesture towards British destitution, the French Revolution would surely happen in England. And what could have been worse. And remember that it nearly did during the “hungry Forties” but was averted by a combination of the gestures, the sticks, and loot from the Colony.

Thus, recognizing the ideological history which The Hindustan Times replicates, we are thankful that it has made the no-nonsense disclosures it has; and for the reason that coming from it rather than from the Indian Left or the myriad non-governmental civil society activist groups, the fact of Indian hunger has a greater plausibility among India’s heady, consumerist elites who swear by this English Daily. Though it is much to be doubted that they will lose much sleep over the disclosures.

All that, even as The Hindustan Times also remains routinely and rather sniggeringly contemptuous of what right-wing opinion calls the “hand-outs” approach to social upliftment, often critiquing the recent policy initiatives of the government (under pressure, it must be noted, of the Congress President, Sonia Gandhi, now also again the head of the re-constituted National Advisory Council, a policy think-tank derided in past years for recommending higher levels of social spending) to invest at impressive scales in schemes that are meant to benefit the lowest of the low. Impressive merely in relation to past practice of course, although in absolute terms, still a pittance.

Thus, even as it unleashes an editorial war on hunger (“Treating the Poor Like Dirt,” HT, April 6), it doesn’t quite know where to go from there, except to recall, most amusingly, that, among other things—“sovereign,” “secular,” “democratic,”—India also denotes itself in the Preamble to its Constitution a “socialist republic.”

A clear case of the Devil quoting scripture, since the Daily’s diatribes at anything sniffingly socialist remain its raison d etre.


So, why this new-found concern for the destitute?

Clearly because there is now a recognition of the fact that things are so abominably inequitous that merely upholding the suigeneric prerogatives of the State, or mouthing pious deprecations against social unrest and violent recourses by sections of the polity may not stem the tide.

And what could be more fatally threatening to the nation’s aspiration to super-powerdom via the corporate route, which will now increasingly include strategic corporates from afar as well.

After all, even as the numbers of dollar billionaires grow exponentially at one end, a half of India’s children—a whole half—are malnourished to a point where a whole new generation of Indians is faced with slow but certain extermination well before it grows into adolescence.

Infact, where the French Queen had recommended cake for the sancullotes, children in India have been discovered by the Daily to be actually subsisting on mud laced with silicon.

You read that right—mud.

When you remember that even in 2010—some six decades into Independent existence—India harbours the world’s largest numbers of poor people in absolute terms, mud has great prospects.

Where mud is available, that is.

Even this minute some canny corporate might be working out the idea of manufacturing mud cakes at affordable prices, for all you know.

It is another matter that these numbers range from some 27% to 77% of the population in various officially constituted findings, giving policy-makers a headache as to which figure to authenticate as it formulates schemes like the “Food Security Act” etc.,


What is of importance in the attention that hunger receives in the HT is the recognition, however unstated and denied otherwise, that a polity so execrably unequal (because exploited) is a natural breeding ground for all sorts of mayhem.

Thus, contrary to the oft-repeated mantra of the prime minister that “Naxalism” is the greatest internal danger that India faces, there is an unacknowledged and shamefaced realization that infact it may be destitution that lies at the root of the problem.

And that this destitution, far from being an other-worldly imposition, is very much the yield of policies pursued, especially over the last two decades of “reform.”

Now, The Hindustan Times and the material interests it espouses and projects would die before ascribing India’s destitution to the political economy of free-market fundamentalism.

Which is why its panaceas encompass the well-worn moralisms of ruling class elitism: root out corruption, reign in the bureaucracy, de-hoard the grains, invest in storage facilites, encourage more private initiatives in the food industry, accept BT technologies, eliminate middle men in retail, let in corporates directly into trading food, and put down civil unrest with a firm hand. But at no cost pull down the private mining corporates who busily and illegally rob millions in the hinterland of their right to forest wealth, to land, to water, to livelihoods which have sustained them for centuries.

And at no cost make any public acknowledgement that Naxalism is causal. As in the case of “terrorism” condemn it several times a day as being without cause and merely an expression of metaphysical evil. And waiting to be bombed out of existence.


As I write, the government’s touted “Operation Green Hunt” against the Maoists has received an ugly jolt in the jungles of Dantewada in Chattisgarh—a state ruled by the Bhartiya Janata Party: some seventy five soldiers of a hunting Central Reserve Police Force party have been wiped out in a cannily orchestrated attack. And most of those killed perhaps as destitute as the Adivasis among whom Naxalism breeds.

The no-nonsense home minister of India, P.Chidhambaram, has shaken his erudite head and pointed to the indescribable barbarism of the Naxals. Nothing here about the failure of the state government, whereas only two days ago he was pleased to berate the chief minister of West Bengal for the failure of his administration to curb Naxalism in Lalgarh, reminding him that the buck must stop at his table.

So much for the politics of the issue. And no mention of where the buck may stop after today’s massacre.

The Maoists who are accused of wishing to overthrow the State and the Constitutional regime are told that all their grievances will be heard if they abjure violence. But it is not explained why those who routinely espouse allegiance to the Constitution while espousing the cause of the destitute are routinely done violence to by the State. Except of course that they are suspected to be Naxal “sympathizers” rather than committed to the cause of the destitute.

And the test of loyalty to the realm is uni-vocally held to be everybody’s unequivocal readiness to condemn Maoist barbarities while upholding the right of the State to the course it follows, as all debate on the issue of destitution is sought to be reduced to a “you are with us or you are against us” formula. Familiar Bushism. Not for nothing was he so well-loved in India.

Some time back the Maoist made an offer of a cease fire for seventy two days (a riposte to the official assertion that it would be willing to undertake talks within seventy two hours if the guns were silenced). That offer was expectedly accompanied by the stipulation that the State would put a hold on the ravaging Corporate activities in Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Orissa, and declare an adherence to the forest rights of the tribals as by Statute established.

There of course is the catch.

Many voices among India’s civil society ask why it is that in dealing with the problem born of destitution the State is unwilling to respect laws that indelibly protect those rights, to take cognizance of the bandit corporates who care a tuppence for the laws and the Constitution, and carry out their depredations with full connivance of the local authorities, or to enlist democratic voices who may be willing to bring the parties to the table on terms which are seen to be fair by contending interests.

Not surprisingly, such unwillingness is construed as the State’s class commitment to private marauders out to make a kill. While, India’s children blunt the edge of their hunger by eating silicon-laced mud.

Nor is there any acceptance of the fact that making war on its own destitute may not solve the problem. After all the days when genocide could be visited upon native populations with any conclusive prospect—the Native Indians in America, or the Aborigines in Australia—are long gone.

One would think that at a time when India has its hands full with depredations visited upon it by inimical neighbours, and when elements within the State do seem to favour a wider investment in social programmes, it would be good policy to unite the polity behind sound national purposes.

And that would require a bold acknowledgment that mere militarist or moralist bravado may not meet the situation. Rather a paradigmatic recognition that social violence that afflicts large parts of the country issues from policies that are brazenly calculated to fatten the already fat at the cost of those that eat mud.

Exactly as the State does now recognize that the social unrest among its religious minorities issues from causes that are and have lately been firmly identified as well. For example in the Sachar Committee and the Ranganath Mishra committee reports with respect to Indian Muslims.

What is it then that prevents the State from according similar credence to dozens of its own reports on the extent, nature, and causes of destitution, and the remedies thereof?

Might it not be the case that whereas inequities that relate to caste, religious community, gender, linguistic and ethnic allegiance, are seen to be negotiable by the State in one way or another, sooner or later, and often profitably, those that relate to class remain simply non-negotiable?

If indeed so, a great task awaits India’s social theorists in determining as to how the Constitution of the Republic may be squared with so blind a refusal to address inequities rooted in a non-negotiable devotion to Capitalism which seems to make its own laws and write its own Constitution.

And whether, should that devotion remain unmitigated and rather drunk with the prowess of the state-apparatus behind it, violence can ever be conclusively put down.


Badri Raina

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