Sunday, December 26, 2010

Nobody Cares

While children are dying of malnutrition, our leaders are busy comforting the corporate sector

This week’s show of ‘Walk the Talk’ by Shekhar Gupta was the third in a series of episodes that seemed to be dedicated to bringing forth the corporate viewpoint to counter the current environment of mistrust, post Radiagate. While the first two were with Ratan Tata and Deepak Parekh, obvious corporate representatives, it is telling that as the third he chose Sharad Pawar – the Minister for Agriculture and also for Food, Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution.

In the midst of reports of high malnutrition deaths from the slums of Mumbai, an exclusive interview is conducted with the Minister for Agriculture and Food. He happens to be from the same state of Maharashtra where these deaths have happened and not a single question is asked to him about the state of food security, hunger or malnutrition. The entire interview is about how wrong signals are being sent out to the corporate world and if this continues investments will decline. It just reflects the extent to which this government and the media are sold out to corporate interests.

On the other hand the Food Minister until now has not found the time to say anything substantial on what his position on the proposed National Food Security Bill is. The NAC has set a framework for the Bill and the Prime Minister has set up another committee to examine this, but we don’t know where the concerned Minister is in all of this. After all, as the Food Minister, one would expect that he should have a view on this.

It is indeed shocking how the media (barring a few individuals) can be so consumed with the India growth story that there is hardly any space to report on the poverty and deprivation being faced by so many. The media has failed to play the role of critically looking at this situation and analysing it in the light of government failure.

Another related event recently which reflects this same trend is the statement of the Prime Minister in his inaugural speech at the India Corporate Week. This was where the Prime Minister made his first public statement in response to the leaks of the Radia tapes. All he said was that, how the tapes were leaked will be investigated and care will be taken to ensure that this does not happen again! Not a single statement on the content of the tapes. Nothing on the general feeling these conversations give to everyone who reads them, that cabinet positions are decided (or at least strongly influenced) by corporate interests. The Prime Minister did not feel it was necessary to assure the nation that important political decisions are taken in an unbiased manner, but did stick his neck out to assure the corporate bosses that they will not be put in a spot again!

The mainstream media too has given space to corporate fears that the ‘negativity’ generated by the Radia tapes leak “would hurt the image of brand India and turn away business”. How come images of starvation and malnutrition from the financial capital of the country do not generate any “negativity”?

As a country, we seem to have got so used to high levels of inequality and the existence of billionaires alongside the poorest that it does not make news anymore. This sorry state of affairs is reflected in every indicator of human development. India ranks 119 out of 169 in the Human Development Index and 73 out of 103 in the Multidimensional Poverty Index. We are home to the largest number of malnourished children, and to the highest number of women dying during childbirth across the world. Resistance to such injustice is obviously weak and needs to be strengthened.

One of the ways of doing this is to demand the fair share of the government’s resources for the poor. Public programmes for employment, food, health and education should be seen as part of the redistribution efforts of the government. Currently, the amount of public spending on any of these sectors is way short of what is required. In spite of all the ‘hype’ about the emerging India, most children in our country go to schools that do not have toilets and women deliver in health centres that do not even have essential medicines. In many parts of the country the only programme we have for pre-school children (ICDS) runs without any space, with children sitting out in the open.

Whenever there is a demand for greater resources to be spent on social sector programmes, it is argued that the country cannot afford such huge amounts. Each scam and the response to it (‘IPL’, ‘Adarsh’, ‘2G’...), reminds us that it is not a problem of lack of resources but of priority.

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