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Politics Of Poverty:MAKES WAY FOR PROGRESS-CENTRIC CHANGE By Dharmendra Nath Print E-mail

Open Forum

New Delhi, 30 October 2012  

Politics Of Poverty….


By Dharmendra Nath


With another election season upon us our thoughts turn to assessing the public mind and mood. Due to major societal changes having taken place this time it might not be a replay of events. So far the poverty issue has been dominant. It may no longer be. What moves the public today are actions and decisions which enable or disable us for a better future.


At the time of Independence our literacy rate was 17% and life expectancy 32.5 years. Presently, our literacy rate is over 65% and life expectancy over 65 years. Foodgrain production which was 50 million tonnes is now nearly 250. This upswing in agricultural productivity is reflected in the farmers’ life style and agricultural land prices.


Even discounting for inflation, the jump in agricultural land prices from a few hundred Rupees an acre to lakhs of Rupees is significant. Plainly, anyone holding any land is a Lakhpati. Along-side the industrial and service sector growth has risen more.  


Recall, at the start of the planning era in the 50’s poverty was so widespread, that Ram Manohar Lohia asked: Who benefits from Five Year Plans? He wanted the focus to be on poverty and expected the Plans to do some thing.


In the last 60 years the country had seen only 1% per annum growth. In its wake P C Mahalanobis pioneered a study which found that nearly 40% of rural and nearly 50% of urban people were poor. Subsequently Dandekar and Rath worked on the concept of Poverty Line and over the years their idea became the sacred bedrock of our planning process.


With poor agricultural productivity as a result of poor agricultural investment compounded by vagaries of monsoons, while agriculture was the main stay of our economy there was absence of any institutional social security measures.


Years later, when the situation still did not change despite our socialist efforts like abolishing the ex-rulers privy purses, it seemed to confer on some totally unearned economic benefits in a surrounding sea of poverty.


Undeniably, Indira Gandhi created political capital out of it. Her catchy slogan ‘Garibi Hatao’ led to her tremendous popularity wherein she swept the polls. Yet we continued downhill and in 1991 had to mortgage our gold to Bank of England.


Nowadays the economic landscape is vastly changed. This is due to a cumulative effect of social, economic and political progress made over the post-liberalization years in early nineties. As in the national consciousness, poverty concerns are getting dislodged by emerging middle class worries.


The rising demand for readymade food, washed and cut vegetables, furniture, furnishings, designer clothes, jewellery, automobiles, household gadgets etc is a strong indication of the emerging trend. Think. Among our representatives more than 50% are crorepatis and our foreign exchange reserves are nearly $300 billion.


Importantly, India is approaching a watershed with the prospect of prosperity, not poverty. Said Mukesh Ambani recently, “Earlier rhetoric was about a glorious past, today’s is about a glorious future.” Politics like other sectors has to recognize this change.


The archetypal Indian today is no longer a poor rural villager in loin cloth but an upwardly mobile urban middle class worker who perhaps has a car, a motorcycle, mobile phone and laptop. The bullock cart has receded to the background.


Besides, there are visual signs of poverty reduction, fewer pavement dwellers, less littering and street vending. Their place has been taken by middle class icons, like IBM and Coca Cola which are back with a bang.


Coupled with social security measures including employment guarantee schemes, the phenomenon of extreme poverty has reduced. Our last famine was in 1943. After that there have been only degrees of scarcity which the country has taken in its stride.


According to various calculations the poverty ratio itself has declined from 40% to 30% of a growing population, an addition of 20-25 crores to the middle class rank which indirectly quantifies the poverty constituency loss.


Issues of food, clothing and shelter might remain on the margins yet the poor’s sights are higher. They too are fired by middle-class ambitions and nurse similar desires: Employment, bijli, sadak and paani not roti and kapada.


Their primary concerns are corruption; communalism and crime which stand hinder their progress. If these issues are tackled, the people think they would be able to help themselves. Particularly, corruption which is no longer viewed as an ethical issue but a roadblock.


Bluntly, people are seeking answers to a set of different questions relating to their upwardly mobile needs. Thereby, implying that the poverty card has played itself out.


Notably, playing on poverty frustrations is not going to help anyone electorally. Nor will token breaking bread with the deprived achieve that end. Grain at Rs 2-3 a kg too has limited appeal.  


Nowadays, the aam aadmi wants unshackling of the economy and the wherewithal of progress. Forget the ex-rulers privy purses sum of a few crores, we are in an age of lakhs of crores Rupees, both legal and illegal.


Consequently, not only is the preoccupations and concerns of this age different but the attitude of the people towards the Government has changed. People no longer consider the Government as their ‘mai baap’ but look at it as a responsible service provider from whom they expect responsible conduct and accountability.


Clearly, our politicians and bureaucrats have to realize this change. In this age of Right to Information, the civil society is asking critical questions on matters of public interest. Underscoring, a restructuring of people’s relationship with the State which calls for a different kind of political response. Whereby, the electoral fight is going to be for middle class votes over prosperity concerns. This also spells a renewal of our democracy.


In sum, as the complexion of the electorate changes so also will the nature of our elected representatives need to change. Sooner or later we will see among our rulers’ people of different persuasion capable of answering new-age questions. Thereby, ushering India from poverty-based vote bank politics in to an era of progress-centred change. ----- INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)




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