Delhi Belly: The Heart Of The Matter

For a Prime Minister whose tag line is “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas”, who weeps publicly at the thought of his humble origins, who has promised to double farmers’ income in four years, who has elevated the “viklang” to the status of a “divyang”, Mr. Modi’s government displays very little genuine compassion when it comes to these people or the public at large. In its hurry to leapfrog into the next millenium, it has demonstrated an insensitivity bordering on the callous towards the day-to-day problems of the average citizen, born perhaps out of a disconnect and the arrogance of a victor. It has been acting in haste and stalling at leisure, as the occasion demands. In either case it is the common citizen who is suffering.

Take Aadhar, which is being rammed down the gullets of 1.30 billion people. By mandating its linkage with just about ALL government schemes in every nook and cranny of a country which is heavily under banked and where tens of thousands of villages have no inter connectivity, it has caused untold misery – lakhs of people have been deleted from MNREGA rolls, or denied PDS benefits, or deprived of subsidy for gas connections. Even school children have been denied mid-day meals because they did not have an Aadhar card. Some of these may have been “ghost” entities, but the majority are Aadhar casualties. In a largely illiterate country with millions of rural people migrating to towns in search of jobs, it is a nightmare for them to establish ID or address, to open bank accounts or obtain gas connections, to avail of any govt. scheme for the poor. This has naturally bred a huge market for corruption. In its haste to roll out the scheme, and lacking the capacity to do it itself, the government franchised it out to private companies who have inadequate data security back-up. Aadhar cards are now being reportedly sold (without proper ID or address proof) for 1000-15000 rupees. Last year a Pakistani terrorist was found to have an Aadhar card! The 6th June issue of the Hindustan Timed reveals that UIDAI has had to terminate the contracts of 34000 agents (out of a total of 650000) for malpractices. Even worse, analysts fear that individual security may be compromised on a colossal scale for it is possible for these private agents to copy and retain the biometrics of an individual before passing on the data to UIDAI.

Demonetisation (a needed scheme, but ill conceived and implemented) has thrown millions out of work, in the poorest sections of our populace – the daily labourer, the small and marginal farmer, local artisans. The sheer inflexibility and unresponsiveness displayed by the govt. has now prompted the Supreme Court to order it to provide another window to genuine cases for returning their old notes.

The most recent move – GST- is following the same, well trodden path to large scale misery. The usual practice globally has been to provide a “transition period” of upto a year before introduction of GST in order to educate both industry and the consumer on its effects, processes and prices. Such an introductory phase was even more needed in India given the unorganised nature of its trade, low digital awareness and infrastructure and past record of its tax authorities. By refusing to do so in its typical inflexible way the govt. has again disrupted the economy when it had not even fully recovered from the DM blow. Once again it is the poorest and most marginal who have been hit: “Mandis” are not buying from farmers, truckers are sitting idle, the pharmaceutical supply chain has been disrupted, and prices have started rising. Big business is prepared for GST (it always is) but some thought should have been given to the mom and pop stores, the labour and small manufacturer involved in the downstream linkages. The problem is not only about unwillingness to pay taxes (as Mr. Jaitley seems to believe with his head firmly stuck in the sand) but also about capacity to handle the complex maze of the new law.

Its not about just the economy, however: Mr. Modi’s regime has displayed the same lack of compassion and empathy when it comes to social issues. For the first time assistive devices for the physically challenged – eg. wheelchairs, Braille books, physiotherapy equipment – have been taxed under GST – whatever happened to the Prime Minister’s rhapsody about “Divyangs”? Forget any tangible step to help the farmers who continue to kill themselves in their thousands, he has not even condoled publicly their deaths. Not a word about the six who were killed in police firing by his government. Or about the increasing numbers of Muslims lynched by the mobs inspired by his party’s bovine brand of politics. Or about the millions thrown out of employment by the government’s cattle and beef policies. Or about the dozens blinded by the security forces in Kashmir and the hundreds killed there since he teamed up with the PDP – actually, a correction: he did have something to say to the Kashmiris – choose between terrorism and tourism ! Just the balm which a wounded state needs, don’t you think? Surely some healing words are in order when your own citizens are dying by the hundreds, never mind who is at fault. Proforma speeches are no substitute for genuine compassion, and clever acronyms do not amount to substantive action, but these are all we have got so far.

Proof of the govt’s skewed priorities was provided last year when two reports were released: one, the Global Hunger Index and second, the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business. The former revealed India had slipped from 83rd place in 2000 to the 97th position in 2016, below even Bangladesh and Nepal; the second report showed that we had improved our position by one place: from 131 to 130 during this period. No importance was attached to the hunger index and govt. took it in its stride. All the official concern was on the business report, which was an obvious disappointment for officialdom given the hype created with Make in India, Stand Up India and Digital India. The Commerce Minister expressed concern, review meetings were held and even the PM asked union Ministries and the states to immediately analyse the reasons for the slow progress. Wide spread hunger and malnutrition are not important, start-ups are.

Never have we had a government so lacking in compassion and genuine concern for its citizens. It is a cold and calculating dispensation. The bitter truth is that the present government is focused on a regulatory over-drive, rather than on welfare. Its all about linking Aadhar, PAN, bank accounts, mobile phones, gas connections, restrictive laws, sedition cases, bans, disciplining educational institutions, terrorism, black money and “surgical strikes.” The poor can wait till we first have one united country, and, as Nishi Saran so perceptively noted in a recent article, the country is being united by hate, not love. This government cannot see beyond winning elections (at which it is admittedly very good). Its holy grail is power, and the Trinity it worships is GDP, Hindutva and Nationalism. Sometimes I wonder: has India got its first Bionic government, where the heart has been replaced by an EVM or a POS swipe machine ?

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