The current post was actually in the nature of a brief response to the text of a talk “Poverty, Corruption and Accountability” delivered by late Sri Pradhan Jwala Prasad at the Rotary Club Patna , which he had mailed to me for my comment .Sri Pradhan was a distinguished engineer and a public spirited senior citizen with a variety of social concerns which put us younger ones to shame. He firmly believed in the power of reason and critical debate so vital to a vibrant civil society. Unfortunately he died only a couple of days ago in a very unfortunate accident and I held back the mail which was written on the same evening-but not sent for some reason- that he died. I have now decided to post it on my blog as a tribute to the memory of Sri Pradhan
THE POOR MUST PREVAIL
In a market driven society the poor cannot create demand nor step up the market hence they stand in stark contradiction to the logic of the neo-liberal order. Yet there is a very unusual political consensus that will not oppose, either on pragmatic considerations or for reasons of economic viability, the allocation of resources to poverty eradication programmes even though there has been routine and unedifying lack of achievement and orientation in meeting the targets. A certain agreed inefficiency in the management of these programmes is also perhaps part of the same consensus. Every culture obligates its citizens to set apart a sum of money towards charity, Dan, or Zakat, where the recipient is an anonymous, incidental medium for ensuring one’s own rites of passage. The poverty alleviation programmes may sometimes appear to be a mode of political correctness and expiation.
To introduce some clarity in our thinking it would be useful to differentiate the role of various agencies. The professional economists, statisticians etc devise the parameters for defining poverty and methods of arriving at poverty estimates .The political establishment makes the necessary allocation, and the budget is approved by the legislature. The problem of identifying the actual poor in accordance with given criteria and ensuring that the subsidy reaches the deserving poor –essentially a managerial problem –is the exclusive domain of the bureaucratic apparatus of the state government.
We are still wedded to the old colonial concept - salvation only at the hands of the district magistrate- where the district administration is a pre existent arrangement to be assigned any and every task, howsoever, over worked, or ill equipped in terms of both motivation and skills it may be. The poor achievements in the poverty alleviation programmes can be largely attributed to the fact that the system geared to the task of delivering the benefits is rigid, attitudinally inadequate and unbending to the task in hand. Traditionally the authority of the district magistrate is rooted, largely, in the fact that he commands the obedience of the district police force. But where as it is advantageous in –maintaining law and order, reigning in the malcontents, performing regulatory functions, the law –and – order – cast –of –mind has a countervailing disadvantage for this kind of a task. The poor, in their inability to articulate their concerns, in claiming their due are vulnerable and helpless like newborn babies. It is not enough to make allocations; it is more important to reach it to his doorsteps and empower him to claim it as his right. The newborn baby and the poor are alike in their helplessness- they are stricken with hunger but cannot articulate it, nor may reach for food howsoever plentiful the availability. Just as the baby has to be helped to the mother’s breast for nourishment a lot of flexibility and hand holding is required in reaching the relief to the poor households. For the poor to benefit from any programme one has to understand the narrow realities of his life and above all have great compassion commitment. Otherwise since the bureaucracy is also in the monopolistic possession of information, it can always manage -and manipulate it, to its advantage. But more importantly, performance in this major sector of the state activity and the career rewards of civil servants are not aligned on the same plain. How cavalier can some civil servants be will be evident presently.
Just one monumental deception perpetrated by the Food and Civil Supplies Department in the year 2002- it is being quoted because it is emblematic and the facts are in the public domain -will demonstrate that the poor can sometimes be stripped of their humanity and be reduced to being mere numbers in government records.
In the year 1998 the food cell of the Economic Offences Wing of the CID during the course of its investigation into the Red card scheme came across huge irregularities both in terms of errors of exclusion as well as inclusion. The distribution of the subsidized food grains was another racket. The EOW registered more than 40 cases– was obliged to register because these irregularities constituted cognizable offences and the police are duty bound to investigate each one of them. 800 more such cases were registered in the districts in a particular period of time, against various functionaries of food and civil supplies department and FP shop owners. The number of accused may have run into thousands. Several detailed and evidence based reports urged to get a genuine survey conducted because the dimension of the problem was not amenable to solution by criminal cases. The sheer volume would place it beyond the reach of such a measure. How many people can you prosecute? Ten thousand, a hundred thousand, the sheer enormity of the numbers would nullify the power of deterrence.
Under constant pressure to weed out ineligible from the list of beneficiaries, the department of food and civil services conveyed to all concerned in 2002 that a survey had brought to light 21, 00,018 ineligible beneficiaries, and a district wise break up for all the 37 districts was given out. It also had been able to identify the ineligible beneficiaries as well as an exact number of the eligible ones so that a neat swapping could take place. The Economic Offences wing of the CID which was keeping a very close eye on the situation contested this but it was overruled and the matter was handed over to the Vigilance for further investigation. The CAG report discovered, during its detailed audit of Food Security programme in 2005 -2006, that this bit of statistic was a figment of imagination .No such survey had taken place! When asked to clarify, “The department stated that the departmental figures were based on rough estimation of 30 per cent families. The reply of the department is not tenable because rough estimation cannot lead to deletion of ineligible and inclusion of eligible families in absence of specific information relating to individual beneficiary.” (Page 69 of the Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India. For the year ending 31st March 2006. Civil.)
The Vigilance Department, which had been entrusted with the enquiry after divesting the food cell of the EOW of the responsibility, was alerted during their inquiry to the fact that no such survey had taken place. But instead of unmasking the lie it skirted the issue altogether and submitted its several hundred-page rambling report, with no clear cut recommendation, which reached the government after 3 years. Given that the delivery system is a network of responsibilities so organized and so subdivided that the individual is conscious of no responsibility at all, it sometimes becomes difficult to call the various functionaries to account. Performance of the civil servants in this major sector of the state activity and their career rewards are not aligned on the same plain. Not many of these have come to much grief for the tardy implementation of the TPDS programme which may have deprived the poor of Bihar of food subsidy opportunity worth thousands of crores of rupees between 1998 and 2005. But significantly enough the Secretary Food and Civil Supplies who solved the problem of identification with the simple expedient device of shouting “Aaall is well” and the obliging police officer who lent a helping hand did extremely well for themselves.
Thus in the absence of a credible and parallel channel of information and grass root level political commitment the bureaucracy can sometimes stall feed the Government any data. More than that such large scale doctored figures not only derail the ongoing programme but they also create a false template for future revisions. Pre existing figures are like indentations or grooves into which any identification exercise naturally gets sucked into given the arduous nature of the task. Political representatives -even of the so called pro poor parties- often indulge in canvassing for the inclusion of favoured groups and individuals urge the exclusion of their adversaries. Thus identification of the poor becomes problematic. It is also the obligation of political parties to make the poor worthy recipients of welfare programmes of the state, which as Lawrence Mead says in his book Beyond Entitlement, is to create “civic obligations ...send the children to school, respect the rights of others. It does not in any manner obligate the poor to any political party.” In absence of this dialectic the poverty alleviation programmes tend to become a mode of domination and dependence.
A fact that has escaped the notice of poverty economists is that the poverty alleviation programmes almost necessarily lead to a large scale impoverishment of the public sphere and the debasement of the values of the community. Since the per capita subsidy is extremely low a very large number of the poor have to be excoriated to make a decent pile. Thus a formidable nexus of graft and rent seeking on a grand scale –there were approximately 55000 FP shops in Bihar during the particular period - develops in which civil servants, elements of politics, law enforcement, freely collaborate for mutual benefit. The collections evaporate at the lower reaches and precipitate at higher peaks and generally may not leave an audit trail. But it inculcates a way of life based on corruption, unlawful behaviour and a general attitude of cynicism and despair. The criminal cases registered in the wake of some enquiry or the other slowly languish and are ultimately settled out of court or plainly forgotten. If at all the cases reach the courts, the poor are further cheated by the system by being asked to attend these criminal proceedings either as a complainant witness, or an accused- thus losing his wage for that day, if he is lucky; things could be lot worse - because the poor sod put his LTI or signature on some paper.
The lack of social empowerment of the poor makes a mockery of their legal entitlement. The extraordinary passivity of the poor underlies the paradoxical situation: their social reality becomes starker even as they are becoming a credible political force. The institutions of the open society do not fare much better. The TPDS matter was continuously agitated in the legislative assembly, writs were filed in the Hon’ble Patna High Court and the Supreme Court .No less than 1000 reports appeared in various newspapers. But in the absence of a sustained engagement and lack of access to authentic information, neither relief nor recompense came their way. The media has created a thriving public sphere but it is still far from creating some kind of a participative parity in terms of issues and agenda as far as the disadvantaged groups are concerned.
Given the enormity of the task, the community must step in to act as a guarantor. Instead of treating it as a bipartite issue between the anonymous state and the nameless, luckless beneficiary, it must assert its role as a stakeholder for the programmes to achieve the transformative impact. Even though programmes like NREGA and even TPDS have an important vigilance and social audit roles, the civil society at large helplessly watches the miscarriage of the programme.
The idea of a welfare state, we may remind ourselves, is not the result of the efforts of progressive minded thinkers but of a hard headed “reactionary” like Karl von Bismarck who was aware of the threat to the well being, security and stability of the state form the poor malcontents. We may not always get the allocation that we demand -competitive claims on national resources decide that- but we can certainly ensure that every paisa that is allocated reaches the beneficiary to stem the appeal of extremism. It is all for our own good.
The author had the occasion to investigate many of the anti poverty programmes during his 14 year stay in the Economic Offences Wing of the CID Bihar where he closely observed the nuts and bolts of the delivery appartus as well as the mechanics of the programme implementation . This article is a thumbnail version of a larger project - which has since been abandoned -The Parable of the Well Paid Public Servant: A Review of Three Major Poverty Alleviation Programmes (Targeted Public Distribution System, the Dhoti Sari scheme and the Indira Gandhi Awas Yojana, the whole ensemble of Roti, Kapada and Makan.)The write up referred to is more in the nature of a police report- heeding the advice of Pierre Bordeau, the noted French sociologist,- that one must avoid the temptation to turn these stories in to “literature”. The best thing Bordeau says is “to make our readers see that raw absurdity, without any special effects. …. to allow these stories to retain their extraordinary and almost unbearable violence.”
These generalizations draw upon his experience of investigating a slew of cases but only TPDS programme 1998 -2005 has been cited, given the limited scope of an article and the fact that this particular incident has for long been in the public domain.