The real Path to Social Justice

The new Prime Minister, Mr Inder Kumar Gujral, says that he will give high priority to social justice. Everbody will applaud politely. But he needs to ask why, despite the sworn intentions of party after party over five decades, social justice proves so elusive. The problem is that all parties want to solve the problem through higher subsidies and new anti-poverty schemes. It is now quite clear that these yield meagre results. Instead of saying so and look solutions elsewhere, most politicians take refuge in ever re subsidies and anti-poverty schemes.

This approach will always fail because the delivery of subsidies and anti-poverty services is done through a bureaucracy that has become one gigantic mafia that loots the exchequer and people with impunity. No political party has dared reform the bureaucracy-the trade unions are too powerful to touch. Every petty functionary, no matter how corrupt or inefficient, plies his trade safe in the knowledge that he cannot be sacked. And yet minister after minister proposes new schemes to be handled by the very tribe of parasites that already makes off with untold thousands of crores

Consider the principal innovation of the Narasimha Rao income in this area. Declaring that the public distribution system did not get to the really poor districts, it launched a revamped public distribution system (RPDS) covering 2,496 development blocks in the country. The RPDS aimed to provide grain that was cheaper than regular ration shop supply by 50 paise per kilo. This was supposed to prove that the Congress party’s heart bled for the poor.

Really? Look at a recent survey by Kripa Shankar of RPDS in 21 tribal villages in Mirzapur District,Uttar Pradesh. This showed that:

Not a single consumer in the 21 villages had ever got any subsidised grain from the ration shops. Inquiries in neighbouring villages and hallia, the block headquarters, showed that nobody ever got subsidised grain in the surrounding area either.

  • Hallia block has issued 30,510 ration cards for 1.32 lakh individuals, and gets an allocation of 2,920 quintals of wheat and 1,000 quintals of rice per month. This entire quantity is siphoned off and sold in the open market, with the gains split between corrupt bureaucrats and traders.
  • The ration shop owners get wheat at Rs 3.75 per kilo and are supposed to sell it at Rs 3.77 per. kilo. It is impossible to do this profitably. Besides, they have to pay the venal food inspector Rs 10 per bag, the clerk concerned gets Rs 5 per bag, and the porter Rs 2 per bag. Clearly, no honest shopkeeper can ever enter this business. Only crooks qualify. So the outcome should surprise nobody.
  • The ration shops provide some subsidised kerosene and sugar to consumers. However, the RPDS provides only 41 per cent of local kerosene consumption and 22 per cent of sugar consumption. Villagers get most of their needs from the open market. And the bulk of subsidised sugar and kerosene to relatively large landowners.

The results of the survey were published in Economic and Political Weekly, in the issue of March 29. Cynics will say it simply confirms what was always known. But if it is so well known, is anybody changing tack ? No, the United Front is expanding the same corrupt distribution system further, aiming to provide 10 kilos of grain at half the ration-shop price to all poor families. Needless to say, this will become a complicated way to further enrich crooked . bureaucrats, crooked traders and non- poor consumers.

Yet no party dares say so. And few journalists dare say so either. They are so concerned with being politically correct that they refuse to call a fraud a fraud. Instead they encourage competition between political parties in high-sounding schemes that waste precious funds and benefit crooks.

A similar charade is evident in social spending on education and health. India spends around 3.8 per cent of its GDP on education. When Mr Narasimha Rao was Prime Minister, he proposed to double that level. Many supposed intellectuals applauded. They did not bother to ask how China and Korea, which spend much less (around 3.4 per cent of GDP) on education have fared so much better than India. In Mao’s time China improved literacy by leaps and bounds while spending only 2.5 per cent of GDP on education.

How come? Because Mao was serious about education and Indian politicians are not. Most government teachers do not attend school regularly, and make money giving private tuitions instead. Many of them are hand in glove with local politicians, and benefit from the patronage network. If this system remains unreformed, there economic reform. But villagers have not heard of the topic. A survey by the Centre of Development Studies before the last election showed that only 14 per cent of rural voters had heard of economic liberalisation has not touched the rural millions.

The face of the government that rural folk see is that of the patwari, the thanedar, the electricity board linesman, the PWD man. And these folk are as unreformed, corrupt, callous and inefficient as ever. Until they are reformed, liberalisation will continue to be meaningless to most of our people.

The need of the hour is administrative reform. We need to end the current system of a permanent bureaucracy answerable only to a distant state capital. We need to shift to a system where bureaucrats are appointed for five-year renewable terms by panchayats. Any employee falling to deliver satisfactory service ‘should be replaced when his contract ends.

Only when that happens will teachers suddenly start attending schools. Only then will food inspectors ensure that grain actually reaches ration shops. Only then will thousands of crores allotted to the poor actually reach them.

There is, of course, a minor problem. trade unions will oppose this tooth and nail. Politicians at the state level will oppose too, since it will take patronage and money out of their hands and transfer it to panchayats.

If Mr Inder Gujral is really serious about social justice, he must take courage in both hands and tackle this fundamental problem. He must reform the administrative mechanism for delivering services before pumping ever more money into it. Otherwise social justice will remain a hollow slogan.

What do you think?