Tuesday, May 29, 2012

I’ve been thinking about what Gandhiji would do about our Public Distribution System (PDS). At the heart of this programme is the idea that the poor must not starve: They must have a bit of food security, despite market prices or black-marketeers. It is an idea Gandhiji would approve of. Most of us would find it very hard to dispute the rectitude of this idea.
But the PDS has never worked as well as it should. Recently, finance minister Pranab Mukherjee even said, “Improper PDS is the biggest weakness of the country.” He said this while talking to students at Mohanlal Sukhadia University in Udaipur. It must have rung painfully true, given that this was south Rajasthan, which has reported several hunger deaths in recent years...
As it is, the last Global Hunger Index report (2011) has ranked us 67 (among 88 nations) when it comes to food security. We have 
actually dropped a rank since 2008, when we were ranked 66. Our overall situation is judged ‘alarming’.
Researchers have also developed an India State Hunger Index, which calculates hunger and malnutrition within India. They looked at 17 states, and claim to have covered 95% of the population. Some states, expectedly, did better. Punjab, for instance, was the best performer – its food security situation is merely ‘serious’. Madhya Pradesh was ‘extremely alarming’, 
with people suffering greater hunger here than in Ethiopia or Sudan. Gandhiji would not have approved.
It is also true, of course, that India is a food-surplus nation. Or so it claimed to be, in our school textbooks. But this ‘surplus’ exists because too many of us — some estimates suggest 836 million Indians survive on less than Rs20 per day — either have no land to grow food, or don’t have jobs that pay enough to buy food.
If we are not to turn into a failed state, we have to prevent mass hunger. The PDS is a firm step in that direction. But what ails the PDS?
One answer is ‘poor offtake’, which means our distribution system isn’t distributing far and wide enough. Another is ‘leakages’. This doesn’t refer to rats biting through sackcloth. It refers to non-hungry people stealing grain meant for hungry Indians.
The way to tackle theft is to police it. But the PDS is a complex system. There are too many stages of transportation and storage and sale. No matter how alert administration officials are, or how honest, it is hard to plug a million leaks unless a food inspector physically stands around, guarding each sack of grain. We know that isn’t a tenable solution.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Kum se kum akela chana bhaad mein gaya to sahi

Shyamal Chaudhary, a 65-year-old farmer was running around, trying to get the block office to sanction an irrigation project in his village. Finally, he got sick of the runaround and gave up.
Except, he didn’t really give up. He just got up and did it himself. Alone. It took 14 years, but he did it. His own farming income went up, of course, and he could fish in the pond too. Since things were hard for everyone in the village, Chaudhary shared his pond with the community. Things have been better, since.
There are many lone grams in this country. There was Kamleshwari Singh, a farmer from Bihar, who spent seven years digging. People laughed at him; some called him ‘talaabi baba’. Perhaps they thought he had gone mad. But he went on digging, and when he was done, he had created a large pond.
There’s Rajinder Singh, now described as India’s ‘water man’, who initially dug alone in ‘dark’ thirsty Alwar, trying to find water.
There was Dashrath Manjhi, another Bihari who created a road over hilly tracts with his own hands, and no help. Manjhi was lucky enough to be honoured during his lifetime and cremated with state honours when he died.
Another recent report mentioned Suresh Khanapurkar and Amrish Patel, who worked together to resolve the water crisis in several villages of Shirpur taluka, Dhule district. They did this although Khanapurkar is described as an RSS supporter, and Patel, a Congressman.
Why am I suddenly thinking of these people? Well, we have several infrastructure and hygiene problems where we live. There have been improvements over the years, but there’s no end to such problems because maintenance is a lifetime responsibility.
Much of the ‘open’ or leisure spaces promised by the builder was swallowed up or sold off. Garbage piles up on the roads. Rats breed merrily. Drains aren’t covered. Every monsoon brings the risk of floods.
My mother, by way of community service, had been slaving away at beautifying the area behind our building. Many people told her not to bother. Some mocked her. Some warned her that all her hard work would be destroyed in a few weeks. Even I snapped at her, asking why she worked so hard when the rest of the community was merrily choking up our gutters with plastic waste.
She carried on — sweeping, cementing walls, digging, colouring pots, buying flowering plants, white-washing. On mothers’ day, she got a few women together and ceremonially offered a clean corner of beauty to the community.
Another suburban friend told me about his building’s resident ‘akela chana’ — a young woman who got sick of the filth and starting sweeping the common area outside. After two months, a few other women — women only, it seems - were shamed into helping her. Somehow, the building got clean and so far, it has stayed clean.
So, I’m wondering if the oven of our problems can be busted if we just did what needs getting done. We could at least stop mocking the ‘akela chana’ who is trying.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

It's not about the kaam, but the daam

I wonder if you travel by cycle-rickshaw. I wonder because recently, some friends mentioned that they suffer too much guilt on account of the fellow pulling the rickshaw.
I rarely feel guilty, except when I see three full-bodied adults pulled by an elderly man who looks like his lungs could do with a year in a sanatorium. But after a few years in Mumbai, I saw rickshaws as some of my friends (Mumbai-bred, or NRIs) do - an artefact in the museum of oppression.

I examined my feelings towards hand-pulled rickshaws in Kolkata and thought that I couldn’t bring myself to ride one. So, although I continued to hire cycle-rickshaws, I told myself that perhaps I’m blind to the oppression dangling from the handlebars. Perhaps I owed my lack of guilt to middle class antecedents. Most of my childhood memories are from Lucknow where cycle-rickshaws were the only affordable mode of transport... 

Then I visited the UK, where taxis were an indulgence I couldn’t afford. Besides, I wanted to walk around London. But I was wearing high heels that day, and so I ended up barefoot and ready to weep from exhaustion. And lo! What do I see?
A clutch of cycle-rickshaws wafting about. These bright rickshaws were clearly a tourist attraction and confined to a touristy part of town. I didn’t think I could afford them, but a puller - a six-foot-plus, beefy blonde - approached me.
I mentioned my destination; he whipped out a map; he quoted five pounds; I hopped on. Along the way, I asked questions - who he was, whether he made enough, did he eat well? He was a Polish immigrant. Yes, he made enough to eat well and sleep safe.
Suddenly, the penny dropped and the rickshaw guilt slid off my back. Once again, I saw the cycle-rickshaw as it was — a much-needed service, a healthy alternative to motor vehicles, a joyride.
But what we call the humble, besieged ricksha in Lucknow becomes a pedicab or ‘eco chariot’ in London. What I paid in London would cover a coffee and croissant in a nice sit-down cafe. Or it would buy a couple of sandwiches, muffins, and maybe some milk at the supermarket. For the same distance, a Lucknow puller gets paid Rs 15, not enough to buy one paratha at a dhaba.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Suffering, and happy

Surveys can be very confusing, of course. Last year (2011), the Gallup poll found that only 11% Indians were ‘thriving’, Pakistan was apparently doing better, at 20%. This, even though food insecurity is higher and confidence in the government much lower in Pakistan.

In any case, it seems to me that many of us have been lying about our misery. Because, according to another survey conducted by Ipsos Global, Indians are the second-happiest people in the world. Which means that either most Indians surveyed were from the ‘thriving’ class, or else, far too many of us enjoy our suffering.

So much struggling and suffering isn’t hard to believe since we fare badly on most indices of wellbeing. According to the Legatum Prosperity Index, for instance, India was ranked 91 (among 110 nations), because of our low per capita GDP, and the lack of social support.

If you want to know why we lack social support, look at our tax reports. A parliamentary committee, headed by Yashwant Sinha, found that just 4,06,000 taxpayers earn more than Rs20 lakh per annum (in 2010-11). That’s just over 1% of India’s total taxpayer base.

In our national wealth narrative, 88.98% are crammed into the 0-5 lakh income bracket, which means most of us don’t have much that can be taxed. But 1.25% of us sprawl across the 20 lakh+ bracket, and they contribute 63 percent to the personal tax collected. These figures apply to individuals, of course, and not to businesses, but they tell us how suffering (or happiness) works.

Another newspaper has an income-bracket calculator up on its website. You feed in your income, and it tells you where you are on India’s financial ladder. Say, you earn Rs 12,000 a month and are the only earning member in your family. You’d still be among the top 8.45%.

But the question is, what does Rs 12,000 mean? What it means in a village, I cannot say, but in a metropolitan city like Mumbai, it means being dangerously close to poor. It may not translate into going to bed hungry. But it does mean long, exhausting commutes in overcrowded buses and trains. It means not having access to fresh fruit. It means being slightly overweight and malnourished at the same time, since you cannot afford to eat the good stuff.

Read full piece here

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

What surprised me was the newspapers’ howling. Then, I realised that most journalists — especially editors — ride in cars or taxis or autos. In this, they were no different from industrialists and senior bureaucrats. I remember being told by a senior politician how, at a meeting, everyone was moaning about how buses now actually went faster than the ministers’ cars. The senior politician hid his amusement in his moustache. Just a few days ago, his peon had been talking about how chuffed he was about the BRT.

Four years later, I assumed things had settled down. But apparently not. Someone filed a petition and the Delhi High Court (the judges use cars, of course) has asked the Central Road Research Institute to conduct a study on how the BRT might work if it was ‘normal’. This, although a survey shows that 40% car owners accept that the BRT reduces traffic snarls. Another survey shows that up to 85% of respondents are willing to use buses if the network improves.
What the CRRI will say is anybody’s guess, but I believe that true feasibility studies can only be conducted by people who actually use public transport. I feel that everyone who writes about BRTs should be forced to commute in buses or cycles for a year.
For too long, transport and urban planning policies have been framed by those who ride in cars. More and more flyovers are built. Existing roads are eaten up by cars parked on either side. Spaces earmarked for gardens or homes are converted into parking lots. But there’s no additional taxing of families who saddle the city with two, three and four cars. We talk of ‘world-class cities’, but in cities like Vienna, Munich, Rome, and even New York, certain areas are car-free.
If Mumbai had no-car zones, we’d be a better-looking, healthier city. But oh, our fear of sunshine! So, here we are, building a city where nobody can walk, or cycle, safely, and where we drive to gyms so we may walk on a stationary treadmill. And we pop pills to make up for the lack of K and D vitamins that the sun could give us for free.
Remember the moaning about skywalks? People were saying it was a waste of money, because who uses skywalks?
Well, I do. 
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