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India’s skewed priorities: Pampering the corrupt and neglecting the poor

  • Published at 01:25 am May 21st, 2018
Between 2010 and 2015, 8 million children died annually in India on average because of malnutrition and related diseases AFP

It can no longer be dismissed as fake news: for years successive administrations ruled by the Congress and the BJP have encouraged top level corruption in India, at the expense of taxpayers and poorest citizens.

Such an indictment of Indian policymakers becomes unavoidable when one studies the sad state of public health and education in the country. Certain indices are among the worst in the world, well below norms already achieved in neighbouring Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

These relate to women empowerment and literacy, mother/ child care and rural economic development.

Ignoring constant prodding from UN agencies and experts, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has relentlessly reduced welfare related expenses. Until recently, it steadily increased freebies and concessions for its pampered corporate sector.

A few random facts reveal India’s abysmal record in the maintenance of public health.

Between 2010 and 2015, 8 million children died annually in India on average because of malnutrition and related diseases, often within weeks of birth. India’s share of such deaths was the largest in the world – 40%! The mortality rate among infants (children below 3) was reduced from 75 to 48 for every 1000 births, between 2005 and 2015--- still very high.

By the end of 2015, 33% of new born infants were stunted, 19% of them being acutely weak!

Over 45.3% of the survivors suffered from malnutrition, with poor feeding records between ages of 3 and 6.

The shocking tale continues. With Indian society being broadly male dominated, it was natural that the girl child was the worst victim in terms of receiving -birth minimum nutrition and medical aftercare.

Not surprisingly, most delivering mothers were themselves as much victims of a cruel exploiting system as their ill-fated offsprings, having suffered similar neglect.

Half of the (rural) children up to age 6 remained in danger because of infections, according to Indian Medical Association Studies. Pneumonia, meningitis, loose motions, and septic infections were also rife. Malnourished mothers gave birth to relatively weaker, lighter babies with poor body mass index.

Alarmingly, it is becoming harder to access such figures that reveal the deficiencies in the public welfare system in India. This is why latest details regarding the situation prevailing in 2016 or 2017 may be available only in classified official documents.

Nevertheless, India’s share of malnourished women in the world stood at 46% well into the first decade of the new millennium. This at a time when its leaders were talking of the country becoming a major international power!

“Why not?” argued both Congress and BJP leaders, as they harped on development statistics not unimpressive for a country that became independent only in 1947.

In IT and the communication sectors, the number of people using internet facilities went up over ten fold, from 20 to 250 million people between 2004 and 2014. As for mobiles, the growth was even more impressive -- users numbering 26 to 910 million between 2008 and 2014.

Seeing that over 200 million of new job seekers during this period were below eighth standard level, it was clear that even semi literate youths were part of the development process.

The question that naturally arises is why Indian policymakers and rulers refused consistently to invest more generously in public health and education (although the focus here will be on health alone in this article)?

Political analyst Shounak Mukherjee explains: “Most Indian leaders, regardless of party affiliations have been short-sighted in not giving due importance towards the upbringing of the new young generations in their obsession to stay in power by winning votes, they chose to create vote banks. This works in the short term but plays havoc with a country’s future, as experience shows.

Historically speaking, they have followed the example set by Louis IV of France, not Bismarck in Germany-- - most were petty politicians, not statesmen.’

The Indian national Congress was pro-poor under Indira Gandhi. However, economic liberalisation in the 1990s was followed by globalisation. The emphasis was on cutting off various welfare-related subsidies and following the dictates of the market economy with minimal official interference.

As public spending on welfare measures was ruthlessly reduced in India under former prime minister Manmohan Singh, state protection ceased for the old, the unemployed and the poor.

Led by incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the BJP further reduced official spending on rural and urban welfare schemes. The growing unrest among millions of low wage earners, the old and the poor generated widespread economic discontent. In recent elections /by-polls in Bihar, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, the BJP suffered major setbacks.

It responded by announcing a slew of sops for the old, the distressed farmers, jobless youths and the poor in the budget of 2018, with only a year left for the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

Economists and policymakers from both the left and right of the political spectrum have warned India not to neglect its public health and education sectors. They include men like, former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to Nobel laureate economist Dr Amartya Sen.

Clearly, without ensuring better health and education facilities for millions of future generation citizens, India could not improve the quality of its human assets or its HDI.

They called for greater targeted investments in primary and secondary education and nutritional care.

It was the best long the investment a developing country could make.

With the economy remaining stagnant in India, there was no relief for the people. An estimated 95% of jobs were in the unorganized informal sector, where wages are low, the workload is very high and the working hours are very long.

In his pledge ‘Acche din aayenge!’ (Good days will come) Modi had promised in 2014 to create 20 million new jobs annually as new major infra projects were launched and he expected private sector investors to make sizable new investments.

Four years later, there were hardly any major nation-wide investments by the private sector. Instead of new jobs, during the last year alone, a loss of at least 7million jobs has been reported, thanks to demonetization and the new GST rules.

Joblessness in India has reached a stage where two million youths in Uttar Pradesh apply for 150 jobs in official Conservancy department, scores of them concealing their post-graduate qualifications! The situation is even worse in West Bengal, with existing units closing down for lack of orders.

These are hardly ideal conditions for nurturing healthier, better educated Indian citizens who would stand up to Chinese competition!

As for the Government’s response to the crisis: In the child health sector, the UNICEF has commended the expansion of India’s child development program under the ongoing Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS). Some 40,000 Anganwadi centres now work in backward areas, bringing better food and post natal nutritional and medical care for new born infants and their mothers.

The number of children looked after (up to age 6) is currently 23 million, and the number of mothers helped is 4.8 million. The annual expense for per child ranges from $10 to $22.

New schemes are being introduced in eight more states from the district to block levels and the results are ‘impressive,’ say UNICEF surveyors.

With due respect to the UNICEF, this seems to be a case of the government doing something too little too late.

To return to the theme of this item: one must ask how much is Delhi spending on the future generations of Indian citizens who will run the country? The standard argument of central governments run by the Congress/ BJP is that there was/is simply no money available for more public sector investments for welfare.

One is tempted to ask what about recovering, even partially some money from the Rs81,683 crore of ‘loans’ taken by corporates and scamsters from India’s public sector banks , written off in 2017?

During the past five years, this small segment of big time loan sharks has made off with Rs 250,000 crore of loans from the PSU banks. India’s Finance Ministry, its agencies like the ED, the SEBI and the RBI stood by and let it happen!

“The steady siphoning of such sums could not have happened in a day and clearly smacks of top level corruption,” said Shounak Mukherjee.

The question is whether India will ever see its Lalit Modis, Nirav Modis and Vijay Mallyas repatriated from their foreign hiding holes and made to repay the crores they have made off with?

“If even a fraction of the sums they have stolen from honest taxpayers could be recovered, India would not lack funds to look after its rickety new born children, their sickly mothers, and their ill-paid fathers much ,much better,” said Shantanu Sinha, of the state BJP’s legal cell.

This article was first published on banglatribune.com

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