Special Feature

December, 2002

Most of us - Indians living outside or in India - would have helped some souls or many in distress, either directly or through organisations. Well and good. We have made some difference to alleviating misery. However, no matter what worthwhile projects we support , they still remain a drop in the ocean, compared to the scale of the problem of poverty/human development in India.

Let us do a back-of-the-envelope calculation. Assume that there are 100,000 Non-government organisations (NGO) in India and that each of them, in some fashion, is able to take care of all needs of an individual - food, shelter, clothing, education and health - for up to 50 individuals. That works out to 50 lakhs of individuals. Further, there are self-help groups today that are doing well. There are institutions that are not exactly NGOs but non-profit organisations or have objectives that are both commercial and social. Let us assume that they take care of additional 50 lakhs of individuals. May be, I am too pessimistic. Let us double this number. So, we have two crores of individuals taken care of by private initiatives. What is the proportion of this to the total population that is deprived of some or the other essential in life?

Indian population is about 100 crores. Let us assume that nearly 40 crores do not have any of the above problems. That leaves us with 60 crores. Now, if we have two crores out of sixty taken care of by private initiatives, it is about 3.3% of the population. About 96% of the population remains untouched.

Now, we all can continue to support our favourite charities materially or otherwise but you can see that we would have hardly scratched the surface of the problem. Sure, we should continue to do that. But, please be aware of tainted NGOs.

We can and should do more, if we wish to find the answers to the related problems of poverty within the next two generations. The answer lies in improved governance.

The latest column by Ms. Tavleen Singh in 'Indian Express' provides some handy information:

"Mr. Vajpayee's own government pointed this out two years ago in a Planning Commission report, which admitted that much of the Rs 35,000 crore that the Central Government spends annually on anti-poverty programmes goes waste because it does not reach those it is supposed to benefit."

Hence, money is available, even though it is a lot less than what the government pays out in interest and what it spends on defence. Importantly, the issue is that the delivery mechanism is corrupt and clogged. Governance has to improve.

It starts with elections. Candidates with criminal conduct are chosen because of their access to resources of all types. Funding is clandestine and leads to favouritism once in office. National interest becomes secondary. Objectives and rewards are misaligned in the country. Our politicians and bureaucrats are not stupid. They are rational. They are maximising their personal utility (pleasure or wealth or power) function. Not that of the nation. We need to support initiatives that are striving to improve governance and thus align national interests with their personal interests.

Eminent citizens and professors from the reputed Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad have started the Association for Democratic Reforms in India. They did great work in exposing candidates with criminal background in the Gujarat Assembly elections. There is Lok Satta, based in Hyderabad. It is headed by an ex-Civil Servant, Jayaprakash Narayan. Together with the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), these two organisations have appealed to the Supreme Court against the government ordinance that waters down the Election Commission directive barring candidates with criminal charges pending against them from contesting elections. The judgement is due from the Supreme Court. Support these organisations.

We can do more:

  1. Inform as many people in India as you can about the Freedom of Information Act that the Parliament had passed. Citizens have a right to seek and get information from the government. Many State governments too have passed similar legislation. The legislation may be imperfect but they need to be publicised. We can do our bit.
  2. When you visit India, spare a day to train your village/block level administrative officials on Statecraft, apprise them of their rights and educate them of their responsibilities.
  3. If you know of your friends/relatives in official positions doing good work, write ABOUT them to other friends, relatives, to the media, to various Internet forums and newspapers in English and in your mother-tongue
  4. If you know of your friends/relatives in official positions and abusing them, write TO them or speak to them about their Dharma and Karma
  5. The Government is seeking comments from the public on the reports on direct and indirect taxes prepared by the Vijay Kelkar committee. Please do so.
  6. The National Commission for Women is seeking our comments on the draft bill on Sexual Harassment Prevention. Comments were solicited by September 2001! That the draft bill is still there shows that work is slow. Do send your comments.
  7. If you are from Tamil Nadu, you can directly bring issues to the attention of District Collectors. The following links will be useful. Other States must have similar lists.

Remember, Ms. Jashwantiben Popat at the age of 79 won the businesswoman of the year award for making Lijjad Papad a global brand name and thus contributing to women empowerment. She began with just six other poor women from the neighbourhood. We too can make a difference.

Wishing you, your families, friends, relatives and colleagues a happy, healthy and purposeful New Year.

Warmly, Anantha-Nageswaran anantha@nageswaran.com

The views of this column are the author's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of NRI Online.

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