People without a crisis

Some people are in a crisis and others are enjoying prosperity…who should the government help? A serious policy debate.

Each February, I tend to get absorbed with debates on India’s budget in English news channels.  As usual, there was some diversity in opinion – but overall, there was consensus on the problems, prospects and policy directions.  Here’s my summary of what I understood from these debates on economic policy options for India.

First of all, it is important to understand that things are bad – really bad. Despite being the third fastest growing economy in the world, India’s economy is in a recession.  Large industrial houses like the Tatas are finding it impossible to conduct business in India anymore.  Foreign investors are scared, large petro-gas companies are facing huge losses and telecom companies are deeply in debt thanks to the 2G saga.   The corruption charges have also created tremendous uncertainty.  Kapil Sibbal summed up the rather terrible circumstance of telecom companies when he said, “the golden goose won’t lay the golden egg anymore…at least for a little while”.

It’s not just the industrialists and investors who are in a crisis.  The government too is in some crisis every now and then.  Most importantly, the Supreme Court, which has no business in policy matters, has been interfering with policy every now and then.  What business does it have in questioning the freebies incentives that government chooses to give to the hard working people? It’s true that a lot of the people receiving the incentives are relatives of politicians, but how does that matter? It’s reform after all – and reforms are awesome.

There have also been periodic problems with the so-called civil society that takes up extremely coercive and undemocratic steps like going on hunger fasts and questioning the wisdom of elected governments.  These protests have led to the UPA government’s ineffectiveness in forcibly acquiring land, which is the most important stumbling block in pro-market reforms.  I guess one does not have to mention the Ministers who are facing jail time due to these undemocratic protesters.  Thankfully, there are the opposition parties that trouble each other over minor issues but offer their support over what matters most.  But for them, the crisis would be complete.

Amidst all this gloom and doom, the good news is that there are people in the country who do not have a crisis.  Contrary to the troubled investors and industrial houses, these people have been consistently growing prosperous, and there has been no serious talk of any crisis among them –  They are India’s agricultural labourers. This is the only community where the news is almost all good.  Poverty is declining fast, and they are the only beneficiaries of it.  After all, do we know even one case of a large investor or an industrialist who crossed the poverty-line in the recent years? Not one, I bet.

It is unfortunate that many of them do not realize that they are not poor anymore – but that is a fact, and we know that.  It is also true that they often don’t know how to eat properly or manage their finances well.  If they did, they will all be well nourished, educated, healthy and prosperous. Such minor blemishes apart, they are doing extremely well as a group.  In fact, they are doing so well that their prosperity is now becoming a cause for concern.  Their wages have gone up so much that labourers are not available anymore at a reasonable price.  This is contributing much to the industrial and farming crises.

Part of the problem is that their prosperity owes much to the freebies that the government has been generously squandering for the sake of votes.  These freebies have been making them lazy and make them so prosperous that they don’t want to work anymore.  How are industrialists and landed farmers supposed to survive in this kind of a climate?

There is a thing to learn from the labourers though.  We all know without a doubt that the freebies actually do not reach them.  That is why we have been asking for the freebies to be removed.  But even without the freebies reaching them, the labourers somehow are getting rich and lazy – thanks to the freebies that they get.  How they manage it, we don’t know.  What we know are two well-established facts: one, the freebies have removed the incentive to work; and two, the freebies do not reach them and so they should be stopped.

So, it would be correct and just that we focus on the people who have a crisis and let those enjoying the unprecedented prosperity continue their good run by their own measures.  In any case, we know that it is dangerous to do anything for the labourers since it will make them lazy.  We also know that giving freebies such as coal, other people’s land, forests, rivers, lakes, oil, gas, spectrum, tax breaks, etc. to those suffering from the crisis will ultimately sustain the good run that the labourers are having.  The options are clear, and we know what is right.  It’s time that the damn government developed some political will and get on with what needs to be done.

About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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