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will Follow

Mainstream, VOL L, No 31, July 21, 2012

If the Basics are in Place, the Rest 
will Follow

Friday 27 July 2012, by Uttam Sen


The author has gone through the grind of journalism from production and reporting to leader writing. The following is the second part of a two-part article which, according to him, is an endeavour to see the world through the prism of the average person like himself. The first appeared in Mainstream (July 14, 2012).
As a wide range of public discourse informs us among the laity, unparalleled capital flow in the present period has created equivalent (or greater) social and political upheaval in the subcontinent than the first great one which succeeded the Mutiny and ushered in Westerni-sation. The ensuing turning-point could well determine the return of the global order to basics and the recognition of livelihood concerns based on a reformist framework of thought and action. Post-Mutiny India witnessed the unpre-cedented growth of its port cities, the harbingers to the growth of a vast middle class. The liberal ethic had sufficiently imbued some sections of it to question malfeasance and impropriety and eventually the basis of political dependency. Their rationale was consistent with the moral premises of the culture they had partially embraced. The global financial crises provide the current corollary.

The common man, whose well-being is the touchstone of social progress, particularly in the Western idiom, would probably opt for a global equivalence that underwrites his/her own security. The aspiration to untold wealth spawned by technological and financial innovation thrives alongside. Prosperity and poverty persist in parallel. This dilemma can be a conversation-stopper when interlocutors take a particular state of being as given and universal to the exclusion of all else. The issue is that the unqualified condition does not occur on the ground. The rich and poor meet at various points. Yet, while the search for equitable, mutually beneficial results continues, there is evidence of adjustments in the commonplace that could eventually inform the apparently extraordinary or profound.

An unreserved exercise of realpolitik could be followed by a humbling electoral verdict demanding accountability for the poorest, in turn off-set by a closing of ranks among the movers and shakers who decry “populism” (as in the US). Despite the political rhetoric, the common denominator in the debates on growth and equity in the US and India is the search for the middle ground. The multitude is getting educated in the bargain. Basic concepts are changing and the upheavals anticipated by the radically-inclined are today distinguished more by shifting mindsets than blood and thunder. It is, of course, axiomatic that extreme conditions produce extreme results. That apart, in an increasingly non-ideological ambience, the insecurities of the apolitically dispossessed are arguably finding expression in the pyrotechnics of leaders at the highest level. At the end of the day, however, the relatively high turnover of information and debate could serve a useful purpose. Human interrelationships could inform functionality in a world cramped by shortages. The reappraisal of people and/or their values may lead to fresh benchmarks.

In India, the man in the street’s electoral choices can define how the administration must recognise his needs at the rural and district stages. Essentials may not be reaching him at the humblest level yet, but the endeavour to do so is discernible in painstaking advocacy of food and justice for all. Admittedly, the middle class is often caught between the devil and the deep sea. Upwardly mobility is the stated credo with its accompanying standards but when the average person’s own rights and prerogatives are in peril, he finds ways of protecting them with collective ingenuity. In this, communication and the growth of an integrated culture delineate educative roles that are not perhaps immediately evident.

The substance is not always helpful for modular construction. In the ordinary person’s rough-and-ready comprehension, the seemingly closed book of agrarian deprivation continues to be a source of perplexity. Lest the point be missed as an unrelated distraction to the ordinary (urban) citizen, a potentially steadying influence like the rural employment guarantee scheme (that does not have an urban counterpart) is discharging the complementary function of protecting the vulnerable in the cities by curbing migration. In regard to the big picture, one interpretation provided by discourse is that the coalition of rural, industrial and bureaucratic elites (not always in harmony) and their need to forge alliances of convenience with others, has led to the generation of subsidies to meet special interests, rather than the long-term requirements of the poor and productivity, and a culture of log-rolling through which one group indemnifies the interests of another in the expectation of favours in return.1 Economic liberalisation has occasionally unshackled controls and released synergistic energies but in the absence of wider participation is exacerbating inequality and hobbling efficiency and growth.

Political democracy could have bridged the gap but is failing to do so without the countervailing empowerment and entitlement of people across the board. The panacea lies in systematic development from the foundation. The enormous investment in basic industries, infrastructural facilities and public credit, crucial at the early stages of industrial and agricultural transformation, could be utilised by a professional and executive insulation that transcends “pressures from heterogeneous elements”. The emphasis has perhaps shifted to the private sector since the outset but some observations still hold good.

The existing transparency of India’s political democracy does not encourage continued opacity either, as is gradually becoming evident. The happenings in Nandigram and Singur, prior to the rash of scams that broke out across the public spectrum, had served notice of what was in store. The investigation, publication and debate on land acquisition and investment and their infinite ramifications brought home issues of public concern to the ordinary person, with much greater transparency than before. His exceptional character in India (as a historical circumstance) has made him privy to knowledge and discussion that would generally have been considered past him. During the political unrest in the Arab world, a leaf may have been taken out of India’s book both on protest and governance. The American intellectual, Gene Sharp, whose writing on non-violent dissent had strongly influenced the Egyptian agitators, was a student of M.K. Gandhi’s methods; Egypt’s Islamic party, the Muslim Brotherhood, had reportedly appro-ached India to help conduct a free and fair election in their country.

Reconciliation with the situation is not taking place without anguish. The responses to the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Programme have demonstrated a daunting range of doubt and misgiving. The secular conscience is perforce struck by the enormity of a dilemma in which perfectly sensible people are looking over the plight of compatriots because they are divided by an urban-rural breach, though admittedly exacerbated by insecurity in a competitive environment. The powerful pursuit of a high economic growth rate, when reduced to a commonplace stereotype, has also prompted the notion of assertive hostility to the correspondingly clichéd idea of levelling stagnation. The remedy arguably lies in attaining high growth with equity, clarified by experts from time to time.

Thwarted livelihood systems constitute the basic impediment to growth. By most accounts, the poor, mostly rural, are going to the wall. Yet the load of research and activism that is abroad bears testimony to a moral sense that subscribes to poverty-alleviation. The dissemination of knowledge and awareness is showing the way. The paradox of pursuing cooperation despite conflict (for example, growth versus equity) is also a statement of the basic human condition. The seeming contradiction can be resolved with the realisation of a “higher truth” or reality, namely, inclusive growth when it begins materialising.

Political freedom, however, is also the minimum condition for growth because without it even the fundamental right to food and livelihood (for all) would have remained distantly dormant. Their denial to significant numbers of people would have passed unnoticed. Thus Bengal underwent famine in 1943 but Maharashtra, Bihar and Gujarat averted the same state post-Independence. Famine has been subsequently prevented but not the secondary effects like malnutrition and undernutrition or the erosion of entitlements. The chain of cause and effect showed up in manifestations like farmers’ suicides from the late nineties and weighed down on the average person, that is, when the news got home.

A persuasive case was made to turn the situation round from the borderline by recalling the policy inversions that had caused the collapse of agriculture, the neglect of backward regions and the depletion of critical natural resources. The MGNREGA, through its two-stage agenda of private-public partnership, will first stabilise the rural economy and then set the stage for its take-off. The process envisages the entitlement and empowerment of the workers and the enhancement of their capabilities to utilise the social opportunities that will become available to them.

The programme has progressed in pockets but the momentum will translate into meaningful economic transformation only when people as a whole are convinced that holistic growth is the only genuine insurance against continued regression. The global meltdown has presented the opportunity of making greater public investment for development. There can be no gainsaying that discourse per se is not making sufficient inroads into the urban middle-upper middle class psyche for reform and regeneration. Yet alongside, public action (along entirely lawful lines) against wrongdoing, is assuming impressive dimensions, creating an interactive universe of its own.

Food scarcity, as a part of the whole, constitutes a transparent impediment to growth. The government’s policy since Independence was established on the basis of providing for all citizens. The unfolding chronicle of happenings showed that the multiple pressures of a plural polity have almost succeeded in jettisoning the assumption that everyone had to be fed. But the story at the end of the day is that sweeping the subject under the carpet is not the solution. Denial engenders more of the same, namely, food scarcity, rising prices, corruption et al, in a vicious circle that threatens to consume rich and poor alike.

The heart of the matter is that food prices rein high because of the gap between the procurement price at which the government buys the grain from the farmer and the retail price at which it is sold to the consumer. The idea initially was to encourage production and build buffer stocks to sustain people, particularly in times of crisis, like famine. But despite record food production, it is not reaching the needy in times of want. The high prices of food and the inadequacy of distribution constitute the disorder. The irony is that high production and high prices help the farmer, both rich and poor, but mostly the former. They do not help the underprivileged because the foodgrain does not reach them when their economic entitlement (that is, what they can afford to buy in their circumstances and prevailing prices) does not match their biological requirements.

Storage facilities have been proverbially inadequate, and distribution even more so, despite the subsidy that is absorbed by the food producers for the purpose. The simple remedy would have been to bring down prices for the consumer and improve storage and distribution. But reducing prices will affect the rich farmer and his powerful universe (though for him too, raising the consumer’s purchasing power could be an incentive). Maintaining economies of scale, the pressure of global oil prices, international scarcity of food, even the resources allegedly soaked up by the MGNREGS, comprise the rationale for continuing subsidy to big farming, but cuts little ice with those who place the basic human dignity of feeding the hungry and undernourished above all else. Insidious inequality will have to go, or at least be minimised, when it is the reason for denying others their fundamental rights. Correctly aligned, development means growth with equity, not a process by which one swallows up the other. The case has been strongly posed for public action to remedy official policy that appears egalitarian but ends up as something quite different. The cycle of deprivation it perpetuates has far-reaching consequences.2

As the argument goes, re-directing focus on hunger as the criterion of poverty, to be overcome by the acquisition of capabilities on the authority of a constitutional mandate, can take in its sweep education to gain access to proper nutrition and health services to maintain it. The Indian condition has acquired the ring of a universal proposition:

“People have to go hungry if they do not have the means to buy enough food. Hunger is primarily a problem of general poverty, and thus overall economic growth and its distributional pattern cannot but be important in solving the hunger problem. It is particularly important to pay attention to employment opportunities, other ways of acquiring economic means, and also food prices, which influence people’s ability to buy food, and thus affect the food entitlements they effectively enjoy.

“Further, since undernourishment is not only a cause of ill-health but can also result from it, attention has to be paid to health care in general and the prevention of endemic diseases that prevent absorption of nutrients in particular. There is also plenty of evidence to indicate that lack of basic education too contributes to under-nourishment, partly because knowledge and communication are important, but also because the ability to secure jobs and incomes is influenced by the level of education.”3

The application of the Directive Principles to the right to food can be of great significance. But the regimen first belongs to the domain of democratic politics (before the law and its enactment/enforcement). The constructive interventions to protect and realise the right lies in democratic action, functions and changes to bring about the desired outcome when the need arises.4 The need has arisen and the action is on and is likely to be a continuous one till the objective is reached. Notice was served with the forewarning that the proposed food security legislation at the time of writing was diluting the Directive Principles.

Withal there have been numerous impediments to the growth of the traditionally deprived. Beginning from the endemic birth of underweight babies among the poor to undernourished mothers, under-nutrition and undernourishment have held their line amidst the impoverished through various life stages to adulthood.
Existing health inputs are dismal enough to prevent people from performing to their natural abilities. Yet the case for universal entitlements, commencing with those to food, health, and livelihood and then graduating to rights like education and information, are being denied to an unconscionable number of people with deleterious macro effects. The campaign of the Right to Food demonstrates the duality of electoral commitment juxtaposed with the praxis of denial. At the level of detail, raising foodgrains procurement to enable universal access of the poor to a specified minimum quantity of grain, cereals and oil have both been rejected on grounds of supply constraints and overall financial infeasibility. The RTF activists have pointed out that the deficit can be made good by the tax rebates made to the rich; but the demand completely pales into insignificance with the disclosure of the astronomical sums allegedly siphoned off by swindles of public money, that are coming to light, not insignificantly, owing to the passage of the Right to Information Act. Attitudinal change can make funding available at any given time.
The futility of political democracy without corresponding economic rights had been raised shortly after Independence.5 Persistent impoverishment tended to corroborate the idea. Yet even after political democracy had provided enabling rights, the multitude continued to be at sea. Second thoughts clearly indicate it is an outcome of deep-seated denial rather than insuperable apathy. Chronic hunger and impoverishment frustrate people from effectively competing for their dues. The reiteration of rights that have translated into legally enforceable provisions and the pursuit of policy and execution responsive to such demands can now make the deprived take up cudgels on their own behalf, without falling foul of the law. Rights to life and livelihood are cornerstones of all legally constituted regimes and find expression in global covenants.6 When the right to food was interpreted as a right to life, it acquired added resonance for the legal-minded though the ethical basis of survival with dignity was never in question.

The truth is that wide-reaching food shortage is the outcome of inequality and skewed distribution. The circumstance is exacerbated in South Asia, among other regions, where the market, particularly in “exchanges with nature”, has often converted inequality into virtual dispossession without survival prospects for the deprived. They had lived directly of the land with traditional support systems to fall back upon. As insecure wage labour under industrial regimes, especially when employment is impermanent, they are at the mercy of fluctuating food prices that can exceed their incomes. Unlike in Western democracies, modern means of social security are less than adequate, if they exist at all, for them. The durable remedy lies in strengthening entitlements, a complex web of economic and political relations that help persons and groups establish command over their food. The experience of famine has shown that blemished nexuses can lead to collapse, namely, starvation and death.

Investigating those conflicts at the micro level and pondering redress coincidentally informs the human quest for fulfilment. The means to social security are varied but include the enlargement of capabilities to earn adequate livelihoods and lead rewarding, socially participatory lives. The point at the crossroad is about choices to meet the perceptions of security and fulfilment.

Without putting too fine a point on it, the succeeding theme of cooperative conflict is to avail of the space between contentious positions. The concept is applicable in most situations. When deprivation is the question to be considered, people (seldom a homogeneous unit) can get together to address the subject through concerted action. Public action does not exclude the state. Once the negative causal influences are removed the wheels of energy and movement can start turning again. Attention can be directed to the state-market dichotomy in like manner.
On the point of famines and scarcity, cash transfers as wages or the movement of supplies to affected regions on the strength of private sector competence, cannot be ruled out today. Yet their function will first have to be assessed on the merits of the situation. Global experience has exposed financial alibis used to dismantle public distribution systems, when their judicious employment could have saved the poor in the long run. Private sector involvement can eliminate unscrupulous middlemen but can also be a precursor to market takeovers, again with the same consequences. For maximum utility, cash transfers or private sector participation can be made supplements to the existing system.

The potential and philosophy of a discriminating civil society are imbued with infinite possibilities to bring about the right choices As a frame of reference for cooperation they can explode the mischief of stereotypes e.g. state and market, supposedly at irreconcilable odds. By its very nature, public action treads the thin line that separates accord from discord viz. reciprocity from isolation (between people).

In the same vein, traditional forms of family/community security can supplement rather than run into the modern, secular essence of safety. The defining reminder is that members of the state and the market are not constantly incompatible. In reality they often share symbiotic relationships. They can ultimately come together to temper big brother arbitrariness. Political and social movements fall into the same genre, but their character is mutable.

As the contemporary narrative suggests, the common man’s growth will necessarily become the order of the day. He was central to the state-supported model of development in which investment in the social sector held the edge over growth-mediated progress under the market’s aegis. The wisdom of such a priority in the developing world was upheld when unregulated money flows shook the South-East Asian economies in the 1997-98 financial crisis. The ones that stayed afloat had ensured essentials for their people. If India has survived because of its limited integration with the global economy, it follows that subsequent movement in the same direction can prove counterproductive in a future turning-point. The perils of prospective volatility remain. The insurance is consolidation of the desideratum, employment, income and opportunities for growth.

The process goes further than one-dimensional insurance into the heart of security and growth when the high interest rates fixed to rein in prices are seen to draw in the speculative investor. The plot thickens with the ill-gotten wealth garnered through corrupt practices being stashed away in safe havens and merged into the cycle of reinvested hot money.7 Locating corruption, a function of a growth-enabling provision like the Right to Information Act, and agrarian reform can stabilise food prices and meet the problem of scarcity.

Glimpses of the wider conundrum of climate change and its effect on food production, as an index of deprivation and its attendant political extremism, were witnessed in Pakistan where the plunder of nature was clearing the way for fundamentalist initiatives. Equating corruption with terrorism (as it was by luminaries in the public sphere) is therefore fitting and to-the-point rather than rhetorical. But as with the red rag of terrorism, proverbially known to generate more heat than light, the issue of corruption tends to take public discourse off on a tangent, groping for the antagonist villain on whom all the blame can be heaped. The reminder of our times is the urgency of understanding the system. By most accounts its agencies are poised, like Frankenstein, to destroy their creator. Given that the endgame is the final stage of an extended process or course of events, repair and restoration through the path of experience can be the progression through which the interdependent parts mould the complex whole.

The past, through the means of the Press, the media and public sphere, was a chronicle of the striving of the interdependent parts to make the system add up. The ingenuity of seeing through seeming contradictions (like an elite Press speaking up for the good of the community) and reaching a successful synthesis for the common good bear testimony to the inherent pluralism of the Indian disposition. Violation of the ethic either by the celebration of solitary identity or all-encompassing domination has been visited by the outbreak of fratricidal strife or vicious cycles of economic dislocation. The patterns predictably transcended political frontiers to make the situation universal. As a classic facilitator, the vehicle of communications, inclusive of informal conversation and exchange between people, and the political movements they engender, contribute in making the avowed social mediator of relations between people (the rule of law) an expression of human aspiration. The instances of bestowing universal adult suffrage on a people who were largely poor and unlettered in the conventional sense, and creating enabling fundamental rights, readily spring to mind. (Public service broadcasting could clear the breach of discourse that short-circuits the common man.)

Rules of conduct or procedure created by custom or authority have a chequered background in the modern period. The dialectic of change through the conflict between domination and subordination finds deep resonance in the Indian context and has occurred on the peripheral vision of most debate. In a path proverbially strewn with thorns, the enhancement of human capability to reach security and fulfilment has begun to acquire substance (over formal interpretations of the letter of the law) and marks the defining moment in the exchange of thought and knowledge.

The moot point is whether conflict can be eliminated by the synthesis of interests or (whether) collision is inevitable. The road to a scrupulously binding legal order is being paved by the proficiency of the courts both in response to public interest litigation and media interven-tion/exposure. Assuming that justice will be implemented and economic viability restored as a result, a peaceful transition to functional, rights-based governance still appears achievable. Adjustment by those at the receiving end and the absence of outright violence will really signify cooperation through conflict. The anomic alternatives are being demonstrated in other parts of the world. The Press, media and public sphere will be critical instrumentalities in maintaining the flow of correct information and dialogue, apart from maintaining a cultural cohesion based on a dialectical method of resolving disagreement through argument that has been native to the soil.

Events in the human narrative have at times shown the ordinary person, for all his limitations, in credible light as he navigates his way through the shoals of power and authority and regulates his sights to meet the existing contingencies. Given that the peasant has fallen by the wayside, a collective reappraisal is on and as befits the description of “the world in miniature”, the story of the planet at the crossroad is an analogy of his plight in India (and in most of the developing world) alongside that of the marginalised in the developed. His elimination at the turning point of the European changeover to industry (or other transitions at the cost of innumerable lives) was a civilisational lapse that does not behove repetition. As the pundits have it, the long-term global comeback lies in the recovery of the excluded, but with the insight that prevents the detriment of those who have arrived.
Libertarianism, the advocacy of individual rights, the minimisation of the role of the state, and the belief in free will, are also features that are reflected in the Indian praxis. Capitalist endeavour is among its material manifestations. The global rule of law is, however, premised on egalitarian principles because, inter alia, without it the centre will not hold (nor would the European bourgeoisie have mustered the base and the wherewithal to achieve global ascendancy, now under threat arguably because of the limitation created by their breach). The Western liberal trajectory was based on the assumption of holistic uplift. The paradox informed the human condition and the expectation of its resolution through the untrammeled flow of dialogue and information. The tendency toward a worldwide investment environment, and the integration of national capital markets, could both fall into place through transparency and introspection that recognises the holistic statement.


1. See Pranab Bardhan, The Political Economy of Development in India, Oxford, 2008.
2. See A.K. Sen, “Hunger: Old Torments And New Blunders”, The Little Magazine, Vol. 2, Issue 6, Year-end 2001.
3. Ibid., Sen.
4. Jean Dreze in “Democracy and Right to Food”, EPW, April 24, 2004.
5. Ibid., Dreze
6. The argument has been recalled by Article 11 of the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to which India is a signatory, specifies that the right to food had to be for all individuals, for which purpose a variety of instruments had to be employed.
7. See “The drivers and dynamics of illicit financial flows from India: 1948-2008”, November 2010 report of Global Financial Integrity, Washington,
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