Policy paternalism

With Modi, the 'mai-baap sarkar' has returned with a vengeance

Instead of having rights, citizens are at the mercy of the government's goodwill.

During the United Progressive Alliance decade starting from 2004 , several steps were taken to create a rights-based welfare system. The enactment of socio-economic legislations like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the National Food Security Act, the Right to Education and the Right to Information are now widely characterised by the media as a manifestation of the UPA government's “mai-baap sarkar” attitude. It is claimed that these programmes create dependency and amount to paying out doles.

In fact, these laws are the opposite of a mai-baap sarkar. They guarantee people basic rights independent of a particular government’s commitment to social and economic justice. And though India is a laggard on this count, even among poor countries, these initiatives faced shrill opposition from the privileged classes.

Since the new government has taken over, we are witnessing the return of the mai-baap sarkar – where citizens are at the mercy of the government's goodwill instead of having entitlements. The clearest example is in Rajasthan. In less than a year of rule, chief minister Vasundhara Raje (described by one commentator as the “aam admi maharani”) has demonstrated this in at least three ways.

Raje’s record

The previous government’s scheme of granting special food entitlements to the “particularly vulnerable” Sahariya tribe, which has made headlines for cases of starvation deaths and bonded labour, was immediately put in limbo when Raje returned to office. The special package provided 35 kg of wheat, 2 kg of edible oil and dal and one kg of ghee free of cost to all Sahariya families. For six months, the Sahariya community were not sure what had happened. Assurances of resuming supplies were made repeatedly, yet when supplies began in July the government decided to charge Rs 2 per kg of wheat; there was no word on the other, more nutritious food items.

Finally, in September, the state government succumbed to continued public pressure. It announced that wheat will be sold free of cost and the other items will be provided through the Tribal Area Development Authority. But it only granted this extension till February 2015. Come February the community will have to plead with the Maharani, and experience the same uncertainty and anxiety that they have had to endure since December 2013.

The second example of the Rajasthan chief minister treating these programmes as largesse is the decision to restrict the previous government’s very popular initiative to provide free medicines and diagnostics for all at public health facilities. The only criterion to get these services was that the person had to be a “human being”. Raje, throughout her election campaign, labelled the medicines as “poison”. Thankfully, upon taking office, the state decided continue with it. But then In July the mood changed yet again: the scheme has been restricted to beneficiaries under the National Food Security Act.

Raje’s views on NREGA are even more revealing. At the India Today conclave in March, she said, “Everybody knows that this has been a failure. People are being given a dole. It’s literally a dole because people don’t work anymore. You work for four hours, you pick up your money and you go home – so now you’ve taught people to be lazy.” (In contrast, the World Development Report 2014 describes NREGA as “a stellar example of rural development”.)

Later in a letter to the rural development minister, in June 2014, she went further: “It is a moot issue why rural employment should be guaranteed by an Act, and why such employment cannot be delivered, or even guaranteed, as a scheme." Subsequently (on July 5), she had to clarify on Twitter, “...The Right to guaranteed employment remains enshrined." Recall that NREGA had been passed unanimously – by all parties – in 2005.

Changing NREGA

This mai-baap attitude is not restricted to Rajasthan. The central government has already made some worrying proposals to NREGA. An important one is that the labour-material expenditure ratio may be increased in favour of material. This will bring back contractors, who were banned under NREGA, and were the root cause of corruption in earlier employment programmes.

Under some circumstances, machines will be allowed. Wages have been frozen, in real terms, for a long time now. All these have diluted the initial focus, which was on empowering rural labourers, who worked in conditions of extreme exploitation before NREGA. It is now rumoured that the Act itself is going to be restricted to less than one-third of the districts of the country.

No more food security?

The National Food Security Act has also been quietly put on the back burner. Some argue that the ball is in the court of the state governments, since they need to identify entitled households under the act. In fact, the states are being hampered by the centre, which has not made Socio-Economic Caste Census data available to the states. This is required for identifying households that are entitled to participate.

Some people contend that restricting NREGA and delaying NFSA has nothing to do with the government’s mai-baap mentality, but is required to contain fiscal deficit. NREGA’s budget is currently 0.3% of the GDP. To put things in perspective, tax revenue foregone (i.e., tax breaks for various purposes, which mainly go to the corporate sector) is more than 3% of the GDP. Avenues for raising tax revenues are not even discussed in public debates. According to research by Piketty and Qian (2007), between 1986 and 2008, China’s income tax base increased from less than 0.1% to about 20%. India has been stuck between 2-3%. There is fiscal space aplenty – but it is reserved for the rich.

Running entitlements programmes on the whims and fancies of political leaders defeats the purpose of establishing them as rights. Rights are meant to give people some security and enable them to think beyond their immediate survival, about their future. Diluting the rights framework pushes them back into uncertainty, unsure of when the carpet will be pulled from under them.

If that isn’t a mai-baap sarkar, what is?

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