Ear to the ground

No country for the poor: What we have learnt so far from Scroll's EarToTheGround project

A year over. Three states down. Several disturbing questions.

Have you heard of halka in-charges?

They are the Akali Dal’s contribution to parliamentary democracy in India.

Halka is the Punjabi word for assembly constituency. Halka in-charges are Akali Dal candidates who lost their Assembly elections.

Since 2009, the Akali Dal, which rules Punjab in partnership with the Bharatiya Janata Party, has been appointing these losing candidates to supervise their particular constituencies and slathering them with informal powers over the state police and revenue administration.

As a result, the Akali Dal’s influence now extends to every constituency in the state, irrespective of whether the party won there. At the same time, elected MLAs from rival parties are facing near-total marginalisation.

The underlying political logic is impeccable. “If an area has a Congress MLA, he will help the Congress and any good he does will be seen as coming from the Congress,” said an Akali Dal cabinet minister. “This poses a threat for the Akalis – if the Congress MLA does good work, why would the people vote for us? That is why we have the halka in-charge – to make sure the Congress doesn’t grow, and to protect our own base in the state.”

The long-term damage is sizeable. As Master Mohan Lal, BJP leader and a former transport minister in the Punjab government, said, “The elected MLAs have no political power in the constituency.” Worse, an unelected candidate (or more accurately, the one rejected by the electorate) calls the shots. This, he says, is “unconstitutional, undemocratic and harmful to democracy”.

Halka in-charges reveal a larger truth about India. Sixty nine years after Independence – and 25 years after liberalisation started – India’s states simply aren’t working the way they were meant to.

Musings at the half-way mark

As Scroll’s Ear To The Ground series reaches its halfway point, that is one of our larger conclusions.

The series, for those coming in late, seeks to create a current snapshot of India through reportage from six specially chosen states – one from the North East; one which is mineral-rich; one with Green Revolution agriculture; another with rain-fed farming; and two states that are relatively industrialised. To this end, we picked Mizoram (with additional reporting from Manipur), Odisha, Punjab, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat.

The idea was to try and identify some of the larger changes these states have seen over the last five or 10 years and then to try and understand the forces responsible for these changes. We hope that this exercise throws some light on the larger processes shaping India right now.

The project now stands just beyond the halfway mark. We have finished reporting from Mizoram, Manipur, Odisha and Punjab. The Tamil Nadu leg is underway. Bihar and Gujarat will follow next.

Three states and 13 months later, what have we learnt?

#1 Each of them is seeing a concentration of political control
In all three states, the chief ministers have complete control over their parties. In Punjab, the Badals control the Akali Dal. In Mizoram, Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla is said to be grooming his younger brother, Lal Thanzara, as his successor. In Odisha, state Opposition parties are in disarray. The state – and the Biju Janata Dal – have been ruled by Naveen Patnaik for 17 years now.

This reporter is yet to understand why diverse states are experiencing centralisation. However, some related processes, like the mechanics of this centralisation, are becoming clearer.

The construction sector is an important way through which leaders ensure the loyalty of their party cadre. You see this in stone crushing in Punjab, where businesses alleged they have to make payments to the kin of Akali Dal politicians. You see this in Mizoram where party workers were elbowing out contractors at lower levels to take smaller contracts for themselves.

At higher levels in the party, other processes ensure loyalty. Dissidence is simply not accepted. Take the Badals. “Anyone who opposes them gets thrown out of the party or defeated in elections,” said Sucha Singh Gill, director-general of Chandigarh’s Centre for Research into Rural and Industrial Development. Similarly, in Odisha, dissenting leaders have had to leave the ruling Biju Janata Dal.

#2 In the same period, there has also been a weakening of democratic checks and balances
We first saw this in Mizoram where a Scroll.in article tracing corruption in road contracts given by the state government to Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla and his brother Lal Thanzara met a nonchalant response. None of the concerned institutions – be it the Anti-Corruption Bureau or the courts – took notice. We saw this in Punjab where the egregious innovation of the halka in-charge has gone unchallenged till now.

And we saw this in Odisha where most publications are owned by politicians or businessmen. Here is what Oriya writer Kedar Mishra told us about journalism in the state: “Even when there is a large issue, the debate will be on something else. The Shah Commission report [on illegal mining] doesn’t get discussed. What gets discussed are the religious babas.”

As has been pointed out repeatedly, state legislatures work very few days.

The outcome is a state government – in thrall to an individual or a family – armed with sweeping powers and facing little monitoring.

The big question is: How do they use this power?

#3 Like, how good is the education/healthcare that they deliver?
We found all three states are failing – spectacularly – at their core functions.

Mizoram is losing its hitherto successful fight against HIV. Its health programme is collapsing. That is because the cash-strapped state treasury is diverting central government allocations for health (and education) towards more expedient needs like loan repayments.

Turn to Odisha and you see understaffing in education. A government school we visited, at Unchabali village in the iron ore rich district of Keonjhar, had four teachers for 144 students strung across eight classes. In a despairing bid to manage, its principal was running four – not eight – classrooms.

The seventh graders sat to the left of the aisle; the eighth graders to the right. The teachers addressed one class for an hour, gave the kids an assignment, taught the other class, set them an assignment and swung back to the first class.

This is a government school. Its students mostly hail from poorer families in the village. With three hours of schooling in a day, asked the principal, how can they ever compete with kids from more affluent schools?

Understaffing is the norm in Punjab as well. The state has 22 districts, each with about 10 lakh people. But its government hospitals (not counting Chandigarh, which is a Union territory) has no surgeons who can do a bypass surgery. It’s the same for other medical specialisations. In each state, understaffing was blamed on a lack of revenues. That, however, is an explanation which yields more questions than answers.

#4 That is partly because they forego a lot of revenue
Take Odisha. During its iron ore boom, the state did not lose revenues only due to illegal mining. It did not make much from legal mining either. Iron ore reserves belong to the state, and to all its people. And so, most of the gains from selling ore needed to come to the state government – the lease owners should have received no more than a margin for mining the ore.

Here is what happened in practice. During the boom, iron ore prices went as high as Rs 7,000 per ton. For a large part of the boom, Odisha collected a fixed royalty per ton – between Rs 7 and Rs 27. Subsequently, it revised the royalty to 10% of the sale price of the ore. The rest was revenue foregone.

Turn to Punjab and you see a similar narrative. Revenues from a host of industries said to be controlled by Akali Dal leaders – or those close to them – are not reaching the state exchequer. Between liquor and stone crushing alone, the state government is said to be losing as much as Rs 15,000 crore each year. To put that in perspective, Punjab’s health budget is about Rs 3,000 crore.

This money mostly flows to a handful of people.

In Odisha, as the Shah Commission, which studied illegal iron ore mining in that state, reported: Successive state governments had given out mining leases to just 79 families. And profits from the state’s iron ore boom mostly flowed to these families, their mining contractors, the politicians and bureaucrats who gave out the leases and mining/transport permissions.

Or take Punjab. In the state, the Badals – and those close to them – used their position in power to expand their business empires.

This process of profiting off the government was visible in Mizoram too. There were two documented cases where CM Lal Thanhawla’s family members picked up government contracts.

As such, these states enrich a few at the cost of many.

Odisha is an excellent instance of what we are saying. Most of the ancillary evidence of the boom is seen in Bhubaneswar. The city boasted of new malls, jewellery stores, fancy new vehicles. But travel down to the state’s tier-two towns, even those near the boom’s epicentres, and little change is visible.

With the state exporting raw ore, few industries had come up. Few jobs had been created. Travel deeper into the state and there is deeper poverty. Nothing brought this home like Kantabanji, a small town in western Odisha’s Bolangir district from where villagers board trains to go for debt-bondage in brick kilns.

The people are burnt from working in the sun. Most of them are skinny and malnourished. Their elected representatives are a study in contrast. “In Odisha, senior leadership of all parties is drawn from the same group,” said Oriya writer Mishra. “Even communist and socialist leaders are from the same high caste groups and feudal families.” A handful of families in the state have an almost hegemonic presence. They are active in state politics, run newspapers or TV channels, and have business empires.

#5 What accompanies this inequality is non-productive populism
Travelling around India, one of our biggest epiphanies was the dismal health of state finances.

Odisha had a small revenue surplus – but that had been created by not splurging on recurring expenditure, like hiring teachers. Mizoram and Punjab were even worse. Both states earn just enough to meet their running costs – like staff salaries, pensions and interest repayments. The rest of the money left could have gone into developmental work if it were not for one thing – the populist programmes these governments run. Mizoram has its New Land Use Policy where it gives Rs 1 lakh to every villager, purportedly to help them leave the traditional system of jhum cultivation. The programme is barely working but the handouts continue.

As for Odisha, it runs a bevy of populist programmes – ranging from free umbrellas to school uniforms. Only what was left, went to the core development functions. These populist programmes are a real puzzle. Why would a state government give out free textbooks and school uniforms but not hire teachers?

Even in Tamil Nadu, bureaucrats in the state complain that their departments are veering away from fundamental welfare – like running schools, healthcare better – towards more decorative schemes.

The reasons for this need to be understood better. Is it a coincidence that these seem to show up in states with centralised leadership? Also, it seems, there is a large demand for such schemes from the people.

Agreed Abhijit Sen, a former member of the erstwhile Planning Commission: “At the level of the people, the demands are not about making schools run better. They are more ethereal. Like different benefits, different beneficiaries.” A part of the reason, he said, is immaturity. “But it is also powerlessness. And so, a desire to get what they can.”

#6 What this government failure has meant for people
As the state goes missing in more and more aspects, people have to turn increasingly towards private providers – for farm inputs, healthcare and education, which are expensive and may not even be of good quality. Worse, they are being made to turn to these private providers at a time when, across all three states, household budgets are already buckling as expenses rise faster than incomes.

Moving through these states, this was one of my biggest learnings – to see how marginal most livelihoods were.

Across India, a farmer with two acres of land will make no more than Rs 80,000 a year. And that is if he gets two good crops. That is gross income. Take away the monthly costs of running his house, educating his children and the costs of cultivation, and it is evident that even a simple illness will push their family into a net loss for that year.

At the same time, the risks they have to grapple with are rising. Climate change, for one, is already a reality for most people in the country.

Turn to urban folks and you see a similar vise. Jobs are hard to come by. The ones that do are almost entirely casual and short-term in nature.

Our governments are mostly oblivious to all these processes.

You see them focusing on construction contracts – to keep their party cadre happy. You see them tweaking policy in order to allow export of raw ore – even though exporting steel would have created more jobs.

In Manipur, Punjab and Odisha, you see state governments targeting anyone who opposes their policies. In the first, people get slapped with charges of insurgency; in the second, they get picked up on drug charges or slapped with the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act; in the third, they get accused of being Naxalites. In Tamil Nadu, as happened with the folk singer Kovan, they are slapped with sedition.

#7 And the complex ways in which people respond
And so, you move around and encounter a wide array of coping mechanisms.

There is a desire for populist give-aways. There is rising indebtedness and migration. There are Oriyas in Tamil Nadu. Biharis in Mizoram. Bengalis in Odisha. It is a strange circulation where people from every state seem to be migrating to others.

There is a rise in the number of religious babas, and in the number of people flocking to them. Many of these newfound babas have links to politicians – who eye their followers as a vote bank – and people appeared to be turning to them to get their work done in times of an indifferent administration.

There is an intensification of religious, caste and ethnic identity. That again seems to link back to the elite captures we described earlier. As the quantum of public goods – welfare spends, jobs – shrinks, people start looking for groups that can increase their bargaining power. That can be caste, clan or religion. This shows up in the recent protests by the Jats in Haryana, Kapus in Andhra Pradesh, what have you.

There is also anger. We saw that in Mizoram when articles about political corruption in the road sector went viral in the state Facebook groups. Those articles circulated enough for a leader in the youth wing of the Opposition Mizo National Front to pick up the issue. The resulting furore saw the CM’s brother Lal Thanzara step down. But when he stood for bypolls, he was voted back in again. That was, perhaps, realpolitik. The people saw the value of having a powerful MLA – perhaps the next CM – hail from their constituency.

Elsewhere in the country, when the chance comes, people seek deliverance.

This shows in the large appetite for leaders like Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party or, during the 2014 elections, Narendra Modi when it appeared they might lead people out of the vise they are stuck in. What will happen if they fail to deliver?

These (and more) questions as we now start reporting from Tamil Nadu. Stay tuned.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
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