In the last couple of years, India has slowly come to mirror Ursula Le Guin’s fictional utopia in The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. Omelas is an idyllic city of incredible happiness, where the citizenry is cultured, sophisticated and blissful. The city has no kings or slaves and is free from war or want. However, in the basement of one of its buildings, in a small broom-closet sized room with a locked door and no windows, exists one feeble-minded, malnourished and neglected child who has to live its days in desolation.
Le Guin writes that the child routinely cries out “Please let me out. I will be good,” but is deliberately ignored by the citizens. “They all know it is there…they all know it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children…depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.” Those are the terms for Omelas’ existence. If this child is brought out into the sunlight, fed or comforted, all the prosperity, beauty and serenity of Omelas would immediately vanish.
Are we living in Omelas?
A similar trade off seems to have taken root in India. The suffering of one set of people (usually the marginalised and disempowered) is being justified as a necessary precondition for the affluence and happiness of another set. On one hand, the Narendra Modi government has begun to treat the rights of people and its duties towards them as optional and on the other, people are deliberately excluded from real and symbolic resources or opportunities. Because of this kind of thinking, welfare expenditure has been radically slashed across the board. Obviously, this has had adverse consequences on outcomes.
For instance, because of the cuts to the Indira Awas Yojana, of the intended 2.44 million houses scheduled to be constructed in 2014-2015, only 24.01% were completed. The next year, of the targeted 2.07 million houses to be built, less than 13.6% were completed.
Similarly, because of the budget cuts to the Integrated Child Development Scheme (which is one of the largest universal programmes for early child development in the world, serving eight crore children below the age of six), most states in India don’t have adequate funding for rations to provide hot meals for children. This is problematic because the ICDS has been widely acknowledged as the single point of calorie intake for children in rural India, especially those from the weakest sections, especially Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Muslims. Equally worryingly, the hiring capacity of the bodies responsible for ICDS implementation has also drastically reduced. As of March 2015, a total of 3,548 child development project officers (comprising nearly 40% of the total sanctioned strength), 19,452 supervisors (making up more than 35% of the total posts), more than 1.12 lakh anganwadi workers and over 1.18 lakh anganwadi helper positions were vacant.
In some cases (like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act), the government deliberately delayed sanctioning monies to states because of which 60% of wages (over 11,000 crore rupees) were inordinately delayed. This was because it was glibly caricatured as a wasteful subsidy (even though it contributes less than 0.3% of the GDP), because of which two different ministers of rural development talked about diluting and scrapping the scheme entirely. This callousness has resulted in adverse outcomes. For example, the idea of the programme is to ensure that households get 100 days of work on demand (which can be a critical factor in times of emergencies, like the nationwide drought that India’s currently grappling with). In 2013-2014, 47 lakh households completed 100 days of work. Last year, this number dropped to less than 17 lakh. Mirroring this trend, only seven lakh Dalit and Adivasi families could avail of 100 days of work (dropping from the 18 lakh in 2013-2014). This is especially problematic because according to an IHDS and University of Maryland study, MGNREGA was single handedly responsible for preventing 14 million persons from sliding into poverty (with poverty amongst SCs and STs reducing by 38% and 28% respectively).
These are just few of the many tradeoffs that the Modi government has made to divert expenditure into wasteful projects like the Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train, a 180 metre “Statue of Unity”, an inexplicable good governance fund, etc. Concurrently, people are being attacked and targeted, and access to educational opportunities is being denied on the basis of their caste, religion and ideological inclination (as in JNU and in the case of Rohith Vemula).
The reason these developments are tolerated is because of our anxiousness about our place in the world. As a people, we resent the characterisation of India as a backward, poor and pre-modern society, and intensely aspire to forge ahead, first to establish ourselves at par with the developed world (especially the US) and then to surpass it. We’re willing to give up anything to actualise that dream. Therefore, when the government says we can achieve that dream provided we reduce welfare programmes that have sought to support and empower roughly 77% of our population, that we can achieve it faster if we reduce our responsibilities towards those historically and contemporarily marginalised, we blindly trust them. We ignore how this adversely impacts Muslims, Christians, Dalits, adivasis, farmers, workers, and students, most of whom the ruling dispensation has traditionally considered second-class citizens.
However, if India does intends to realise her true civilisational potential, we cannot compromise the well-being of even one individual. We can be a great and powerful nation, and still be a compassionate one. By guaranteeing equal opportunities of growth to the weakest and by ensuring justice and fullness of life to all, we can become a beacon of hope and prosperity for peoples across the world. That is the kind of leadership we should aspire to.
Pushparaj Deshpande is currently an analyst with the All-India Congress Commitee. He has worked on legislation and policy with various MPs.