Same difference in public policy

The taxpayer-funded National Infrastructure Investment Fund has thought fit to bid for failing private airline Jet Airways, which is used by a minuscule fraction of the Indian population. Yet, plans for the redevelopment of railway stations, used by millions of Indians every day, are yet to get off the ground.

Doctors in India frequently make headlines for accomplishing state-of-the-art surgeries and associated medical marvels — so much so that the country has become a hub for cost-effective sophisticated medical tourism. Yet the average Indian’s access to medical treatment remains abysmal. Latest National Health Profile data shows that India has one allopathic doctor per 11,000 population, more than ten times the World Health Organisation (WHO) prescribed ratio (in Bihar, the ratio is a shocking 1: 28,000-odd). As for access to hospital beds, at less than one per 1,000 population, India lags the WHO recommendation of 5:1,000 by a significant margin.

India boasts world-class engineering and management institutions whose graduates can command starting salaries that match global standards. Yet the quality of public primary education is so poor that Pratham’s latest Annual Status of Education Report shows that a 27 per cent of Class VIII students in government and private primary schools cannot read a Class II text. The fact that Pratham flags this depressing fact as a “slight improvement over past years” is a telling indicator of the failure of public education.

The big picture, then, is this: Post-liberalisation India appears to work for the middle and upper middle classes and the rich. For the poor, not so much.  

These are all well-worn truths to be sure, but they exercise a covert influence on the public discourse especially around election time. Ironically, such gross inequalities in access to basic amenities, despite a dramatic reduction in poverty levels since 1991, reflects a curious commonality of outcome across ruling regimes. They also explain why grand populist schemes that sequester huge sums of public money, such as Nyuntam Aay Yojana, the National Rural Employment Guarantee programme, Jan Dhan, Ujjwala, and Ayushman Bharat get so much political traction year after year.

This collective weakness of public policy —  irrespective of party ideology — is intriguing, because it is well established that the poor line up at the hustings to exercise their democratic choice in far larger numbers than the middle class and the rich.

To be clear, there is no reason for India not to match global standards in aviation, automobiles, hospitals, telecom, retail, IT services, upscale housing and so on. All of these sectors have done their bit in creating jobs (including the explosive demand for chowkidar and associated security and housekeeping services). The problem is that policy priorities have been so lop-sided that the fruits of reform have been top-down rather than evenly distributed, creating inequalities of opportunity that consistently constrain India’s ability to catch up with China or even the Asian Tiger economies.

It is easy to see why we focused on incentivising investment in airports, airlines, telecom and medical care. This sort of stuff attracts approval from articulate sections of Indian society such as the Davos crowd and signals to foreign direct investors that India is open for business (as China taught us, nothing sends a more compelling message than a superb airport). Pouring money and effort into health and education is so much less eye-catching by comparison and the impact is also less visible.  

But the inattention to quality public health, education and infrastructure, or rather the increasing abdication of such services to a venal private sector, inevitably takes its toll both in practical and societal terms.

During the boom years between 2000 and 2008, Indian corporations suffered a severe shortage of skilled labour, a predicament that saw wages soar out of whack. When the economy slowed or was subject to a systemic shock such as demonetisation, it was the large numbers of uneducated and low-skilled workers who bore a disproportionate burden of hardship.

The neglect and deterioration of public services also plays an insidious role in dividing society. The well-heeled increasingly avoid using public transport, trains, public hospitals and schools, creating a vicious cycle of decline. Every paid-up capitalist knows that some level of inequality works in creating an aspirational impulse within societies; but when the opportunities to fulfil those aspirations are constrained by neglectful policy, you end up with a polarised society that falls back on age-old caste or religious identities as the sole, if illusory, enablers of their progress.