A global catastrophe as is unfolding will produce structural changes in nations and especially democracies. When the entire population is affected by an event, as is the case today, it will want to assert itself. This is especially so if the effect of the catastrophe is concentrated and not fragmented, as again is the case today. Those who have been excluded and starved of resources for which they are suffering have the opportunity to mobilise and demand more.
Of few democracies, or perhaps of no democracy, is it as true as it is of India that the many are starved of resources and opportunities at the expense and the anxieties of the few. An observation of how the Union government spends its money will reveal that while India is a poor nation, it prioritises one sector and sacrifices others in its allocation of resources.
India’s defence budget is Rs 4.3 trillion and the Union Home Affairs, of which by far the largest component is the paramilitary, is another Rs 1 trillion. That’s Rs 5.3 trillion to defence and security excluding policing, which is a state subject.
In comparison, let us have a look at what is spent by the Union on other things that we may be familiar with: (All figures from https://www.prsindia.org/parliamenttrack/budgets/union-budget-2019-20-analysis
). PM Kisan, the targeted basic income scheme transferring cash to farmers is Rs 75,000 crore while The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) gets Rs 60,000 crore. The National Education Mission gets Rs 38,000 crore and the Health Mission, rural and urban combined, gets Rs 33,000 crore.
illustration: Binay Sinha
Integrated Child Development Services, which manages food, education, immunisation, primary health care and pre-school education, gets Rs 27,000 crore. The Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, which aims to provide housing for all, has Rs 25,000 crore. Urban Transformation (‘AMRUT’) and Smart Cities
is Rs 13,000 crore. Swachh Bharat gets Rs 12,000 crore. Mid-Day Meal scheme Rs 11,000 crore, while the Rural Drinking Water Mission gets Rs 10,000 crore. National Livelihood Mission, aimed at creating institutional platforms for giving the rural poor opportunities to increase household income is Rs 9,000 crore and the PM Krishi Sinchayee Yojana on irrigation is also Rs 9,000 crore.
The question is: Why is everything given more or less the same amount of money? Why do eight schemes get between Rs 9,000 crore and Rs 14,000 crore? Why do four schemes get between Rs 25,000 crore and Rs 38,000 crore? The answer is obviously a lack of resources. Allocations are perfunctory and based on what is available rather than what is needed and what is effective.
All these schemes together come to Rs 3.7 trillion. All of it is less than the defence budget alone and combined with the paramilitaries, the Border Security Forces, the Cental Reserve Police Force and so on, it’s only 40 per cent of that pot. Combined with subsidies, it’s less than a third.
There has been no serious debate on why the strategic threat to India requires it to spend its resources in this fashion and whether something can be done to alter it. There is equally not much debate on whether the internal and border security require a half-million additional men or what can be done in the so called naxal areas to pacify and resolve the issue without violence. Indeed, the narrative is usually hawkish militarily, meaning in favour of the status quo and against the poor in terms of resource allocation. A time as we are going through now affords us the opportunity to shift this permanently.
Writing in the Hindustan Times (March 31, “Covid-19 could fundamentally change India’s political economy”) Roshan Kishore highlighted the shift in India’s economy from agricultural to non-agricutural and the dependence on non-farm work for a very large section of Indians who are disproportionally affected by this lockdown.
The article quoted a 2015 research report by AIIMS that showed that half of all Indians with serious head injuries died because of poverty and the inability of their family to provide adequate diet and nursing facilities. “A very large section of our population has been living a hand-to-mouth existence while hoping they either don’t fall ill or just live through their illnesses when they do,” he said. This is disregarded in our politics and our media, however a period of sustained attention on health as we are going through has opened up the opportunity to look at substantial change.
“Examples of these could be provisions for increased income/food transfers in such emergencies, significantly augmenting public health infrastructure; both in terms of quantity and quality to protect the poor during such crises, and even ensuring some sort of payment to daily wage workers during other illnesses that prevent them from working.
“If a political party were to push for such changes, it could actually be pretty successful in mobilising a large section of the poor behind these demands. While the poor have little say in shaping India’s intellectual or public discourse, they do have a significant role in deciding political outcomes,” he concludes.
This, then, is the moment of opportunity for politics and parties and movements that can consolidate behind structural change.
Of course, it should be acknowledged that what we have discussed so far is from what would be considered the liberal perspective. There is a second instinctive response to catastrophe and that is the consolidation of power in the messianic leader.
Foreign Policy magazine ran this headline on March 31: “Hungary’s Orban given power to rule by decree with no end date”. Other than an open-ended dictatorship without elections, the country’s leader was also given power to jail anyone for five years for spreading what he considered to be “fake” news.
Human history, and especially the history of the 20th century, has more examples of tyranny and consolidation of power emanating from national crisis than it has those of structural change where power was diffused. For both the liberals and the so-called right in India, the moment is ripe.