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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 15 New Delhi March 30, 2019

Rhetoric and Reality: How Development Issues will play out in Election Season

Sunday 31 March 2019, by Bharat Dogra

While there is always the possibility of communal or jingoistic issues flaring up at the time of the election season in India, there is no doubt that development issues will also be an important factor. While the overall record of the NDA II Government in fulfilling its development promises has been highly inadequate, it is nevertheless trying to create an aura of great achievements and gains for the common people. The entire effort has been planned in such a way that just around election time people get a feeling of a lot being done for them and more to come.

The publicity blitz will highlight that people are getting free treatment in hospitals, unor-ganised sector workers are being registered for pensions, farmers are getting income support, women have received free gas connections, and they have been helped even more by the newly constructed toilets. Any well-informed critic can raise important questions regarding all these claims, but the government with its mighty media and publicity strengths can create a buzz around some attractive themes which have a much bigger reach.

A more balanced appraisal of these issues will argue that the recent changes in the health sector, based on an insurance-led model, are actually regressive in Indian conditions and in any case budget allocations available for Ayushman are inadequate. The scheme of pensions for the unorganised sector is a farce and the wider reality is of very poor performance of this government in the context of pensions for the elderly people and other vulnerable sections including the disabled and widows. Why was the income benefit for farmers announced at the eleventh hour of the five-year regime and not earlier? Isn’t it true that in the Ministry of Water and Sanitation the higher allocations for sanitation were made at the expense of allocations for rural drinking water which is an equally important priority? How many of the women, given free gas connections, have been able to get their refills?

To some extent the Modi Government is on genuinely strong grounds on two issues— providing free cooking gas connections and construction of toilets. As my recent conver-sations with over 100 women in different parts of the country revealed, construction of toilets is a very genuine need that required urgent attention particularly from the perspective of women. However, the progress has been uneven in various villages—ranging from near hundred per cent to just around 10 per cent or so in other villages. There are several problems regarding implemen-tation and even possibilities of water contami-nation in high water-table areas. The construction may have been poor particularly in early stages when the achievement was often overstated and in the rush to fulfil or exceed targets there were other mistakes. The hurry which led to lower construction of two-pit toilets will create serious problems later on. Coercion and shaming methods were used where these could have been avoided. Despite all this it remains true that millions of women feel genuine relief due to ODF campaign, as do several elderly, ill or disabled persons in particular. Due to hurried and faulty implementation new problems may appear later but for now there is appreciation in many places. The implementation is generally much better in places where experienced voluntary organisations were involved and could provide additional inputs and expertise.

In the case of free gas connections at some places I found people questioning how free this is as the beneficiaries have been asked to pay higher than expected amounts for refilling, while in many cases getting regular refills was not really an option for many poor families. Still the number of women who appreciate this scheme is not insignificant. For many women gas connection and toilet construction taken together is one significant step ensuring convenience, better health, avoiding drudgery and saving time. But the actual performance of the two schemes is very uneven across sections and areas.

However, the worsening water situation in innumerable villages is not only a very serious problem in itself, in addition it may lead to the toilets not being used at all in the water scarcity months. The elections will be close to the time when water scarcity is more acute. Rainfall has been scanty in several critical areas. In this situation the relative neglect of the rural drinking water programme will prove costly for the Modi regime. The lower-than-needed allocations and spendings on several other important rural development programmes will also make their presence felt.

Even linking the farmers’ direct benefit scheme too close to election time may not prove as successful as was planned. The other day I was travelling with a development official in Eastern Uttar Pradesh. It was clear from the conversation that this official was committed to the BJP, yet he was very critical of the great hurry in which the income transfers were being made. What will happen if you are asked to do a six- month work in less than six weeks?—he asked. He then replied himself: mistakes will be made and corruption will thrive. This is exactly what is happening, he said. When we both went to meet two village pradhans they also agreed that the lekhpal was taking bribes to send wrong names as beneficiaries. If a lot of wrong entries are made, then election benefits may be much less than expected from this direct transfer of first instalment.

If the overall economic situation is grim for a majority of the people, then a few sops here and there may not be very convincing for them. It is widely agreed that the employment situation is really bad and has worsened by the government’s foolhardy demonetisation and ill-planned introduction of the GST. So while some causes of growing unemployment are of a structural and longer-term nature, the Modi Government clearly deserves to be blamed for not tackling the structural problems at all and then aggravating the situation by these two steps.

The five budgets of the Modi Government do not contain any significant initiatives for improving the resource base in sustainable and equality-promoting ways and improving the utilisation of available resources to meet the most pressing needs of the people and providing them satisfactory and sustainable livelihoods. So while the overall development record of the NDA II Government has been a poor one and certainly is far removed from the great promises made five years back, it remains to be seen to what extent the rhetoric can get the better of the reality in the election season.

The author is a free-lance journalist who has been involved with several social movements and initiatives.

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