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August 17, 2014

Lying Cannot Eliminate Poverty, Mr. President

[An expanded and revised version of AHRC Statement
Children in Tawa block, Rewa, Madhya Pradesh

India’s battle against poverty has reached the phase of ‘elimination’ from ‘alleviation’ said President Pranab Mukherjee in his address to the nation. That was last evening, the eve of 68th Independence Day of the republic. It was encouraging to see him explain that the difference was not merely about ‘semantics’. “Alleviation is a process; elimination is a time-defined objective”, he elaborated.

How will his government go about that remains though, a mystery even if one does not doubt the intent. Did he not confess that there is no humiliation bigger than hunger a year ago, in his acceptance speech? And then, one does not remember his previous government taking any concrete step to end this humiliation that affects the poor. All it did was bringing the line, or the criteria that measure poverty, down and lower to exclude more and more poor people from the safety net of social welfare. Exactly in the same way as governments after governments have done in last six decades. Six decades ago, 60 percent of Indians were poor claims the statistics, only 30 percent remain poor it adds. Have they, is the question that begets no answers.

Or it does? “[N]early one-third of our population still lives below the poverty line” the president accepted in the same address. He seemed to be aware of the fact that ‘[p]overty has a face, which becomes unbearable when it scars the visage of a child’. He knows that the poor cannot wait for ‘yet another generation’ to get the very basic amenities- ‘food, shelter, education and employment’. “The benefits from economic development must percolate down to the poorest of the poor”, he rightly added.

How will his government achieve this percolation, trickling in the previous government’s parlance, is what he chose not to elaborate upon. Neither did he touch base with the fact that poverty does not exist in vacuum. There is an economic rationale that benefits more from sustenance of poverty than its eradication. Ironically, that economic rationale lives in the interconnected structures that produce, shape and define the public institutions without which there can be no rule of law. It may sound strange at first, but then the criminal justice system is the isle on which the whole system revolves.

Take the status of thousands of social welfare schemes launched by the states and central governments to alleviate property? Why poverty remains so high despite them? Huge leakages from them in various forms of corruption come readily to mind. Why does corruption continue despite being illegal? Why do the poor not fight against it despite knowing that it is their money and resources that is getting stolen? 

The answer is simple again. They do not because they know that the criminal justice system is not only corrupt itself but is also skewed heavily in favour of the vested interests. The police, the first point of contact between the aggrieved citizenry and the state, scare them and it does that intentionally. Even if they dare to take that risk, the prosecution- as underfunded, inefficient, incompetent and overburdened as the police- fails them yet again. At the end of the chain comes the dreaded legal system masquerading as courts of law. Something as simple as a case of local level fudging of funds earmarked for the poor can drag for decades with the usurpers having the best of the lawyers and the victims nothing.

The poor, understandably, neither have time nor means for fighting these battles of redress; the battles that come with real threat of physical violence. They know that the police, again, will be bought over by the usurpers and add, in the process, one more battle to take care of.

This is this rottenness in the criminal justice system, Mr. President, that has rendered any attempts of even alleviating poverty, forget eliminating it, largely meaningless. Your government must address the issue of putting an effective, efficient and accessible system of grievance redressal in place. The money and resources earmarked for the poor will keep getting siphoned off till it does.

Poverty, too, will remain staggeringly high despite all attempts of binging poverty line down. You must be aware that as of now, the Planning Commission’s official statistics considers those earning more than Rs 32 in villages and Rs 47 in cities not poor. Even subsistence wages under Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee being much higher than that must tell how ridiculous that claim is. So will remain the claims of eliminating poverty with your address to the nation not mentioning criminal justice system even in the passing.

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