An unusually punctual gathering on the dais greeted me at Rotary Club. Thankfully, this was a gathering of unimportant people both on and off the dais; none of those species of “Very Important People” often sporting Anna-like caps were invited to the gathering and things started on time. P Sainath was supposed to be speaking on “Rural India after two decades of liberalisation” and the gathering included a fair mix of people across age groups, occupations and stereotypes, yet so unrepresentative of rural India. A lot of those ‘civil society’ types that Sainath loves to decry and dissociate from were there too.
I was myself reminded of a photo I took from Crossword, where his oft-quoted book on famines “Everybody loves a good drought” was (perhaps?) inadvertantly placed under “Indian Fiction”, when he spoke about the time when he was invited to talk on “Indian fiction” on one of his foreign trips which he accepted for he was an authority on the Government documents.
Sainath started in earnest with the rise in petrol prices and deftly manoevered that to a paragraph he read out from a few sheets of scribbled stuff he had brought to the podium. He reassured us that this is not what he often does – read a prepared text. It was from the budget speech of 24th July 1991, when the present prime minister, Manmohan Singh was the finance minister. We got to know this only later though because the context around which “liberalisation” was brought in still exists today….at least for most of rural India. Sainath reminded us that line “…Budgetary subsidies, with questionable social and economic impact, have been allowed to grow to an alarming extent”. Since then, how many such “subsides” have had great impacts?
It appears that such “subsidies” are available for all to see as an inconspicuous annexure to all budgets – “Statement of Revenue foregone” – here it is for 2009-10. This document lists the special tax exemptions and concessions given to individuals and corporates and calculates the revenue ‘lost’ or foregone by the central government as a result of these. The figure is somewhere near 35,000 crore rupees – Sainath reminded us that this is around the money it takes to run the entire NREGA programme for a year – yes, that is what was “foregone” – the new word for corporate subsidy which has now replaced those budgetary subsidies of pre-90s days which had questionable social impact! This foregone revenue is climbing year after year and one of its greatest components has been the custom subsidies. And for those of us who were wondering if our good government was keeping the interests of many of us in mind while it was perhaps waiving off taxes on essential drugs, here is the list – precious stones and jewellery, mineral fuels and oils, animal or vegetable fats, machinery and electrical machinery. The first one in this list – a Rs 48,798 crore exemption on customs duty for imported jewellery in one year alone – nearly the size of our entire annual food subsidy all for the great drain robbery.
Indian has more billionaires than all Scandinavian countries put together! And this is not merely from the richest cities, we were told. Sainath described those nice weddings in rural India particularly those of Gadkari’s son held in Vidarbha – that place where farmers are killing themselves for debt. Seems a bit exaggerated right – why would farmers kill themselves in a place where 2,00,000 people attended the wedding and aircrafts replaced the usual tractors and trucks for ferrying wedding guests. And who says a village cannot get 24-hour power. No load shedding during gadkari wedding! And no party-specificity with such rich rural weddings – so is the case, Sainath reminded us of the weddings of several others from all parties. India was so shining in these areas, that it was mostly blinding for many who didnt catch the irony. So much so that mass weddings with food were understandably the best social programme in Vidarbha for a long time.
The next 45 minutes was a series of anecdoetes from the 80s and 90s. The wisdom and experience of covering real India for decades was showing – he discussed the problem of “footloose migration” – those people for example from Orissa and Jharkhand who work for a few months in Hyderabad and later in Mumbai who do not get picked up by any census. We heard about that wonderful scheme that was pooh-poohed when launched – the midday meal scheme. The farmers rally or the strike at Maruthi’s Manesar plant for better working conditions that mainstream media took so late to cover. And of course, how many “luminaries” have rubbished all this tripe about farmers’ suicides and have proven it to us by legally deleting famine from their vocabulary through a parliamentary act! More followed on the food security bill.
All in all, it was a brilliant display of wisdom, erudition, spontaneity and a sense of conscience that Sainath demonstrates. He stands today as a conscience for several self-aggrandised and charismatic civil society who forget that it takes more than values and integrity to build a country. Describing himself as a member of the “un”civil society, Sainath repeated his thoughts on the Jan Lokpal Bill from that Berkeley lecture and gave tips on feeding our billionaires.
And for those who would rather listen to Sainath himself and trust me the talk was one of his best (the recording is not!) – see http://dl.dropbox.com/u/2047439/sainath/data-2011-9-16-19-05-15.3gp and http://dl.dropbox.com/u/2047439/sainath/data-2011-9-16-19-59-12.3gp (Thanks to Anush)