Many a living room discussion on the state of welfare policies in India ends with the statement "the problem really is implementation". The conclusion rests on the idea that planning a policy is theoretical and complex, but implementing it is more about effective ground logistics; there is little reason beyond bad bureaucracy or corruption for it to not happen. This explanation ignores a fundamental obstacle to implementation: the prevalence of prejudice, and how implementers decide who gets what.
We live in a patronage democracy. This means that access to resources that a person is entitled to from the government depends on his or her relationship with the official in-charge. Anyone working with the government or in the private-public space will testify to this, but there is no place this is truer than in India's 650,000 villages.
Ration shares, school enrollment, fair wages, and farm loans become goods in a marketplace of relationships, rather than dues that accrue from a policy plan.
If you belong to India's rural population of 850 million--chiefly organized by caste, class and occupation--your group defines your income and power. The sarpanch, school headmaster, landlord or local project in-charge will almost always be someone from a higher caste, be it because of his network with other powerful individuals or by his having an education that came with his status. For marginalized or lower castes--the groups that depend most heavily on government aid for both today's survival and tomorrow's upliftment--building a relationship with these 'gatekeepers' is immensely difficult. Ration shares, school enrollment, fair wages, and farm loans become goods in a marketplace of relationships, rather than dues that accrue from a policy plan.
Twelve-year-old Seema from Wada district in Maharashtra recounts having to stand outside the door of her classroom to learn what she could. The children and teacher inside all belonged to the village's Kunbi caste, and would not accept a Dalit girl sitting amidst them. Ironically, the school had been built on special funds set aside by the government to strengthen Backward Class education. Seema was paying for the schooling of her oppressors. India's Right to Education Act mandates that all children, irrespective of caste or creed, be given free education up to the age of 14 years.
Similarly, the National Rural Health Mission has created health workers and medical services, while the ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) aims to fight illiteracy and malnutrition for children under six. There are welfare policies and special funds set aside for many of the important deficiencies we face--a dearth of plans isn't the problem. The hurdle is that the workers or officials at the frontline dispensing these services may not always think the beneficiaries deserve them. With groups competing directly for government resources, the implementers often end up favouring their own kind.
Are displaced populations the inevitable sacrifice of an advancing economy, or are they victims of irresponsible implementation?
Our concept of implementation gets increasingly challenged when it comes to displacement by development. Are displaced populations the inevitable sacrifice of an advancing economy, or are they victims of irresponsible implementation? The victims of eviction are first the lower-caste farmers whose farm holdings are seized most effortlessly, and Adivasis who can put up little resistance against a modern state. Social discrimination against marginalized groups leads to a multiplier effect on them: high levels of illiteracy, and low levels of political representation. This impedes threats of backlash when oppressed or exploited, and so it pays to keep them disempowered.
While 8% of India's population is tribal, they make up 40% of the displaced population. One in 10 of all Adivasis in India is a refugee in his or her own country. Compensation is close to fictional, for it depends on proof of landholding, a cruelly onerous expectation of communities that have inherited land for centuries. Between 1951 and 1985, more than 15 million people were displaced, of whom 75% are yet to be rehabilitated over three decades later. If development requires the responsible implementation of rehabilitation and compensation, then India has depressing disregard for those we owe it to.
If development requires the responsible implementation of rehabilitation and compensation, then India has depressing disregard for those we owe it to.
This discriminatory welfare isn't limited to villages and rural communities. The caste biases manifest themselves in new forms of hierarchy in cities. The lowest castes and landless that were displaced form the bulk of migrant labour, working in low- to mid-skill jobs as construction workers or domestic help--nearly one-third of India's population is composed of migrants. Caste structures prevail in cities for two reasons: the first, because of little access to education or non-agrarian skills, these groups are unable to make use of opportunities cities offer; and the second, dominant classes and castes keep lower groups dependent on them so they can set terms of work and pay.
Employers fail to adhere to minimum wage laws, safe work conditions or insurance and health benefits. This fact is more frequently acknowledged in the space of construction sites or wage labour, but it is true even within homes. The rules for domestic workers such as cleaners, drivers, maids and guards are set with little regard for minimum pay, balanced working hours or job security such as pension or healthcare. Justifying salary levels by a crude supply-demand ratio is to ignore complex factors of poverty that lead to low wages, and to fail to see the need to take a more humanitarian approach to fair pay. It would require accepting that everyone deserves a chance to a safe and reasonably happy life.
Employers fail to adhere to minimum wage laws, safe work conditions or insurance and health benefits... it is true even within homes.
This sense of hierarchy is ingrained into India's psyche, and even more in its institutions. Our deepest thoughts toward these 'other' groups has a path of influencing the world--by guiding whom we vote for, what policies we support, and what common social conversation we create. People from this very society come to power, with biased beliefs ultimately shaping the institutions they run and plans they write. And because officials distributing resources lower down in the chain are even closer to the fault lines, the selective welfare is re-enforced. It is a vicious cycle.
The challenge that is implementation certainly isn't just about ground logistics and effective administration. The malaise in our country is deeper--it's about the hidden layers of prejudice we harbour unknowingly and knowingly.
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