The Train Paradox

By Roopen Roy

An old man from a village in Medinipur in West Bengal came to visit his son in Kolkata. He was dazzled by the city lights, the metro rail, shopping malls, skyscrapers, gleaming cars and towering bridges on the river Hooghly. After his brief sojourn in the city, it was time for him to return. His son was busy. He was unable to see him off but instructed him to go straight to platform # 13. He was running late. He rushed to the platform, jumped into a train and occupied the lower berth. In the upper berth a gentleman was busy reading a newspaper. To strike up a conversation and partly to reassure himself, the villager asked, “Where are you going, sir ?” “ This train is going to Mumbai-I live there.” The farmer muttered almost to himself, “ What marvels of modern technology, the upper berth is going to Mumbai and the lower berth to Jhargram”. The gentleman in the upper berth said, ‘ I think you are in the wrong train, you should alight.”

As the locomotive of India’s growth gains momentum, we have a complex problem to solve. The “upper berth” is integrating with the global economy. We are one of the only two G20 countries that have registered a clear and significant growth in the past year. Indians are buying luxury cars , splurging in shopping malls, doubling the number of billionaires, acquiring companies in the US and Europe, creating global-scale and world-class enterprises and targeting a robust rate of growth. But the lower berth is chugging towards a different destination.

At least 25% of Indians are mired in abject poverty. We have not been able to provide them with safe drinking water, sanitation, health, education and food. Our food price inflation is now touching 20%. Some of our farmers are still in the clutches of village mahajans. In a civilized democracy we have farmers committing suicide –a shame for all of us. Someone has to stand up and say –“The same train cannot go to two destinations in divergent directions at the same time.”

It is not enough to conclude that agriculture is showing a sluggish growth and that too many of our countrymen are engaged in farming. How do we change it through intelligent policy interventions? In an earlier article, in these columns (The Flaw of Averages), I had argued in favour of a well planned Green Revolution 2.0 which would dramatically improve our farm productivity without harming our environment.

In this article, I would like to focus on two issues that I believe are critical to winning our war against poverty. First, we need a concerted and open battle against corruption. And second, a radical change in the way we report results of our nation’s income statement. Unless we clearly visualize the enormity of the problems and measure the results segmentally, we will not energize everyone to work towards solving them. The two issues are inter-related.

While we should be proud of our economic growth –the flaw of averages masks the real picture. Looking at the aggregate GDP growth without analysing how that impacts various sectors, geographies and communities is like viewing a reflection in a distorted mirror. Economists and statisticians would argue that all the data is available –so what is novel about this idea?

Let us, for a change, borrow a best practice from corporate accounting. One could argue that most of the data of an entity is, or should be, in the accounting records. Yet, it is important how that data is analysed and presented to the stakeholders of the company. International accounting standards provide guidance to companies on how to report results by operating segments. Why should we not present all GDP numbers by sectors, by geographic regions and by “target population”segments. For instance, it would be insightful to track the segmental GDP growth of our marginalized farmers and our tribal population.

In India ,we use euphemisms to obfuscate. Privatization is called disinvestment. The employers’ demand to “hire and fire” is called reforms in exit policy. We characterize thefts as a problem of trickle down. Intriguingly rampant corruption is often described as failure in governance. If we do not call a spade a spade we will never strike at the root of the problem. Corruption with a big C is deep rooted and widespread particularly in the rural areas where abysmal poverty reigns uncontrolled.

Shyam Benegal has directed a brilliant film called Abba Ka Kuan (Well Done Abba). It tells the story of Armaan Ali, an illiterate driver working in Mumbai. He takes leave for a month to find a husband for his educated daughter. He is then conned into applying to the government for constructing a well with funds earmarked for people living below the poverty line (BPL). A host of petty bureaucrats and politicians urge and assist him in obtaining a false BPL certificate. They arrange the fake paperwork including a completion certificate of the well, a trick photograph of the well and a confirmation from a politician that the water of the well is rather sweet. At the end of this process, a file is meticulously completed, the funds are disbursed, everyone’s pocket is lined but there is no well.

Armaan Ali and his daughter feel cheated .They go to the police station to file an FIR complaining that their well has been stolen. The Officer at the Police Station is at his wit’s end. But Armaan Ali asserts that many honourable officials and politicians have testified to the existence of the well. If it cannot be found, it must have been stolen and the police must hunt down the thieves. Armaan Ali organizes many other people whose wells have been similarly “stolen” and goes on a hunger strike with the demand of restoring his well. The electronic media gets a wind of this story and the issue begins to snowball.

The Minister realises that a mass movement would completely discredit him and cause a rout of his party in the elections. He gears up the administrative machinery to dig the well in mission mode so that he can inaugurate the well just before the elections in the glare of the electronic media. Everyone works on a war footing .The well is constructed in record time. The take-away: while corruption has brought prosperity to those who are in the business of poverty reduction, a collective action of those who suffer can fix the political and bureaucratic system in a democracy. Shall we say, ”Well done Benegal.”