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Why aspiring India has started hating its poor

It is terrible enough to have to carry a yoke all your life, but what does it mean to be kicked around for it too?

If you are still poor in today’s reforms (and corruption) rich India -- and that spectrum of poverty has space for pretty much everyone, from the disenfranchised tribal to city dwellers who cannot afford a car -- you know the answer. The power elite shower scorn on you. Public policies are sanitised of your interests. Even public interest litigations seek to deny you space on the road.

But has not poverty been the most hallowed and milked term in the Indian discourse all these decades? Just when did it fall from its symbolic grace?

Representational Image: Reuters

In the early years of Independence, poverty was destiny. Many even wore it as a badge of integrity. By the 1960s, the burden became socially unbearable, prompting Prime Ministers to wage wars against it. Irrespective of the sincerity of campaigns such as garibi hatao, mass poverty was acknowledged as a malaise, and promising its cure became the staple of electoral politics.

Even in the 1990s, when the poor were often blamed for lack of initiative and entrepreneurism, not even the most liberal of economists could deny that inequity – the lack of level playing fields -- was at the root of poverty. Politicians continued to do their penance at the door of the predominantly poor aam aadmi every election. While in power, they still winced at every thought of breaking the rules of the games of subsidy.

So why did the Planning Commission and the government suddenly make a travesty of statistics and common sense by appointing multiple panels to define poverty and thereby the number of the poor? Why did the Finance ministry set up a super committee to unconditionally clear -- irrespective of legal and public interest imperatives -- rich investments of R1000 crore or more?

How could the Chief Minister of one of India’s poorest states set up a sarkari armed force available on hire to industries for cracking down on any opposition with legal impunity? How could the Law minister of the country be so liberal with expressions such as “guttersnipes”, and his colleague set the benchmark for corruption in crores rather than lakhs of rupees?

In his dull contempt for the mango people, none less than the country’s most infamous son-in-law inadvertently provided clues to the answers to these questions.

Poverty has always been power fodder. But since everything was justifiable in the name of the poor, no politician, not even Sanjay Gandhi, ever dared deviate from the public benisons reserved for this easily-malleable constituency. The façade started wearing off one and half a decades into liberalisation when growth rates achieved by mindlessly using up natural resources during all those years became difficult to sustain.

Our banana republic reached a point where the easy loot was over: partly because a lot of readily harvestable resources were already exhausted, and partly because the resistance to the loot gained momentum. The swelling ranks of both the poor and the billionaires belied the promises of liberalisation.

Yet, the greed for artificial growth was being fuelled by the select few who benefited from it. Since the rest of the population was served by a sad trickle-down form of this economic oligarchy, the urgency to grab more resources by displacing the poor was also driven by the compulsion to provide the middle class with just enough to keep it interested in the growth story.

The equations have not changed since. But it is a difficult model to push in a functional democracy. The wealth divide between the rich and the not-so-rich has become so stark that the lines between the poor and not-so-poor are crumbling. So there is an increasing demographic overlap between the civic society’s criticism of corruption and the grassroots movements against the resource loot.

At the receiving end of this combined onslaught, the rich and the powerful are finding it increasingly difficult to play one section of the opposition against another. After sidestepping laws and quashing dissent for so many years, suddenly, the ruling elite are not only being asked questions on accountability but also being pressed for answers.

The arrogant are feeling frustrated and the masks are slipping. The self-contained order of the chosen few has finally started owning up what it always believed in: the dispensability of the poor. This attitude is not even restricted to the high priests in the government or business chambers.

Delhi, for example, has more cars than other three metros combined but the majority of its residents do not own vehicles. For all its structural flaws and teething problems, the dedicated bus corridors (BRT) of Delhi were a move towards the right direction for decongesting roads of too many private vehicles by offering convenient public transport.

But the plan required cars to sacrifice half the road space to plebeian buses. When a few VIP cars were penalised for trying to evade traffic jams by taking the bus-only lanes, a PIL urged the Delhi High Court to scrap the BRT as too many vehicles piled up on the car-lanes. After nine months, the court threw away the petition last week with a sobering judgment: “A developed country is not one where the poor own cars… but where the rich use public transport”.

The temerity of the PIL is but one example of how intolerant Delhi’s rich have become of its poor who would be considered super-rich by those at the other extreme of the poverty spectrum in places such as Vidarbha or Bastar. The age-old divide was never this sharp and India’s rich, the 5 per cent who possess two-fifths of the country’s assets, never rubbed it in so brazenly.

Now that the mask is off, will the equation change? The poor may welcome it as the end of hypocrisy that will allow them to fight the battle of inequity for what it is. But if the rich and mighty romp home yet again, it may perpetuate the myth that the guttersnipes are really dispensable.

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