| Let's Get Real |
It's time we demanded a budget that will give us what we genuinely need
The combination this week of being in a rich, orderly, western country and our own impending annual budget exercise makes me painfully aware of the futility of it all. Year after year, when it comes to budget time, the political debate turns to matters economic and year after year, our economic pundits expound on such things as the fiscal deficit and the government's need to increase infrastructure spending and year after year, we continue to ignore the things that are really important. Why do we still have the largest number of illiterate people in the world? Why do our people still live without access to such fundamental needs as clean drinking water, sanitation and housing. By which decade of the 21st century can we hope to see planned Indian cities in which people live with basic dignity and children do not beg for food on the streets?
What is the point of debating the nuances of the budget if we continue to consider these things so unimportant that they barely make a footnote in the reams of verbiage the finance minister spouts every year when he presents his budget to Parliament? If I sound gloomier than usual, it is because when I write from rich, orderly, western countries, these things seem more important with every passing year. There are rich and poor people here, and disparities exist here too, but the poorest of the poor live at least like human beings should. They have roofs, however humble, over their heads.
They live in cities and villages that have proper systems of waste disposal, so their children do not suffer from diseases caused by unsanitary living conditions, they drink clean water and have the chance to go to proper schools. They also have access to decent healthcare and reliable supply of electricity. So, 50 years after Independence, why do our own people have to continue living in filth and misery?
Why have there been so many budget exercises that treat these most important of things as if they were insignificant, mere footnotes in the finance minister's grandiose vision of India? Could it be because we do not care? Could it be because there is something fundamentally wrong with our priorities?
I believe there is, and I believe nothing will change until we find ourselves a finance minister who begins his budget speech not with romantic Urdu verse but with an admission that he and his predecessors have failed the people of India. Failed them by annually weaving a grandiose dream of prosperity when the average Indian is not even able to dream a simple dream of a home in a clean, sanitary town or village, a school to send his children to, a hospital that does not require walking miles, a decent job and decent public transport that can get him there.
This dream will only become reality when the finance minister begins by explaining why we spend such a paltry percentage of the budget on education, healthcare and sanitation and such a vast amount on running the government.
Why do we need so many officials living in comparative splendour when we are unable to provide schools that are real schools? The minister for human resources development likes to boast these days about how the literacy rate has gone up by more than 10 per cent in the past decade. But it is not about literacy as we know, because anyone who can scrawl his name on a piece of paper is considered literate. This does not qualify as being educated by the standards of the world, but we choose to ignore this in favour of delusory numbers.
Just as we choose to pretend that our system of healthcare exists because it exists on paper. Technically we have a wonderfully intricate network of hospitals, health centres and sub-centres that cater to even the humblest of our citizens. But the truth is even the poorest villager searches for a private doctor when he is in need. And our humblest of socialist politicians rushes off to some foreign hospital when he needs medical attention. Vishwanath Pratap Singh, that messiah of the dispossessed, has even gone on record to say that he needs to go abroad because Indian water is not clean enough for his weekly dialysis.
He is right but what did he do about this when he was finance minister? Is he the only Indian who needs clean water? No, and something has gone very wrong with our country if a former prime minister can even dare make a statement like this, but what do we do about it? Nothing.
We continue to allow our finance ministers to get away with not doing their job. Like kings of yore they distribute charity in the form of poverty-alleviation schemes in the name of some prime minister or the other without telling us why they cannot give us what we really need: schools, hospitals, sanitation, housing, roads and jobs. Well, enough is enough, let us demand a real budget for a change.