Close on the heels of Slumdog Millionaire, Dean Nelson, the Telegraph’s South Asia editor who is based in Delhi, asks a very pertinent question: Why doesn’t India care more for its poor? Dean’s question assumes that Indians don’t care for India’s poor as much as they ought to. I think that there is a great deal of truth in this question. I believe that Indians are as much charitable as people anywhere else in the world, which is not saying much. However, considering the enormous rich-poor divide that exists in India and the number of people who live in absolute poverty, Indians ought to do a lot more if they are to make a difference to India’s poor.
For a moment, let’s imagine that Indians have decided they want to do a lot more for the poor than they do now. What do you think they should/could do? I have listed below the top three things that came to my mind.
No more tax evasion: I believe that private or personal charity is no substitute for institutionalised welfare measures by the government. The biggest obstacle to alleviation of poverty is the lack of resources. One may dispute Dean Nelson’s claim that Indians don’t do enough for India’s poor, but one cannot deny that Indians are among the biggest tax evaders in the world. It is not only individuals who evade taxes, but also Indian corporates. In this respect, I think that MNCs in India have a better track record for paying taxes incident on them than our home-bred businesspeople. To cite a reported example, in June 2007, the BBC carried a news item which said that a single McDonald's restaurant in Ludhiana was paying INR. 1crore (10 million) in value-added tax, which amounted to 90% of the VAT collected from all VAT paying restaurants in Ludhiana district, even though it had only 10% of sales in that district.
Land Reforms: If we are to stop poor villagers from migrating in such large numbers to our cities, we need to make our villages relatively attractive places for people to live. I mean, they must be attractive relative to the fetid, rotting slums one finds in Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi, Chennai etc. I have often wondered, what would motivate a farmer who is used to free, open spaces, clean air and an outdoor lifestyle to migrate to a city like Mumbai and live in a slum where he either lives on the pavement or shares a stinking room in a shanty? In all probability, the answer lies in one word: starvation. The slums of Mumbai and Kolkata may stink, but people don’t die of starvation out there. Surely, all we need to do to make villagers stay in their villages rather than migrate to cities is to make sure they have enough to eat. I am no expert on Indian villages and the myriad problems they face, but I do know that the biggest obstacle to helping our farmers is the lack of land reforms. We need to redistribute the land in our villages so that every Indian farmer has a piece of land to cultivate and feed himself and his family.
Till recently, it was accepted that larger farms led to greater productivity. We were constantly told that small and fragmented landholdings led to inefficiencies in production. The West, we believed, was able to produce more because it had large farms which could use automated farming technology. Recent studies have shown that this is not so. Economies of scale don’t apply to farming as they do in other sectors.
Beggars and Street Children: For every few beggars on our streets, there is a beggar-master behind them, a beggar-master who pays a bribe to the police. Every child living on our streets is under the control of an adult who pays a bribe to the police. A part of these bribes finds its way to the pockets of bureaucrats and politicians. It’s easy to say that corruption in India is so widespread that it can’t be made to disappear. However, Indian policemen are perfectly capable of getting things done if they are given the right kind of orders. Have you noticed how efficiently slums are being demolished in Delhi in preparation for the 2010 Commonwealth Games? If Delhi is not clean and tidy enough for the 2010 Games, middle class India will demand an answer. There will be hell to pay in the next elections. Our politicians have told the cops that the slums must go. The cops have regretfully told the slumlords that they must move on, that they can’t be bribed anymore. The same can be done for beggars and street children throughout India if the middleclass demands it.