In what sense are we a "socialist" republic?

In 1976, Indira Gandhi amended the Preamble of the Indian Constitution to insert the words “socialist” and “secular” in the description of the Indian republic. It is not clear to me what she meant by “socialist”, but 34 years later, we still don’t have a social security system or any kind of safety net for the vast majority of our people. We have a “public distribution system” for essential commodities, that is decrepit and corrupt but is pretty much the only resource for the poor. Our healthcare and education are terrible. We know that Mrs Gandhi, like her father, admired the Soviets, but in what respect, other than autocracy and midnight arrests, did she attempt to emulate them? (Mrs Gandhi made this amendment at the height of the Emergency. She did not choose to remove the word “democratic” from the Preamble, presumably because the Soviet bloc had its own definition of that word, as in “German Democratic Republic” — the former East Germany. Why change words when you can merely change their meanings?)

The motivation for the above reflections was the recent decontrol of petrol prices. Now, subsidising petrol is the sort of broad-based subsidy that makes no sense to me: it benefits the rich as much as, or more than, the poor. I am all for removing such subsidies. I think we should also be charged more realistic amounts for water, electricity, and other things that we take for granted. I seldom pay more than Rs 5 for parking my car, and usually I pay nothing: our cities could earn huge revenue by just charging parking fees that bear a closer relation to the price of real estate. There is no possible argument for subsidising car owners to this extent.

But the question is, what will we get in return for removing the subsidies? Can the poor be assured of affordable food, good healthcare and education? The government has passed the “Right to Education” act but there is no clarity on how it is to be implemented, and I am worried that the only effect of the act will be to hamstring the existing private schools without providing any alternative. There seems to be zero movement, and indeed zero interest, on any of the other things that an allegedly “socialist” government should be providing to its needy people.

Balancing the budget is all very well, but there is surely no short-term rush for that: if we manage to lift 300 million people out of poverty in the next generation, the government’s tax revenues will shoot up too. As George W Bush said, we need to make the pie taller. Besides, there are enough wasteful government schemes that we can trim without hurting millions of people in the process. But I do not for a moment believe that the poor will become magically prosperous via GDP growth alone. Thanks to India’s spectacular recent growth, the urban middle class earns ten to fifty times as much as it used to a generation ago; but we remain every bit as stingy in paying servants and workers, haggling for the last rupee. That’s not going to change.

Meanwhile, without an education, the poor simply face no better prospects than unskilled labour — whether in farming, industry, construction or homes — and no means of fighting exploitation.

So while I am, in theory, happy to pay more for my petrol, I want to know what the government plans to do with my money, other than cut the deficit. Indira Gandhi made “Roti, kapda, makaan” a slogan: a generation or two later, a huge number of Indians lack even those essentials of life. Healthcare and education? Perhaps a century or two from now.

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8 Comments

  1. Thoughtful post, but there is not much one can say except repeat some of the things that you said like "…the urban middle class earns ten to fifty times as much as it used to a generation ago; but we remain every bit as stingy in paying servants and workers…". In my opinion, that is the class which speaks in the media, controls various programs and their implementation and will continue to loot and help the looters.

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  2. I remember when I tipped a taxi driver (a rather small tip by international standards) and an older relative said "Don't do that, you'll spoil them." I don't think she (or many like her) think of themselves as looters. In fact they are good generous people in other ways. But the caste/class hierarchy is so firmly entrenched that we simply don't think of the implications of many of our actions (or words). And the working class / poor are fated their particular existence: how they make ends meet is not our problem. On the other hand, there is also very little resentment of the rich by the poor, again because of the "fatalistic" outlook that is bred into us. But I think all this is changing. One hopes that poverty alleviation occurs faster than buildup of class resentment.

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  3. I think that it is a bit more than that. I will mention a few instances. Why are there two mathematics institutes in Madras? with one of them now accomodating retired people and catering given to the progeny of one of the big shots? A respectable journalist writes a travel book which reviews indicate is ok. But he is flying around the country promoting the book, and meetings and parties in each place. Why? The anwer seems to be that he spent a lot of effort on it and wants to maximize the benefits. Then we have academic blogs with due noise about gender, equal opportunity but the main thrust seems to be for more salaries and benefits for academics. Who are the members of the Pay Commision? at least one of them is an academic I know. I was in the UGC panel for mathematics at one time( I am also a part of the class that I am talking about)and saw how the grants were distributed. There were some members about to retire and applied for large grants for several years. If there were any queies, the decisions would be postponed. How much of the class mentioned mentioned spend on food now and how much did they spend thirty years ago (as a proportion of their salary)? When I was visiting Kolkata a few years ago, a Physics professor resigned. The reason: after due process somebody was selected but there was a phone call from a big shot in Bangalore asking for a different one to be appointed and it was done. When I visit home, I find many trying to move from villages to towns for education which is supposed to be the passport for jobs as there is no future in agriculture. If it is govt. job, during marriages there are calculations about actual salaries and extra earnings. The expectation is that one can make money by corruption or keeping part of the money from government schemes. I have seen sons of government officials (apparently with no extra properties) coming abroad to study and buying cars soon for transport. It seems to me that the people involved in formulating, assisting and implementing governance are mainly educated people mostly from towns and cities. Without their cooperation, I do not think that businessmen or politicians will get away with what they are doing. They may think that they are doing the best they can under the citcumstances.

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  4. Rahul,re. TippingDo you travel by auto in Chennai? They start with a quote that feels like 100% over meter already… the only time they use meter, in my experience, is for pre-paid rides where they hope to run the meter over the prepaid amount. I havent had too many taxi rides here and friends tell me they are more reasonable, but they too hold back 20 bucks or so in the change. Can we call this a "self-tip" since our consent is assumed or sought to be forced :-)Back in Kerala I have had auto drivers proudly refusing tips though the scene is slowly changing. Every time I come across a bandit in a rick here, I salute them.thx,Jai

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  5. Jai – I don't travel by auto in Chennai, mainly for the reason you give. I rarely use taxis either, but haven't experienced the "withholding of tip" that you mention (but perhaps it's because I pre-emptively tell them to keep the change).However, I wouldn't be harsh on the auto drivers either. Till a couple of years ago, the "official" meter rates were atrocious, and by the time the rates were revised, the damage was done: the culture of not going by meter is too entrenched. Plus many of them are in debt and don't even own their vehicles: they lease them (illegally) from owners who are in cahoots with the police (I have heard that many of the autos are in fact owned by the police). Apparently the situation is not unique to Chennai: recently I read this article about Delhi.

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  6. gaddeswarup – you raise a lot of good points. But a lot of it (research grants, book parties, catering contracts to favoured people, etc) is not unique to India. It is just the scale of the problem is much more here, plus I think there is a perception, especially among the older generation, that this is the only way to get things done. Change will be slow.

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  7. Rahul,dont want to sidetrack the thread.I heard about the cop-ownership too, in the context that its no use complaining about the auto charges demanded to the cops… you're talking to the beneficiary, pretty much.One *clear* delta I have seen here vs. BLR, vs Kerala, is most autos run empty and chase you for custom. That simply does *not* happen elsewhere and it tells me that auto drivers whatever their constraints do need to climb down a bit ( though I dont know; friends here say that its lock-in, the drivers get frust. running empty most of the time so they try to make up for all that by fleecing extra cash when they get into a nego with a prospect).thx,Jai

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  8. Rahul,Thanks for the responses. It is useful to have these responses to balance one's perspective.

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