© 2024 KALW 91.7 FM Bay Area
KALW Public Media / 91.7 FM Bay Area
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Minding the Gap

An election rally in Kolkata
Sandip Roy
An election rally in Kolkata.

As I walk down the street one summer evening in Kolkata recently I heard what sounded like the marching band of a wedding party.
As I turned the corner I saw there was indeed a marching band. They were followed by folk dancers in saris balancing pots of flowers on their heads. People were walking with banners and flags. And bringing up the rear was a small truck with a woman smiling and waving at the bystanders. It was an election campaign.

The elections, a mammoth enterprise in India are happening over almost two months in multiple phases. This is Sandip Roy in Kolkata

Elections mean reams of media coverage about opinion polls, party coalitions coming together and falling apart. There are caste calculations as parties try to consolidate voting blocs. Politicians trot out familiar bogeymen. There’s sex scandals involving politicians and sex tapes all over the news. The government tries to talk about India’s growing clout and spin an India Rising story. The opposition talks about stifling dissent.
But the media rarely talks about things like healthcare, malnourishment, toilets. Swati Narayan is the author of Unequal: Why India Lags Behind its Neighbours. She says oddly though India is much richer than its smaller neighbours like Bangladesh and Nepal, it trails them when it comes to social development.

SN1: More of our children are undernourished. We are less literate. Uh, in health care, our infant mortality is worse. Um, we don't have as many toilets. Um, uh, so there's a range of parameters from, um, life expectancy all the way up to gender empowerment, where India lags behind

The East Asian tigers growth story had floated the idea that rapid economic growth would lift all boats but says Narayan countries like Nepal and Bangladesh have proven otherwise.

SN2: And one of the unique features of this particular story is that, um, Bangladesh and Nepal are now internationally recognized as exceptions of having good social development despite low growth

Its obviously not all hunky dory. On recent trips abroad I encountered uber drivers from Nepal. All had the same story, No jobs in the village. So we had to leave. As for Bangladesh says Narayan

SN3: we're talking about an electoral autocracy which hasn't had a good competitive election for nearly ten, 15 years now. But good development parameters, irrespective of which party is in power, including growth, when they've had dictatorial regimes

It’s not that India’s political parties don’t think about development. In fact these social development parameters were very much on the minds of those who framed India’s constitution. Dr. B. R. AMbedkar, who headed the committee drafting ndia’s Constitution said all the fundamental rights including the right to free elections would be a mockery if the citizens didn’t have a full belly.
But when push came to shove economic rights didn’t make it as enforceable rights in the Constitution says Arghya Sengupta author of The Colonial Constitution.

AS1: I think the short answer is the lawyers won the day.

As in if they made that promise, could the state keep it?

AS2:  Uh, because it was felt that if you were to say that everyone has a right to food and shelter46:45 , then if this if that means that the state has to pay, someone can go to court and say that I want my right to food, then how will the state pay for it.

Sengupta says thinking has evolved and the right to food does not actually have to mean a meal.

AS3:The right to food could be a right to a scheme by which you can get food. So it doesn't have to be a direct entitlement to that material.  Good. But could be the entitlement to a program

In India the economic rights became directive principles of state policy

AS4: which means that governments should do their utmost to try and ensure that these economic rights are fulfilled. But if they can't, people can't go to court.

But says Narayan the fundamental inequalities remained. Caste discrimination was outlawed on paper but still remained strong and the inequality gap keeps growing.

SN4:  And so the growth that we see in India is coming from the top and remains concentrated in the top, and the entire bottom half of India's population has to survive on 6% of the country's wealth.This is the problem.  This is why our growth is not translating into well distributed human development.

But come election time it’s not clear who is minding the gap

This is Sandip Roy in Kolkata for KALW