Welfare must be humanitarian not political

Tags: Opinion
Welfare must be humanitarian not political
AFP
SAD STATE: A weaver prepares silk threads before weaving Banarasi saris inside a handloom factory in Varanasi. Traditional crafts are capable of becoming agents of change for economic revival and poverty alleviation
We are a very political people. We politicise and corrupt everything. Tragically, even welfare. Every time the Union budget is presented, the party in power announces welfare schemes. By and large, these schemes are based on political compulsions and the government’s aim to reward a particular group. Benefiting the poor or providing welfare to the genuinely needy is never the prime criterion.

That welfare schemes are almost never audited on their efficacy, impact or efficiency is another matter. The comptroller and auditor general (CAG) does audit them, but the CAG report does not get as much coverage as the budget gets. Therefore, one generally does not know how the so-called grand schemes have fared. Did they make any difference to the target group? Were they efficiently implemented? In which districts were they most resourcefully executed and where were they neglected? The exchequer never finds out about how the tax money was utilised.

What is most reprehensible about government welfare schemes is that due to lack of awareness among the public on their availability and eligibility, they fall prey to officialdom and local politicians, to be thoroughly misused and exploited. Both these parties together then manipulate the schemes, hoodwink the recipients, and siphon off a large part of the money for themselves. The bureaucrat-politician nexus, therefore, generally ends up as the greatest beneficiary of welfare policies. The government is happy since it knows that at the cost of the exchequer, it is able to provide riches to its grassroot workers, thus in turn, benefiting the party and the government. The taxpayers pay for this politicisation of welfare while the poor continue to live in poverty.

The Mahatma Gandhi national rural employment guarantee programme was supposed to be an employment guarantee welfare scheme named after Mahatma Gandhi. Yet it would miserably fail if put to the exacting test of ethics and honesty practiced by the man it is named after. The scheme is supposed to provide guaranteed employment for a certain number of days a year to those living below the poverty line. It could have been a fantastic scheme of rural rejuvenation and providing sustenance for the rural poor. But the scheme has become a tool for corruption and exploitation. Touts, generally local political party workers in cahoots with officials and panchayat representatives, control who gets the benefits. They manipulate records in such a manner that apart from certain groups who they want to reward or oblige, no one else gets the benefits they deserve, and even those few who do avail of the scheme are cheated out of the entire benefit, in most cases ending up getting just one-third of what they are entitled. But ignorance and insecurity on part of the recipients and the bureaucrat-politician nexus ensure that welfare schemes end up catering to the interests of the undeserving.

But more than corruption and immorality of the implementation of the welfare schemes is the immorality of the intention of the government while announcing them. Varanasi is an ancient centre of handloom that used to be the thriving centre of khadi workers too, both spinners and weavers. Since long, they have been languishing because of the mismanaged and corruption-ridden khadi and village industries commission and the handloom board. Now Varanasi is the prime minister’s constituency and the PM has to show his gratitude to his voters. Since this has become an accepted practice, I was not surprised when our finance minister recently announced a huge grant for the welfare of the handloom workers of Varanasi as part of the budget. It is a grand gesture, if honestly and ethically implemented. Since it’s in the PM’s constituency, it is possible that it will be vigorously implemented.

However, my question is why single out only the handloom weavers of Varanasi as the recipients of this largesse? Handloom and handicrafts has been widespread in our country since ancient times and weaver communities are found across the nation. So why isn’t a welfare scheme being implemented to support all handloom workers immaterial of whether they voted for the PM or not? The entire handloom and khadi workers community across the nation is languishing, and traditional artisan craft and skills are dying out. They need a stimulus to revive them and make them profitable. A sensible scheme to stimulate the revival of handicrafts and traditional artisan skills is required across the nation. So why is it that only those in the PM’s constituency have been singled out?

Even today, traditional crafts are capable of becoming agents of change for economic revival and poverty alleviation amongst our rural communities. Such schemes can be heralds of the unfulfilled dream of the father of the nation, of Purna Swaraj, and liberation of our villages from poverty. But for that to happen, the politicisation of welfare will have to end. Welfare must be humanitarian not political.

(The writer is founder president, Mahatma Gandhi Foundation)

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