It’s complicated

When I was a child, I received many life lessons from my grandmother back in my ancestral village in Kerala.

By Sidin Vadakut (LIFE)

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Published: Fri 30 Nov 2012, 11:25 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 3:45 PM

During our biennial trips home from Abu Dhabi she’d always try to impart some sort of earthy village wisdom, into what she considered were her essentially brain-dead NRI grandchildren.

Not that all of these skills were relevant to life in Abu Dhabi in the 1980s. For instance the ability to harvest sapota fruit using a stick and a blanket, or to calm a cow down before milking it by singing old Prem Nazir songs, are not vital skills for the expatriate in the Emirates.

Still she persisted. And I suppose we are all the better because of her lessons.

Back then, as children, whenever we suggested an unnecessarily complicated way of doing something simple, my grandfather would chuckle away. “Why,” she would ask, “are you touching your nose like this, when you can touch it like that?”

Then she would reach around her head with one hand, and touch the tip of her nose.

My grandmother was a terribly refined woman. And she would bring a certain grace even to this utterly graceless gesture. She would also, I suspect, fair better than the current government in New Delhi at running things.

Each day the government finds newer and better ways of reaching around its head and touching its own nose. Take, for instance, this new Direct Cash Transfers initiative. The idea, on paper at least, is commendable. Avoid the terrible leakage in the current subsidies regime by directly crediting them into people’s bank accounts.

This way you prevent middlemen from diverting subsidised food and fuel away from the targeted needy. Also you give the poor the freedom to do what they choose to with their credits. And as an added bonus there is now a compelling reason for people on the periphery of the banking system to own and run bank accounts.

The government intends to use a somewhat complex new national network of biometric identifiers and identity cards to ensure that the right credits reach the right people at the right time. And it is at this point that my granny would stand up and reach around her head.

Think about it. Instead of doing the simple things that empower people and give them social mobility — building schools, hiring teachers, commissioning power plants, laying roads, providing access to agricultural knowhow and better local institutions — the government is now depending on 21st century technology to make up for 19th century shortcomings.

Will the Direct Cash Transfers help the poor? Maybe. Will it make up for the lack of fundamental infrastructure? Or the fact that a lack of proper markets leads to very little price discovery in agricultural produce and huge wastage? No no. A thousand times no. Yet the government will obsessively keep trying to reach around its head.

One way to highlight this incompetence is to slightly rebrand India’s flagship welfare programmes.Instead of calling it the ‘Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act’ they should really be calling it: ‘Mahatma Gandhi National Employment Guaranatee Act For Places That Even After 60 Years Of Independence Still Have Half-Assed Infrastructure And Laughable Social Institutions, Excuse Us Kindly.”

Similarly why call it Direct Cash Transfers when you can call it the much more accurate: “Direct Cash Transfer To Make You Forget That You Have No Roads, No Hospitals, No Schools For Your Children And No Chance Of Escaping From The Hovel You Call Home!”?

Or am I just complicating things?

Sidin Vadukut is the Foreign Correspondent of Mint and Editor of Mint Indulge.

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