There is a wishing well right in the heart of the country’s Capital. It was given by India’s people to their elected representatives and is known as Parliament. It was at this wishing well their representatives would make wishes for them which would come true through the intricate system of governance. The well remains functional. But the wishes thrown in are not what they were meant to be. The well is the captive of the elite who constitute the government and most wishes, on being granted, take these elite further away from the people.
No one said it would be easy to represent and serve the people of this country who make up one-sixth of the world’s population and perhaps half its problems. Yet, for those with the right intentions, the experience of common life and its difficulties could instil compassion. To see their countrymen living as destitutes could make them feel overpowered by a sense of responsibility. It could help them see through the said decline in below poverty line figures (thanks to a trick definition), make them angry about half of the nation’s children going so persistently hungry that they are malnourished.
But no. This reality is someone else’s. The child who must depend on a non-functional supplementary food system is not the government servant’s child. The one who enters a government school and nurses the illusion of being educated is not a bureaucrat’s ward. The experience of the commuter who gasps for fresh air in buses and trains is that of the “other” India. In rural Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, many people have not seen buses as yet. The famous former chief ministers never used buses anyway. They did not even use roads, with the state planes and choppers available.
The India of the governmental elite is a land of plenty. Their establishments glow at night in towns where electricity is a privileged commodity. In capital cities, the special zones with bungalows, regular supply of electricity, assured and clean water and the soothing foliage cocoon them from the debilitating experiences of common living. Recall that top cop Kiran Bedi recently linked the deaths of inmates in Tihar jail, in peak summer, directly to the air-conditioned comfort of senior jail officials.
Since they themselves are unaffected by their own decisions, these elite can weigh in any considerations but public benefit. Bureaucrats can neglect public health services and safely expect never to face the predicament of a landless labourer who walks half a day to find the block primary health centre without medicine or doctors. Likewise, politicians can mentor criminals who devour the public for livelihood, while the politicians themselves have their black cats to protect them from the criminal designs of rival politicians. Police officers in Bihar, when at its worst, never had a reason to complain about law and order. They had, and still have, policemen for escorting children to school and the “madam” for shopping.
Closer, in Delhi, the lieutenant-governor (L-G) does not need to depend on smooth traffic flows to pass unhindered. The police commissioner gives him a free passage by manipulating traffic, just as he does for himself! The L-G probably did not even have to go to his own wishing well. Someone out there in the police headquarters sensed his need and made a wish on his behalf. The smaller wishing wells exist everywhere in India where the secretaries, other civil servants and ministers make their wishes and obtain more and more protection from ordinary living. The government makes such inequality perfectly moral, being the controller of national morality.
Public scrutiny currently does not survey the disconnect. In rural India where the district magistrate emerges from his oversized bungalow luminously as a deity, the deification of power in our country makes acquisition of privileges forgivable. The new India is questioning this and tries sometimes to take away the wishing wells, but finds that the people’s ownership of these is notional. The wishing wells never belonged to the people.
Anupam Srivastava works in the development sector. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org