Around four weeks ago, Gurudas Kamat, Congress member of Parliament in the Lok Sabha elected from Maharashtra, stole the thunder, for all the wrong reasons, during the cabinet reshuffle that was to inspire a much needed image makeover for the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Kamat rejected the offer to join the cabinet because he felt slighted (unofficially, since on the record he is making all the right kinds of political noises) as the portfolio that was on offer was not good enough; not sexy, say like finance ministry or external affairs.
Those of you who don’t recall this, the portfolio in question was drinking water and sanitation—the two problems, if not fixed, that could yet deny India its deserved place in the sun. Mercifully, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh withdrew the offer and summarily ended the sorry episode.
When this incident transpired one could have passed it off as a one-off case. Unfortunately, it’s not true. Flash forward to the debate on rampant price rise in the Lok Sabha. The first day of the debate, as Mint’s front page picture published on 4 August revealed, was a virtual no-show on the treasury benches. Even when law minister Salman Khursheed got up to make the UPA’s defence, it failed to enthuse any additional turn out.
Clearly Kamat’s action was not an aberration, but instead part of a larger malaise. Basic issues, such as availability of drinking water or the economic disempowerment of people by persistent inflation, for reasons best known to our politicians, do not get the desired political attention. Are we then surprised at the state of affairs?
Take the woefully inadequate sanitation, for instance. By the government’s own submission, it is this country’s worst enemy. The country paper submitted by India at the IV South Asian Conference on Sanitation held in Colombo, Sri Lanka, this April, reveals that poor sanitation and hygiene is causing one in every 10 deaths in this country—the single biggest killer ailment.
It then goes on to reveal: “Diarrhoea, a preventable disease, is the largest killer and accounts for every twentieth death. Around 450,000 deaths were linked to diarrhoea alone in 2006, of which 88% were deaths of children below five. Prevalence of child under-nutrition in India (47% according to National Family Health Survey III, 2005-06) is among the highest in the world.”
Clearly, there is no lack of understanding the enormity of the problem in government. Neither is there a failure to grasp the significance of fixing the problem. The same report lists, rightly, that:
This leads to a dropout from school, since the elder sibling inevitably has to stay back to nurse the affected child; girls stop going to school after a certain stage since there are no toilets for them; this could lead to loss of productivity/wages if an adult has to stand in additionally to provide care.
Quoting from a study, the country paper monetizes the economic cost of inadequate sanitation—to make a stunning revelation. In 2006, this cost was estimated at $53.8 billion—or 6.4% of India’s gross domestic product. The paper then concludes, “While the country has come a long way since then, and all these indices stand improved to a great extent, the linkage between inadequate sanitation coverage and economic loss is of extreme significance.”
It is rather ironic that while the Indian establishment makes the right noises internationally, it can’t walk the talk domestically. Fixing this weak link is an incredible legacy; just as we would remember a finance minister who will succeed in curbing inflation. What we see today is the outcome of more than 60 years of collective neglect and cannot be set right in five years. But yes, it provides the opportunity to start with a bang; after all, it can’t get worse than this. The right to sanitation is as much a vote-winning slogan as is the right to food and education.
At present, the UPA has lost its mojo and this may be the trigger to regain it. Rudderless for the last two years, it is lurching from crisis to crisis. Like an in-form batsman who has lost his form, there is a need to go back to the basics (purists are never tired of telling us to play within the V between mid-on and mid-off for the first five overs, before trying ambitious shots; wish more members of the present cricket team other than Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Lakshman were paying attention to such homilies).
The basics in the economy that need immediate fixing are providing drinking water and sanitation and battling double-digit inflation. Fix them and growth is bound to follow; don’t forget that it is the rationalization of interest rates in the late 1990s together with low inflation that provided the basis for the record-breaking run of the economy in the last decade.
At the moment, however, there is greater emphasis on preserving the incredible growth trajectory, rather than protecting the basis of that surge, with obvious consequences. A week away from the country’s 64th Independence Day, Kamat, the Congress party and Indian polity should ask themselves (as the tag line in the McDowell ad says): Have I made it large?
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org