There is increasing worry that in some areas of critical importance the situation in India has been deteriorating steadily during the last 8 years or so. As India is home to about 18 per cent of people in the world, this is clearly a matter of urgent concern. Hence a review of these disturbing trends is urgently needed with a view to suggesting suitable remedial actions for checking this deterioration.
- Inequalities have been increasing recently to record levels. According to the World Inequality Report, after years of significant reduction of inequalities in the post-independence period, inequalities are coming back to their colonial levels in recent times. This report tells us that the bottom 50% have only 6% of the wealth, while the top 1% have 33% of the wealth. The bottom 50% have only 13% of the income, while the top 1% have 22% of the income.
- Despite growing claims of significant reduction of poverty, in reality there are signs of increasing economic distress. A number of ill-advised decisions, including demonetization, tax changes and sudden, longer than necessary lockdowns led to big setbacks in smaller-scale, unorganized, informal sector of economy, causing loss of millions of livelihoods. Informal workers, construction workers, migrant workers, domestic workers, crafts-persons, handloom weavers, several small entrepreneurs have suffered big losses from which they have not yet recovered. Prices of several essential goods and services have increased sharply. While staple cereals are generally subsidized, a real relief, there has been increasing difficulty for millions in terms of affordability of accessing proteins and essential micro nutrients in the form of pulses, vegetables, fruits, oilseeds, milk etc. Costs of house rent, fuel, tea, some widely needed medicines, school fees are also increasing for most people. Hence despite food subsidies the number of people suffering from denial of basic needs, malnutrition, loss of livelihood, unemployment, reduction of income, indebtedness and poverty has been increasing, even though this is not admitted officially.
- Dalit communities, those who have been poorest in a historical context, now face a double whammy of loss of some traditional livelihoods as well as reduced opportunities of reservation based government jobs, keeping in view lesser government posts being filled as well as privatization. They also suffer due to the wider unemployment crisis in the informal sector and the clampdown on land redistribution. Support for several education and rehabilitation schemes for them has become more erratic with several recent cuts. Dalit leaders known for their assertiveness have been frequently victimized.
- Tribal communities have faced loss of land due to many-sided displacement and higher-than-anticipated rejection of claims under Forest Rights Act. Many of their forest-based livelihoods and support-bases are reducing while the opportunities for government employment have reduced too.
- Workers have seen an erosion of some of their hard earned gains in the course of the ongoing codification of labor laws. There are fears of longer working hours, more of hire and fire trends and other higher risks. Construction workers face high uncertainty regarding benefits of 1996 special laws for them even as attempts to stabilize these gains on the basis of recent court orders were being made. Increasing accidents in a wide range of industries are a cause for growing concern. Many outdoor workers ( farm workers, construction workers, NREGA workers etc.) and farmers face increasing heat stress and related health problems with remedial measures not yet in place.
- Women have faced the worst impacts of the increasing unemployment and reduced income in the informal sector. Domestic workers have experienced increasing debts and reduced income. Women employed in large numbers in health and nutrition schemes have been forced to live with low and frequently delayed wages. The benefits meant for mothers under Matra Vandana scheme have been curtailed much and even in reduced form could not reach many mothers. Crimes against women have increase in several contexts, even as important schemes like Nirbhaya to help women victims have been under-utilized.
- It has been becoming increasingly clear that the number of disability affected people has been seriously under-estimated and therefore the already low allocations made for their welfare are in fact even lower than what was believed earlier. Pensions have stagnated at very low levels, as has budget for institutional support. Recently alarming low utilization of funds meant for their welfare has been reported in some contexts.
- The entire structure of planned development has been damaged as never before by the sudden and arbitrary abolition of the Planning Commission, followed by decline of the Planning Ministry. The statistical base has suffered erosion and distortion. The budgetary process has been devalued by excessive cuts in Revised Estimates and in other ways.
- Public sector has suffered big setbacks, almost an onslaught, with rapid trend towards privatization linked to benefiting leading business interests. Public sector banking and insurance also face threats. Huge loans taken by big business interests have been written off without even the names of leading defaulters being revealed. Since 2014-15, loans worth Rs. (INR) 10 lakh ( 10 lakh=1 million) crore ( 10 million=1 crore) have been written off by banks, most of this amount owed to big business interests. Rs. 2 lakh crore was written off in just one year 2020-21. Despite its extremely impressive record of service to people, generation of stable livelihoods as well and being helpful to government finances in difficult times, the LIC (the leading public sector insurance company) has been set on the path of privatization. There is increasing lack of clarity and growing suspicions regarding the real intentions of the privatization agenda of the government, as very healthy public sector units are also targeted.
- Increasing inequalities, privatization of public assets including profitable units, non-transparency in matters relating to bank loan defaults, privatization and huge donations by big business companies to political parties (with the ruling BJP receiving an enormous share of this), increasing trend to favor selected business houses and multinational companies would indicate that a system of crony capitalism, domination by select billionaires and oligarchs, all adding up to institutionalized and systemic corruption is being strengthened. At the same time significant gains made earlier in transparency and Right to Information are being rolled back.
- There are increasing indications of criminals or those with a criminal background getting closer to political power, funding or influencing elections and also contesting elections on their own.
- Lumpen elements or armed groups have been increasingly active and their activities appear to have political support. These have been involved in lynching, riots, provocative slogan-shouting and actions as well as in threatening targeted groups.
- Inter-faith harmony has been increasingly disturbed and minorities have become much less secure than before. This is particularly true of the Muslim minority but others like Christians have also suffered in some places. Minority members have been attacked and lynched while the response to punish those responsible for such tragic incidents or to take protective measures has been much less than adequate. There have been attacks and provocations regarding the livelihoods, food, dresses and places of worship of minorities which should have been avoided. Controversies relating to history of places of worship which have led to much disturbance of peace and loss of precious human lives in the past are again being unleashed at more places. There are attempts to misinterpret history to create inter-faith disharmony and the authorities often appear to be supportive of this instead of checking this.
- There is increasing intolerance of dissent. There is more control over media and victimization of independent media persons and organizations. A significant number of political dissenters have been imprisoned, despite frequent allegations of arbitrary action not based on factual evidence. Political prisoners and dissenters have frequently faced injustice as seen in the highly tragic death of Jesuit priest Fr. Stan Swamy in the course of his imprisonment. Social activists and their organizations have faced frequent harassment and unreasonable, arbitrary restrictions.
- Even the gulf between the government and the mainstream opposition has increased drastically with important persons in the ruling establishment giving the call for Congress-mukt Bharat or the country being entirely devoid of the leading opposition party, something which never happened before. The non-transparent system of election bonds has been widely criticized for favoring the ruling party heavily to amass funds and setting up a system of legalized corruption.
- The Election Commission has been increasingly compromised in favor of the ruling party while leading opposition parties have been accusing it of biased functioning. There have been apprehensions of the misuse of Electronic Voting Machines and there have been several indications of complaints relating to this not being addressed properly.
- The federal structure has been more strained than ever before with revenue sources of state governments declining in the changing tax system and the union government delaying its dues to state governments. In the case of the states ruled by non-BJP regimes there have been increasing complaints of over-reach of union authority, undue interference, misuse of central forces at election time and unfair or revengeful action against opposition leaders. At the same time institutions of decentralization have been adversely affected by over-centralizing tendencies and arbitrary decisions even in matters which affect their life and livelihoods very closely ( such as displacement of rural communities).
- In agriculture, animal husbandry, fisheries, forestry and food-processing the increasing domination of big business interests can play havoc with crucial issues of sustainability, nutrition and health, as seen in recent decisions relating to gene edited cops, spread of sexed semen technology to eliminate birth of bullocks, rice fortification and rapid increase in dependence on palm oil for meeting edible oil needs. Despite the warning given by farmers against big business domination in the course of their recent agitation and the subsequent withdrawal of the three controversial farm laws by the government, the rapid drift towards big business domination of farm and food system has increased. This is happening at a time of worldwide increasing concern over the alarming implications of food trade as well as seeds and patents getting increasingly concentrated in a few gigantic companies and the use of GM technology by them leading to very serious and irreversible harm. In big business led models of development, small farmers face increasing threats of survival, on top of the high and increasing rates of displacement already suffered by them. Problems of high costs and indebtedness continue to increase for farmers, while at the same time they have been exposed to more adverse weather and disasters in times of climate change.
- Promises relating to rapid reduction of river pollution have not been fulfilled due to wrong approach and poor implementation. At the same time much bigger threats to river systems have appeared due to the reckless pursuit of gigantic river-linking project at national level. Due to human made factors, already several rivers are much more prone to causing more destructive flash floods than before, while in other contexts problems of excessive depletion of river flow is a riding concern. River bank communities have been reporting erosion of river related livelihoods. Overall water crisis has continued to intensify in times of climate change as provision of more taps and pipelines is not linked to more water in basic water sources, groundwater level continues to decline in many places and water bodies experience increasing encroachment, pollution and sand mining.
- Despite increasing forest cover being mentioned by official sources, there are many, many reports of avoidable cutting of a very large number of trees and forests being destroyed or threatened. There is increase threat to biodiversity even in highly sensitive zones, for example in the North East and Andaman Nicobar by spread of plantations for obtaining palm oil and in Uttarkashi –Gangotri stretch by axing deodars for road widening.
- Environmental clearances and appraisals have been increasingly influenced to favor business interests, regulations have weakened and many ecologically destructive projects are being cleared rapidly.
- Despite claims to the contrary and notwithstanding the high vulnerability to climate change and related serious environmental problems, the country has lagged behind in mitigation as well as adaptation tasks. Already we can see the worsening of disasters like floods, landslides, cyclones, droughts and heat waves
- In many cities pollution has become an increasingly serious problem threatening the health of millions, with the poor and the homeless exposed much more. Threats of heat waves have increased more for slum areas, more congested and less green areas. Yet even in such difficult times, many slum populations are being threatened with demolition and eviction, ignoring the recommendation of on-site development. This as well as increasing urban poverty and unemployment, decline of public housing schemes and increasing rents can result in further big increase of homeless people in our cities, including women and children.
- The vulnerability and weaknesses of health system have been increasingly exposed in pandemic times and despite increasing evidence that a profit dominated health system is least suitable for health needs of India, the trend is even more in this direction.
- Despite increasing evidence of the great harm caused to the learning of most school going children in pandemic and lockdown times, the remedial steps have been far from adequate with the result that millions of school children, particularly girls, face a risk of dropping out or of lagging behind in learning. The changes in higher education being taken up now in a hurry, for example CUET, should wait till a more consultative and patient process can suggest better alternatives.
Keeping in view the seriousness of increasing problems in all these contexts, a high-level review of all these crucial areas of concern should be taken up by independent experts from diverse fields with a view to suggesting suitable remedial action. This should become the basis of initiating sincere, genuine reforms on the basis of urgency.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril and Man over Machine ( Gandhian Ideas for Our Times).