Monday, June 6, 2011

When Hunger Strikes

So our government has finally put to an end to the nonsensical practice of holding a nation to ransom. Well an Anna started it - and the Baba followed suit. In reality this method of political blackmail has ben in vogue for aeons. Yes I am talking about the much hyped Hunger Strike phenomenon. Well, what does one achieve through a Hunger Strike? Wikipedia tells me: "A hunger strike is a method of non-violent resistance or pressure in which participants fast as an act of political protest, or to provoke feelings of guilt in others, usually with the objective to achieve a specific goal, such as a policy change. Most hunger strikers will take liquids but not solid food. A hunger strike cannot be effective if the fact that it is being undertaken is not publicized so as to be known by the people who are to be impressed, concerned or embarrassed by it."

Take a minute and read the last line again. Now, who's the real culprit here? How is it that some random people get undue attention by holding a nation to ransom - all in the name of upholding democracy? I believe it is the usual suspects: our media. And the less said of the Indian 24x7 media, the better. Maybe it is a true reflection of the current state of affairs - shambolic yet fastidious. And what's the outcome such hoopla? Eradication of corruption? Bringing back of Black Money? Citizen Uprising? Hardly. It just got some people the eyeballs they needed to launch a political career. Or to reignite one: remember Mamata Banerjee's hunger strike to get the farmers' land back in Singur in 2006? It went a long way to her coronation in 2011 - have the farmers got the land back yet Didi? We have said Tata bye-bye five years back!

Let's put things into perspective regarding hunger - these politicians have made a joke of the multitude of our citizens through their "Hunger Strikes". Did you know that apart from our national obsession cricket, India is also #1 in the world in terms of the number of hungry people? There are 237.7 million hungry citizens in India at the last count! According to a May 2011 Oxfam report titled 'Growing a better future', the number of hungry people in India has increased by 65 million from 1990 to 2005 - that is because economic development excluded the rural poor, and welfare programmes failed to reach them. However, in the same period (from 1990 to 2005), India's economy doubled in size with 10% growth y-o-y - talk about a paradox, eh? The 237.7 million count is more than the total population of so many countries — including Brazil and France. About 21 per cent of India's population is undernourished. Looking at it in a different way, that would mean one out of every five. (FYI: The percentage of China's undernourished segment is only 10 percent of its population. Whether India shines or whines, who cares. We are ahead of China.)

One also understands that the government is doing its best in this regard. Like letting food grains rot in Food Corporation of India (FCI) godowns, for instance. And does anyone remember the recent onion shortage crisis due to the middlemen? India also happens to be home to 28 per cent of the world's total undernourished population of 847.5 million. But the poor and hungry are of no use to any of us - least of all the media. They only make good subject material for art film makers! And of course, trigger happy foreign tourists (remember the scene from  MunnaBhai MBBS? The one where the Japanese tourist is kidnapped by Circuit who lured him with the promise of showing him "bhukkha Indian"? ).  The truth is that we prefer the rich, powerful and pseudo hungry - why else would 3 lakh people turn up at the Ram Lila grounds in a show of "solidarity"? Or why else would I have to bear Arnab Goswami and his ilk force their opinions live from the venue? Reality TV has got a whole new meaning in India - it's called Breaking News.

The twitterati are tweeting their thumbs sore at the ham-handed handling of the situation at the Ram Lila grounds by the Govt. with specific criticism of the the police brutality. In my opinion, the Govt. had to do something. There was no way that it could allow the bedlam to continue. It was very unfortunate that people were injured (some very seriously) when the police intervened and there could have been a more civil way that they could have thought of to diffuse the situation. But the moot question is, why were the people there? Was everyone so concerned about the Lok Pal Bill? Will it truly deliver? I have my doubts.

The RTI Act has come into being for sometime now - the results are iffy (For instance, read this). The results of other legislation such as the Right to Education are similar. While corruption is a massive problem, there are more pressing needs that governance issues. And corruption is actually a self-governance issue, isn't it? Do we really need an Anna and a Baba to tell us that? Instead of showing solidarity with a couple of people on hunger strikes, we need to understand how we can actually kill the demon from within. I mean will just showing up at India Gate or Ram Lila grounds end corruption?

Similarly the issue of Black Money - the question that we need to answer here: who has black money? Is the  the working class population - the salaried middle class who are taxed by default? Or does the majority of poor citizens have black money? Absurd, isn't it? Fact is, India has more black money than rest of the world combined. India tops the list with almost $1500 Billion black money in swiss banks, followed by Russia $470 Billion, UK $390 Billion, Ukraine $100 Billion and China with $96 Billion. It’s embarrassing for any country to top the list of black money holders. The money which belongs to the nation and it’s citizens, is stashed in the illegal personal accounts of powerful people such as corrupt politicians, bureaucrats, IPS officers and industrialists. Will a hunger strike coerce these guys to mend their ways?

BTW, the total black money accounts for 40% of GDP of India - a country where more than 450 million live below the poverty line (which means they make less than $1.25/day). For an amount which is 13 times larger than the nation's foreign debt, I don't see this happening. By bringing back the black money back to the country there is so much which can be done for the development of the nation and the people who live below poverty line. India will also be able to clear all its foreign debts in 24 Hours! And even if all the taxes are abolished, the government can maintain the country easily for 30 years. But realistically do you see this happening? We live in India not Utopia!

And do you really buy that the guys who are going on the hunger strikes don't have black money or are not corrupt?
But coming back to the issue of hunger strikes, just compare the two shame-lists: hunger list and the corruption list. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) for 2010, India is ranked at 87 among 178 countries (down three spots from 84 in 2009) - there has been a decline in India’s integrity score to 3.3 in 2010, from 3.5 in 2007, and 3.4 in 2008 and 2009.

(These figures are on a scale of zero to 10 with the former being perceived as highly corrupt and 10 indicating low levels of corruption. It is an indication that the country continues to be perceived as more corrupt as in the past. Transparency International is a global non-governmental organisation that monitors political and corporate corruption across the world—has been publishing an annual CPI since 1995. The CPI ranks countries/territories based on how corrupt a country’s public sector is perceived to be and is a composite index drawn from a combination of polls.)

According to the 2010 CPI, Somalia is considered the world’s most corrupt country with a score of 1.1 followed by Myanmar and Afghanistan, while Denmark, New Zealand and Singapore are perceived to be the least corrupt with scores of 9.3. China is at the 78th position, indicating it is less corrupt than India. (I must say that with scam season on, I am surprised!) While Pakistan is shown as just a notch worse off than India, the US ranks fairly high at 22nd and is perceived to have relatively low levels of corruption. In Asia, Bhutan is perceived to be the least corrupt country. India’s ranking has consistently dipped since 2006 when it was ranked 70 among 163 countries. Admittedly we are corrupt, we are not the worst yet in corruption. And there is hope yet with Tihar Jail fast filling up with M/s Raja, Kalmadi and their brethren!

On the other hand, hunger is killing citizens of shining India (see table above) - according to various non-governmental organizations, between 2003 and 2006, in Uttar Pradesh alone there were 52 starvation deaths. The most shameful was that a Supreme Court panel had to ask the Orissa government to ensure no one succumbs to hunger in the state has been hit by drought and floods in the recent past, amid allegations that over 400 people had died due to starvation in nine years. Failure of the public distribution system and inability of the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme to provide 100 days work to the rural people are far pressing problems for the aam aadmi ka sarkar methinks!

Will we be able ensure that no citizen sleeps hungry? Can the mantris, Anna, Baba, the twitterati and indeed all of us sleep knowing that our fellow citizens are dying of hunger? Aren't hunger strikes the cruelest, crudest of jokes in a land of hungry, starving, dying people? Instead of farcical hunger strikes, what we need is to strike off hunger. Permanently.

Footnote: According to a 2007 report, morbid obesity has acquired epidemic proportions in the country with 5 per cent of the population suffering from it. The land of contradictions? This is Indi-yeah!