Where people are in Governance to eradicate Poverty

      "Can poverty be eradicated in India?" We addressed ourselves to this question in a symposium conducted by Health Action, the monthly magazine of Catholic Health Association of India.
      The symposium was held in Secunderabad in 1996, in preparation for the special 100th issue of the magazine, under the title, "Poverty: the Ruthless Killer". It was inaugurated by the late Mr. Krishna Kant, who was then the Governor of Andhra Pradesh who later became the Vice-President of India. The participants were experts and scholars from some of the leading institutions of the country, who have been specializing on the subject. What did these specialists have to say in response to our question?
      "Poverty is very much eradicable" they said. "Not only that; it should have been eradicated long time back. We had everything required to eradicate it". Then? "What was missing was the political will to eradicate poverty".


      Political will
      What was this "political will"? To put it simply it just means: those who have the power didn't have hunger and those who had hunger didn't have the power. Hence, the urgency to remove hunger was missing among the power circles, the circles that govern.
      A statement made by Prime Minister Vajpayee makes an intriguing illustration. He said they would eradicate poverty in 20 years (Or is it 30? I don't recollect clearly. I didn't seem to have taken it seriously. Well, why should I when they themselves don't mean it? Anyway let us say it is 20 years.)
      Why 20 years? Why not now? The answer: For Prime Minister Vajpayee, it is not that urgent a problem. For him, it is one among the many problems that along with others could wait. It is as if saying "Well, we know poverty exists, But what could we do? We have more urgent problems to attend". He doesn't feel the pinch of the hunger of the poor.
      Suppose the Prime Minister's next meal is not assured. What would be the number one problem that the Prime Minister of the nation would address? Naturally it would be his own hunger. But when it is the hunger of the millions it becomes for the one in governance, a distant problem, a problem that could wait.
      This is what would keep happening if power is with the abundantly fed. Could we ensure that power on the other hand is with people who have hunger? Could we ensure that it is the people at the base who do the governance? It seems very much possible.


      Tools of Power
      For the poor to exercise power thus and for them to govern, the requisite is that the tools whereby power is exercised in societies and nations go to the poor, to the people at the base. And what is power?. I would give a practical definition: to have power is to have one's say in such a way that what is said matters. I say, "Let it be done", and it is done - that is power. It is to have in other words an effective say.
      How do you exercise this power? The answer should be simple. If power is having an effective say, the first thing to assure yourself is to have a forum where you too have your say. You need to have "talking-forums".
      Hence the role of parliaments in democracy. The root word in Latin for parliaments is parlare and it means to talk. Parliaments are talking forums through which people exercise their right to have an effective say. You could see various such talking forums in democracy. Like Rajya Sabha*, Lok Sabha** Legislative Assembly, and Legislative Council. What is even more important are the parliaments that are not even called parliaments. I mean the electoral constituencies. Each electoral constituency is a parliament where people, though in a token way, and though just once in five years or so, do the talking. This way every citizen being equipped with a parliamentary constituency, a legislative constituency and a panchayat constituency, is supposed to be powerful. But is he?


      Bigger forums & smaller people
      One hitch here comes from a very simple principle: the bigger the forum you have, the bigger a voice you need to get across and the smaller voices get lost. Our constituencies tend to be too big for the "small people". Say for example one Mrs. Nirmala from below-poverty-level family wants to get herself heard in the parliamentary constituency of Nagercoil, in Tamilnadu.
      Will it be possible for her? The parliamentary constituency will be too big a forum that she gets lost. She becomes powerless. All she could have is a token voice — once in five years — by way of choosing a candidate. Even then, as the constituency is so big she wouldn't even get to see the candidates, let alone talk to them.
      And while trying to choose the candidates, at times she is left with no choice at all — none of the candidates is satisfying. A choice between the devil and the deep sea. She is not strong enough to field another candidate by herself either. That is for her too big a game to handle. She ends up feeling helpless, alienated and frustrated. She could wait for next five years. But next time around may not mean any better prospects either.
      The system is such that those in power, with the immense visibility and vast resources of money that come to them through various manipulations, keep entrenching themselves in the positions — putting down every threat to their power. Mostly Mrs. Nirmala will be condemned to choose between the same persons, or their progeny, for many more elections to come. This happens every time when the talking forums are too big: the small voices get totally lost.


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