Poverty and Cargo Cult

When tribals on an isolated island saw some European soldiers and their equipment, they were surprised. More over when they saw Airplanes dropping items for these soldiers they started believing that the Gods send them these gifts because of the rituals these soldiers perform. These perceived rituals is nothing but wearing the uniform, marching, talking on radio equipment etc. Hence in order to gain same benefits, the tribal too prepared airbase by cutting down the trees, radio equipment out of wood and straw, they too marched with sticks etc. And they waited for the God to send them gifts from heaven. This sort of behavior is called cargo cult.

Humanity survives on hope. The known fact is that actions lead to outcomes. One just hopes that the outcomes will be favorable to him. “Smarter” people understand the link between actions and outcomes and accordingly chose their actions. “Dumber” people on other hand either just hope that their arbitrary actions will lead to positive outcomes or try to copy the “Smart” people. When we consider this Cargo cult as a metaphor for various institutions of the modern world we need not view the dumber people as half naked tribal. He can be wearing a Kurta with a red rose on it or he can also be a Phd. with a blue turban.

India has around 450 million people living under the line of poverty. Several attempts have been made to eradicate this poverty. We had multi billion rupees  schemes to solve this problem. But the poverty is still where it is. In fact, as the rest of the world is changing with a rapid pace, the intensity with which poverty acts as an “holding back” force for society has become far more critical. The longer we will take to eliminate this curse, the gap between we and the rest of the world will widen.

One reason for our failure to eradicate poverty is “the cargo cult”, that has entered into the minds of our policy makers, media and rest of the public. And Cargo Cult as a policy means it will never succeed. Admitting that it has not succeeded or admitting that it will never succeed actually is same as admitting that whatever we did until now has been an example or gross stupidity. Hence it becomes inevitable for the “Tribal Chief” to conclude that the reason we are failing is that we are not imitating those favored by God with perfection. Hence they direct their efforts in imitating with a higher order of perfection.

A good example of this happened in Goa. A delegation from Goa Government which included some ministers  (I am not sure if the chief minister himself ) went to Singapore to study how they maintain law and order there. The first decision they took after coming to Goa was that the uniform of Goa police must be changed to smart blue and white instead of khaki. They even implemented this decision. Does this act any different from those tribal people compared in the order of stupidity?

NREG is one such scheme which has come from the so called smartest economist’s so called dream team. I must admit that they are little smarter than the goan chief minister. They went in a little depth to understand relationship between actions and outcomes. They realised that majority of the poor are poor because they don’t have employment. So the simplest solution was to provide them employment. Let them dig a canal and pay them hundred bucks a day. Once the canal is dug let them bury that canal and again earn 100 bucks a day. I am sure if they still find this an no so efficient solution, they will ask the diggers to use tablespoons instead of shovels as it will provide still more employment.

But I think we should not complain. Cargo cult can be practiced only when the tribal chief is smarter then the rest of the powerful members of the tribe. It is more logical to put it this way: majority of the tribal members are dumber than the chief. At some point of time even the chief understands the stupidity of his own action. But rather than admitting he makes sure that the people under him are always dumber. Thus he continues to rule while giving an illusion that the future is full of hope.

What can be the right solution to poverty then? I am not wise enough to see the entire chain of actions that will finally ensure that there is no starved, poor human in our country. It does require a great deal of smartness, but I can make out the difference between a Cargo Cult solution and the smarter solution. The solution is that if there is any way a poor can become rich, it is only by his own will. Who wants to be poor any ways? one would ask. The answer however surprisingly is that there are many people who want to be poor. Can the government show a good number of examples where a family listed as a BPL family has managed to get above that line? Can the government show a single example where a particular community which was listed as backward 40 years back has now successfully raised itself above that backwardness? Instead we will see several communities agitating to be identified as backward and those who are already backward will agitate to prove they are still more backward.

The reason for this is simple. One fundamental principle of economics is that “people react to incentives”. Government has created incentives for poor to remain poor, to get more poor. Poor gets free rice, mindless work and loan waiver and blah blah blah. Backwards get reservation, fee waivers, free travel and so on. They do this under the otherwise harmless terms like social justice, equality and poverty elevation. Anyone who see can see that government is going the cargo cult way is dismissed by terming as communal, conservative , retrogressive, champion of social injustice and so on. When these adjectives are applied to the opponents they start feeling apologetic about speaking the truth and soon join the cargo cult. Thus the tribal leader however honest he might pose himself, is actually ensuring that his Janata/Praja is dumber than him. That gives him a control and promising future.

Soon there will be a Super NREG scheme to hide the failure of NREG. Soon there will be another grand loan waiver or some other scheme in a more attractive packaging and a still bigger price tag. That will hide all the past failures and will create a more glorious picture of the future. India will be a superpower they will say. Why? Because we have such huge number of software engineers. We are an IT superpower. We have millions of mobile users we are an telecommunication superpower. Because the tribal doesn’t understand the difference between a stick and rifle. Just the way stick will not work in a real war, those thousands of engineers will be incapable of generating wealth the way engineers do in United States or Japan. Because we see only the front end. We only see that the degree certificate sees “Bachelor of Engineering”, we don’t pay attention to quality of educational infrastructure we build, quality of education imparted to those young minds and opportunities that we create for them when they are ready.

When someone tells me that India will get developed one day, soon there will be no poor people, soon we will be the best in world, I remember a Ghazal by Mirza Ghalib. Such poets, however worldly unwise they might be, see the truth more bluntly and honestly.

एक बराह्मण ने कहा कि ये साल अच्छा है
ज़ुल्म की रात बहुत जल्द टलेगी अब तो
आग चुल्हों में हर इक रोज़ जलेगी अब तो
भूख के मारे कोई बच्चा नहीं रोएगा
चैन की नींद हर इक शख्स़ यहां सोएगा
आंधी नफ़रत की चलेगी न कहीं अब के बरस
प्यार की फ़सल उगाएगी जमीं अब के बरस
है यहीं अब न कोई शोर-शराबा होगा
ज़ुल्म होगा न कहीं ख़ून-ख़राबा होगा
ओस और धूप के सदमें न सहेगा कोई
अब मेरे देश में बेघर न रहेगा कोई

नए वादों का जो डाला है वो जाल अच्छा है
रहनुमाओं ने कहा है कि ये साल अच्छा है

दिल के ख़ुश रखने को गालिब ये ख़याल अच्छा है


Atanu Dey on india’s development


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