Friday, February 07, 2014

Pumpkins for a Smile

This blog is contributed by Shilpa Raj, a Shanti Bhavan graduate now studying in college.

Take a walk on the road by the National Games Village in Koramangala, a prosperous section of Bangalore. Apart from the stench of cow-dung heightened by the odor of the gutters, you will notice signboards posted on blue corrugated sheets shielding a construction site that reads: “BBMP project. Trespassers will be penalized.” A sad story lies hidden behind these barrier walls that run for miles.

Just over a year ago, driving past that very same road, you would have seen smoke rising in the morning from the line of shanty huts. They had been in existence for decades, housing hundreds of poor people who worked at construction sites and as maids in close-by apartments. But now, with all the bulldozer work going on, not even one upright shed or litter on the ground is there to remind you of what lay there before.



On the morning of January 18th, 2013, amidst angry protests, demonstrations and tears, the ‘fifteen acres of land and 22 guntas of prime land in Ejipura,’ as described in newspapers, were ordered by the government to be mowed down in order to utilize half of the land to build a mall and the other half to construct 1,512 luxury apartments. What remains is a nightmare for the hundred or more slum dwellers who now live in makeshift tarpaulin sheds and inside open demented water pipes.

Learning about the deplorable condition of the slum dwellers, I decided to take a look with two of my classmates, Kavitha and Chaitra, from Shanti Bhavan school. We were greeted by restless stray dogs, curious children, and older women with questioning looks in their eyes.

The women shared with us their present situation: how they were struggling to cope in the absence of proper shelter, exposure to rain and cold weather, lack of food, running water and any resemblance of sanitation. They explained that at night usually three woman and their children cram themselves in each makeshift shed, while men sleep in the open on pavements. Worse, with the continuous monsoon rains, many of the residents of the slum were frequently falling sick. It was obvious to us that their needs were many ranging from clothing to food and proper shelter.

Standing outside her small, low ceilinged shed, Maramma, a middle-aged woman, explained to us, “Finding a private place is the toughest part. We don’t have bathrooms.” Other women who had by then crowded around us nodded their heads in assent.

That day we had come empty handed, and I could sense disappointment in the eyes of Maramma and the other women. Seeing us asking several questions, one woman enquired, “Are they going to give us any food?”

Dr. George (DG) heard from us what we had observed, and immediately put the foundation into action to help the slum dwellers. The school’s staff sorted through the storage facility to identify clothes, blankets, and sheets we could supply for each of the dwellings. Accompanied by male staff members, we returned to Ejipura to distribute all the items that were brought from Shanti Bhavan in a jeep.

The news that we had come with clothing and other material spread like wildfire throughout the colony. A little boy excitedly went from shed to shed to inform everyone of our arrival. I was touched by the caring they showed towards each other; neighbors insisted that they collect clothes and food items for their friends who were away at work.

One of the women, presumably the leader of the colony, helped organize and control the excited crowd waiting eagerly for us to distribute the supplies. We were afraid that there would be a rush and commotion, but nothing of that sort occurred. In an orderly way, the women took with them what we could give, gently expressing with their smiles the joy they felt.

Soon after, another trip was organized. This time we asked that only those mothers with babies come to us, as we had gathered baby clothes, cribs and dolls from the school storage. Some pregnant women also joined the mothers who carried their babies with them on their hips.

Shanti Bhavan prepared a small plot of land to cultivate vegetables exclusively for Ejipura residents. Pumpkins and carrots were planted, and in two months or so, a bumper crop was harvested. In subsequent plantings, potatoes and other vegetables were added to the crop. We were excited to take loads of produce for distribution.



Shanti Bhavan kitchen staff packed proper combinations of spices in small plastic bags, along with vegetable oil, to be given to each of the dwellings in required quantity for a meal preparation. We were very happy to hear the women tell us in subsequent visits that they had really enjoyed the meals cooked with the spices we provided.

As the winter approached, the priority shifted to woolen knitting for babies, scarf, sweaters and blankets. Once again, the staff of Shanti Bhavan searched through all we had in our stores and dorms, and put together another supply of material. Our juniors back at Shanti Bhavan were asked to come up with ideas for what we could provide for Ejipura. In no time, many suggestions poured in: candles made inside clay pots, repaired soccer balls and used tennis balls, scrap paper and crayons, toys and indoor games, and brooms made from coconut leaves. There is no doubt that Ejipura is ours, and we will find ways to make life a little easier and enjoyable for our newfound friends.


There will be many more cold winter nights and hot summer days for the slum dwellers of Ejipura. It is hard to know when their lives would turn for the better. On our part, we are trying to indentify four-year-old children from Ejipura for admission to Shanti Bhavan. Like me, one day those selected children will also have the capacity to transform the lives of their families and others. Until then, the children of Shanti Bhavan will take pumpkins for them and watch the smiles on their faces. 

Friday, December 06, 2013

A Forgotten Past: My Story of Time Spent in the Mountains

It is now many years, more precisely over four decades, since I sat down to recall my young adult days as a military officer. For reasons I do not know, I had tucked away those memories as though they belonged to another part of me, except when my two sons or the children of Shanti Bhavan occasionally asked me about my experiences. “Where were you in the Himalayas?” my older son, Ajit, would enquire, or “Did you shoot the Chinese?” the little boys at school would curiously ask. My answers were always brief, as though they were of little consequence.

But now, once again for reasons I cannot really explain to myself, I feel the urge to share my story. May be, I need to explain why I appear to behave like a soldier in their eyes. I need to tell them that there is, I suppose, a stage in everyone’s life that has a greater impact on his future than all others. For me, it was my army experiences that helped shape my outlook on life.

I had seen the poor living conditions of the tribal people in the Northeast frontiers of India where I had served as junior artillery officer, and probably it had affected me emotionally to bring me to the social work I do today. At least for the sake of my children who wish to know more, I want to briefly describe here the place I had served in the initial year of my service in the army, and what had happened to me there.

After four years of training at military academies, I was commissioned as an officer and posted first to the Himalayas near Tibet. The train journey that took me from my hometown, Trivandrum, a quite city in the southern coast of India, was in itself an adventure for an eighteen year old who knew nothing of the world except to be a good soldier. The ride by several connecting trains – from broad-gauge to meter to narrow rails – carried me through the tribal, turbulent Naga Land with armed escorts, and upon the precariously constructed bridge over the mighty Brahmaputra river to the last railroad station – Missamari – on the foothills of the Himalayas. 

From there, the drive along bumpy and rugged roads in a jeep to the base camp where my regiment was stationed revealed a part of the world that had not appeared even in my imagination. For the next few months, I would be in the mountain village of Bomdila, tucked away in a hidden plateau some 8,000 feet above sea level – a place that had lost its clock for a thousand years.

Bomdila is located in the northwestern part of the state of Arunachal Pradesh, in the northeastern region of India. The origin of Bomdila is not known, but was part of the Kingdom of Tibet in medieval times. Local tribal rulers and the Kingdom of Bhutan generally ruled it from time to time, and the rest of India, and in particular the neighboring state of Assam, had little to do with it. The British had declared this area off-limits in 1873, but following the country’s independence in 1947, the Chinese claimed it as part of Tibet and hence, theirs. The Chinese invasion of the border regions of India in 1962 saw its troops close to Bomdila, but later as winter came, it withdrew from the area. After the Indo-China war the entire area remained out of bounds for mountaineers or visitors for a long time.

“You are being sent to Sela. In two weeks, you will lead 800 men to establish the forward post for the guns,” my commanding officer ordered, summoning me to his tent one cold morning. I was surprised at this major assignment, aware that I was only recently posted to the regiment – my first as an officer. I had heard from senior officers a lot about Sela, the high mountain pass through which the Chinese had invaded, and where one of India’s highly decorated officers, Brigadier Hoshiar Singh, had perished along with his men in the conflict. 

The ever-windy Sela Pass, located about 14,000 feet above sea level on the eastern Himalayas, was never inhabited before, except that the Monpa tribe that trekked through the valley from Tibet was occasionally seen. Sela connects the Buddhist city of Tawang with the rest of India, and is surrounded by Bhutan and China (formerly Tibet). Tawang mountains range from 6,000 to 22,000 feet above sea level, and was where the sixth Dalai Lama was born, the thirteenth was hiding in 1911 to avoid the Chinese invasion of the capital city of Lhasa, and the present fourteenth fled his way to India in April 1959 when China took over Tibet. As I later came in contact with the Monpa tribes in their villages at lower altitudes, I began to appreciate their ancient culture and practices, and more importantly, their simplicity.

I vividly recall the day of my arrival at Sela. The men were busy pitching their large tents, each housing a dozen, before sunset in the afternoon. My helper, usually called orderly, set up a one-man snow tent I could barely crawl into to spend the night inside a sleeping bag. All through the night, the constant eerie sound of the wind blowing through the valley could be heard; there was no howling of wolves or any other animal. When sun came through next morning, my orderly couldn’t find my small tent; it was almost fully buried in nearly three feet of snow overnight. The men had a good laugh at what had happened, saying that their saab could breath even underground!



                       River flowing through Sela Pass 14,000 ft above sea level

“The weather keeps changing every five minutes. It is like a wind tunnel,” anyone arriving at Sela would say. It is snowed in most of the year, with temperatures frequently falling below zero and oxygen in the air running short. From mountain tops well above the clouds, the heavenly view of the ranges below and beyond was simply breathtaking. One hundred and one lakes that exist in this high altitude were frozen most of the time, but the river that flowed through the Sela valley offered a soothing sound that contrasted the constant hissing whistle of the wind. It was by this river that I chose to establish the camp for my men, and later, it was on those mountain tops I would sit alone to contemplate my future.

The next six months were rough in the terribly cold and windy conditions, with all daylight time used for moving large boulders and digging into the rocky ground to make room for bunkers. Ground was leveled on the slopes of hills to serve as platforms for guns, shielding from direct frontal view. Chipping away at the Himalayan mountains was no easy task; without heavy equipment, the only way to dig into the ground was by blasting huge rocks with gun cotton and plastic explosives. We were provided fuse wires and detonators, and were taught how to handle various types of explosives. Within a few days, the team responsible for the task had become pretty good experts in unearthing mammoth rocks and cutting into the hills.

Communication with the base camp in Bomdila was dependent on new telephone lines that were laid along the road side on the ground. For one reason or the other, these lines would end up cut, and there was no communication for days, sometimes weeks. I was happy to be left alone from my superiors, to set my own rules and do my own things, without having to report to anyone. The men were equally happy at short work hours that started only when the sun had risen and ended before sunset, and to get back to their tents early enough in daylight. With dinner each one would have a glass of rum that I had specially arranged to bring with us in large quantity. Despite all these, work moved on at rapid speed, and one bunker after another was built to be ready for housing the entire regiment.

The time had come for me to return to the base to escort the medium-heavy guns pulled by 18-wheel Mack trucks. The infamous road from Bomdila to Sela was newly carved into the side of mountains, with tight hairpin curves and steep slopes. I had heard that the engineering battalion had lost a few of their men constructing the unpaved road, part of which would periodically disappear in rock and mud slides.

I remember one of our trucks coming too close to the edge of the road – dangerously close that a slight miscalculation or mistake would mean falling off several thousand feet below. Without power brakes and power steering wheel, it was indeed very difficult to maneuver these heavy vehicles along the treacherous road that offered no mercy. Three men would pull the steering wheel together, while eight men would walk alertly on both sides of the truck all the way with stoppers to be put behind the tires whenever the truck stopped, in case it started sliding back. Calming down the agitated head- driver, I worked with the team to develop a strategy to escape the danger we faced, and fortunately, the decisive directions to the team saved the situation.

Guns were placed on platforms, ammunition moved into underground storage, and some of the men shifted their residence to the bunkers. News had arrived that I was awarded a field promotion to the rank of a full Lieutenant. Joining the soldiers for the celebration, I asked one of the seniors to pin the second star on my shoulder collars. The men sang prayers for me in Marathi, their mother tongue.

Blasting continued for more bunkers. Fuse wires were running short, and I ordered that their length be reduced to six inches from twelve, the length as dictated by the rules. When supplies didn’t arrive as promised, I decided to cut the fuse length to three inches. Afraid that the men might make a mistake and get killed, I took on the task of lighting the fuse. I would carefully watch when the fuse wire lighted up, offering enough time to turn around and jump flat on the ground with face down. The helmet and several layers of winter clothing would protect any rocks rolling over, while shrapnel flew well above me at an angle. With each blast, I gained more confidence that I would not make a mistake.

It was when the process had become more or less routine that I made my first and last mistake at this task. I had failed by a few seconds to detect that the fuse had already lighted, not leaving enough time to jump to safety. Rock shrapnel pierced my thick jacket but fortunately nothing hit my head. Finding me covered with rocks and dust, and bleeding through the jacket, the men were terribly worried. They hurriedly carried me to my jeep, and instructed my loyal driver to rush me to the field hospital below. I received emergency treatment, and was sent home the next day on medical leave.

While recouping at home, I received the order to report to the Jammu-Kashmir sector following the move of my regiment from Sela. I was told that another regiment was coming in to complete the work I had left behind. But to my dismay, word reached me that I was informally credited with establishing the first medium-heavy-gun position at the highest altitude anywhere in the world.


In my next blog, I will briefly share with you my experience in the Kashmir sector.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

How Shanti Bhavan Came to Fruition

For many years before I left my professional career in America and started Shanti Bhavan, I thought seriously about my life-long ambition to serve the poor and the socially deprived. I had abstract ideas about it -- a cause that I believed in --, but it was not entirely clear to me how I would achieve my goals. Though my vision might have been ambitious, I did not think about it on the individual, human level. The idea of economic and social justice for all, and how I would deal with those issues, did not connect me to children from poor families.

Sure, I felt injustice was being perpetuated on hundreds of millions of people all around the world, but they were blank faces in my vision– merely numbers. The thought that passed through my mind then was about how to make an impact on society. It was just an idea, an ideal that could impact those I did not think I would come to care about personally. The humanity of those I would be serving was not evident to me.

My understanding of American society taught me that it is difficult to alter preconceived notions and prejudices. I also learned that economic equality leads to social equality, and not the other way round. No amount of appeals to the good moral senses of well-to-do people would bring about the necessary changes in the way the society worked, I concluded.

A quick study of the government policies in India led me to believe that they would not usher in prosperity or equality to the lower castes within any reasonable period of time. Setting of job quotas for those within certain communities does not result in sufficient improvement in their status. It is one thing to legislatively assure employment even without the requisite qualifications, but the real challenge is in raising their capabilities to meet the requirements of good jobs.

Well-paying jobs are implicitly linked to many other basic needs: livable houses, quality education, acceptable health care, and sufficiently nutritious food intake. The solution calls for proper education and skills-training from an early age to be able to obtain those jobs. The question was how opportunities could be given to children from very poor families so that they become professionally successful and overcome prejudices in the society.

So what is the solution?

If economically deprived families cannot afford to send their children to schools and colleges to prepare them for professional careers, their children have little or no chance as adults to significantly improve their economic condition. On the other hand, when these children are brought up in an environment with socially acceptable values and a good education, they are likely to compete and succeed.

So here it was. As I returned to India on a social mission after spending nearly 30 years in America, the idea for starting a residential school for children from poor families to offer quality education began to take shape. The plan was formulated and documented in a policy and procedure manual over a period of two years. Soon, Shanti Bhavan came to fruition.

Today, Shanti Bhavan is bringing up over 300 children from some of the poorest families in India. After 17 years since its start, four batches have already entered reputed colleges in different fields of their choice.Further, the first batch of college graduates have taken up starting positions in Goldman Sachs, Mercedes Benz, Ernst & Young, Biocon and other global companies. Their professional success will not only assure a descent lifestyle for themselves and their families, but also for their communities. Their contribution to society and the world at large will be far more significant than what would have been without a good upbringing and education.

The multiplicative impact of each one’s success will carry forward hundreds of others. If and when this model is widely implemented, we will witness a real transformation of the so-called lower castes in India, bringing about both economic well-being and dignity to their lives.

One of the most important lessons I have learned over the years was that the children in my care have faces, and are far more than the cause I had come to pursue. They are as much mine emotionally as they are of their own families, and my ambitions for them are no less than their own. The reason for my work today is their future and the love I have for them.


Monday, August 05, 2013

Reflecting on My Life in Rural India

Eighteen years have now passed since I returned to India to work on my lifelong ambition of serving the poor. These years have not been easy for me, though rewarding and challenging. Six to eight months a year away from my family and the comforts of America, and having to live within the confines of a remote rural village, have taken a toll both physically and emotionally. But lately I have been asking myself what has inspired me to seek out this mission from my early adulthood.

Visitors to Shanti Bhavan often ask what motivated me to make the choices I have made. They want to know what persuaded me to start the school and the other projects I had initiated in those years, and why I have continued so long. They probably think it is unusual for a man who has had other options, including a life of leisure and luxury. Not many people know my convictions or the nature of the work I do.

My usual and somewhat casual answers to the curious enquiries of friends and strangers might not have satisfied anyone. I have all along explained that it was simply a thought I had from childhood, and certainly nothing as profound as “God’s calling.” Moreover, I may not fit well with the often expected image of an all-understanding and benevolent leader of a charitable organization. Being too old-fashioned for that, I am probably considered an enigma.

At an early age, even before leaving home to study at a military college, I was affected by the poor living conditions in villages and slums. I had witnessed how difficult and sad life was for a great number of people; after all India was among the poorest nations in the world during the 1950s and 60s, with frequent droughts and famines.

I recall my days in the Himalayas along Sela Pass, sitting on mountain top well above the clouds, bracing the chilly breeze and gazing at the majestic beauty around me, when I would contemplate the purpose of living. But these were not yet enough to trigger a lasting desire to act, though they continued to play in my mind.

Fortunately, during one of my long train journeys, I stumbled onto a book on Albert Schweitzer, one of the greatest humanists I know of, who served the natives in the primitive jungles of Gabon. His novel idea in Reverence for Life – that it is each one’s duty to protect and enhance life, one’s own and that of every living being – inspired me to consider it as my mission in life. As I dwelled over his powerful words, I concluded that it was my duty to come to the help of the poor, the deprived and the disadvantaged.

In the midst of a successful business career in America, I broke off to embark on developmental work. India was a natural choice for obvious reasons, most of all due to my familiarity with its culture, but I could have gone elsewhere with equal zeal. It was my friend Angeline who persuaded me to come to a place in South India where I couldn’t even speak any of the native languages. But that was not a handicap, I soon learned, as what I wanted to do was very visible to all those I served. Their simplicity and humility taught me many lessons, and in no time I was at ease with those around me.

The tasks that are my burden are also my fulfillment. The pain of separation from family for long periods and the loneliness I feel at times are part of what I must endure to realize my childhood vision. I am in the comforts of love and caring for each other, a prize I couldn’t win in anything else I could have done. I have crossed the river and burned the bridges behind me, and there is no turning back.

Today, I consider myself fortunate to be able to spend my days with so many affectionate children I call my own. Shanti Bhavan is a paradise because of its spirit of love, joy and hope among all those who are here. We are 3,000 feet above sea level and that much closer to heaven!


Abraham M. George

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

India's Rural Poor: Why Housing Isn't Enough to Create Sustainable Communities


I am often asked about the living conditions of those in rural villages, especially of the poor.  The article I published on this topic in Knowledge@wharton.com is reproduced below which hopefully will answer the question.  See 
http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/india/article.cfm?articleid=4219


India's desire to become the world's next big economic power is as real as the enormous challenges it faces in raising the social and economic well being of its rural populations. According to Abraham George, founder of The George Foundation, an NGO focused on poverty alleviation in South India, "The issue of adequate housing is integral to poverty reduction and social justice" in India. In this opinion piece, George describes the living conditions of the rural poor and argues that government resettlement programs are inefficient and perpetuate caste-driven schisms. Instead of simply supplying shelter for the inhabitants of rural villages, he says, these programs need to work towards a larger goal of building "healthy and sustainable communities."

Mahatma Gandhi is often quoted as having said, "India lives in the villages." That statement is as true today as it was more than 60 years ago. Nearly 70% of India's 1.1 billion-plus population still lives in 600,000 or so villages. If India is to be truly understood, it is the lives of these people that really count.

Most "outsiders" or urbanites have a nostalgic view of rural India. They think of villages as peaceful havens where people live simple lives, where the air is pure and the land is green as far as the eye can see. Some of those images are indeed true, but the realities of day-to-day life for a great majority of rural people are nothing short of cruel. A living story of economic deprivation, social injustice and hopelessness has prevailed for centuries. The real story of rural India must be told with more than five hundred million characters who live on less than a dollar a day, most of them in terrible living conditions.

Statistics Mask Reality
Many of the rural poor work the fields in agriculture and are employed by the few landowners who reside in their villages. Several others pursue caste-associated occupations -- priests, carpenters, blacksmiths, barbers, weavers, potters, oil-pressers, leatherworkers, sweepers and so on. Lately, with increased economic activity in nearby towns, many commute outside their villages every day to work as drivers, construction laborers, packers and in other industrial jobs. Some migrate to cities for months, leaving their families behind. But despite the increasing demand in cities for labor met by rural migration, and the income generated by such employment, the living conditions for most rural people remain far from what can be called "acceptable."

According to the Indian government and the World Bank, less than 30% of the nation is poor, and 70% of the poor (225 million) live in the villages. These official statistics are based on a per capita consumption expenditure of Rs. 356 ($8.70) per month, or Rs. 11.70 ($0.28) per day. This low yardstick grossly undercounts the number of poor people in rural India, and certainly does not reflect the living conditions for most of them.

For example, The George Foundation's recent survey of nine villages in Hosur Taluk in Tamil Nadu state showed that more than 80% of the people live on a daily income of less than one dollar, the internationally accepted definition for poverty. Given the proximity of the surveyed villages to the rapidly growing city of Bangalore, this estimate reflects a more prosperous picture than what is true for most of rural India.

Development of countries is often judged by certain economic and social statistics compiled by national governments and major international agencies such as the World Bank and the United Nations. By these aggregate measures, India has made significant progress in recent years, especially since liberalization measures were introduced in 1991.

For example, the GDP growth rate now stands at 9.4% per year, much better than the less than 4% experienced during the 1990s. Life expectancy at birth has now improved to 64 years from 56 years 20 years ago; infant mortality has fallen to 5.6% from 8.1%; primary school attendance has risen to 74% from 65%, and the adult literacy rate is 61% as compared to 50%, all during the same period.

There is no arguing that there has been improvement, but these statistics mask many realities that paint a far poorer picture of the country, especially in rural India. For example, consider the following: The rural economic growth rate has been stagnant -- at around 2% to 2.5% a year -- during the past decade, mainly because of the weak performance of the agricultural sector. This marginal expansion barely keeps up with the 1.75% annual increase in rural population, thus offering very little improvement in income and living standards for most people in the villages.

More than half of all children in the country under the age of four suffer from malnutrition; this statistic is far higher for rural children. The government has built a vast system of more than 170,000 primary health centers and sub-centers throughout the country, and more are added each year, yet most of them are either dysfunctional or do not regularly provide even the minimal level of basic health care.

Though primary school enrollment is exceptionally good, the education students receive in most rural schools is unacceptably bad, and less than 10% among them graduate from high school. While government statistics on national literacy have steadily improved for years, several independent studies have shown that less than 20% of the rural population can read or write beyond their own names, and an even smaller percentage can do simple arithmetic.

Our foundation's survey of 17 villages in Hosur Taluk showed that less than 15% of the "lower caste" people who comprise over 70% of the population could write the number corresponding to their age. Given these and other realities, one has to wonder what meaningful progress has been achieved in many important areas, especially among the rural population.

Rural Living Conditions
National indicators regularly published by governments and international agencies do not include any statistics on the living conditions as exemplified by the type of housing available. Nor are there any published statistics on the average space available -- or density -- for each person in a house.

Housing is one of the top priorities for most people, regardless of their income levels. In my interviews with many poor village women, practically everyone listed housing as their most important need -- above food, health care and education for their children. Without the security and comfort of a home, there is no escaping the difficulties resulting from poverty. Poor people do not have the financial means to buy or construct houses with their savings, and therefore they live in their ancestral huts, those rented from landlords (with ensuing obligations), or government-supplied houses.

Poverty levels measured by monetary expenditures toward food do not adequately capture the quality of life that is greatly affected by the type of available housing. Adequate housing is considered by many to be a fundamental human right regardless of income level -- a basic necessity for all that cannot be denied in a fair and equitable society. It is interrelated with other aspects of life such as health and education.

For example, children cannot study in a poorly lit house. Respiratory disorders among rural population in India are often the result of unfavorable housing and poor living conditions. Asthma and bronchitis are caused by pollen grains, dust mites, animal waste and several environmental factors related to bad housing conditions. Poor sanitation and hygiene, inadequate ventilation and smoke inhalation are all associated aspects of poor housing that affect health and social development.

According to the National Family Health Survey, concluded in 2000 by the Indian government, only 19% of the rural population lives in pucca (strong) houses, while the remaining live in kaccha (weak) and semi-pucca houses with mud walls and thatched roofs. Eighty-seven percent of homes in the villages do not have toilet facilities. Cooking is usually done inside the house under inadequate ventilation with biomass such as dried cow-dung, fire wood, dry weeds or crop residue, exacerbating the risk of tuberculosis.

The 2001 Indian Census estimated that 40% of rural houses do not have separate kitchens. When cooking is done inside the house, it is usually on the floor in the corner of a room, sometimes separated by a half-wall. Smoke fills the entire house during cooking, but occupants usually prefer to remain inside. Coughing and spitting are the resulting outcome, symptomatic of what finally leads to chronic illnesses.

Profile of a Rural Village
A typical Indian village has a resident population of around one thousand. While the layout of one village is different from another, the following description might be representative of a vast majority.

Most villages are small and dense, with huts on either side of narrow lanes. Open drainage usually runs along those lanes, clogged and infested with mosquitoes. Except for those belonging to "upper castes," homes are usually placed close to each other -- four to five feet apart -- especially when the government builds housing for the poor.

Landlords have their ancestral homes consisting of several rooms, one of which is set aside for storing grain and supplies. Often, prominent families of the upper castes live next to a courtyard and a temple, which is usually set aside for those same upper castes. "Lower castes" worship at a separate temple, a small decorated room with an idol, in another section of the village or elsewhere. Most villages have an open well or a bore-well, and separate times are set for upper and lower castes to fetch water.

Most villages have both lower and upper castes living in separate sections. People belonging to Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) are required to live in an area designated for them. Those belonging to "Most Backward Classes," "Backward Classes" and "Other Backward Classes" -- as they are officially categorized -- usually live in the same area where "Other Classes (Upper Castes)" live, but they do not mix with even lower castes.

When the government builds homes for lower castes, it ensures this caste separation. In many instances, the government sets up housing colonies exclusively for Scheduled Castes and Tribes, and hence, an entire new village might consist of families belonging to only those castes.

Larger villages might have a school, a panchayat (local governing body) office and a small gathering room for meetings. One or two huts might also serve as a shop-cum-residence, selling sweets and small household supplies. A somewhat leveled area might serve as a playground for children. There are no vegetable or flower gardens in the village, and farms are generally outside on adjacent land owned by landlords or a small number of people who might have been allocated government land for cultivation.

Paved or unpaved narrow roads connect one village to another, usually separated by a few kilometers. One paved road (often not well maintained) connects several villages to a rural town nearby where the government has set up a primary health center to serve 25,000 people or more. These towns have many shops that cater to the daily needs of people living in the villages nearby.

A Typical Rural House
The rural poor live in huts and government-supplied "houses" that are no more than 150-200 sq. ft. in floor area. Huts are usually constructed from mud blocks, roofs are thatched and the floors are covered with a mud and cow-dung paste that serves as a disinfectant.

Houses supplied by the government are constructed with cement blocks or bricks, the floor is cement, and the roof is made of concrete or asbestos. Usually there is only one room in the house, but in some cases a half-wall may be built to separate out the kitchen.

These houses do not have their own toilets, but common toilets are made available at some distance at one corner of the village for several families to share. More often than not, these toilets do not function nor are they maintained, doors are broken or absent, and there is limited or no access to water close by. Hence, most people prefer to go into a wooded section or elsewhere in the village or nearby field where there is privacy.

Our foundation recently completed a field survey of two panchayats consisting of nine villages in Hosur Taluk with 986 huts and houses for a total population of 4,850 residents. The average number of people per dwelling was 4.9. Huts are very small in size, often without windows, and a narrow opening serves as the entrance.

Government-supplied houses are around 190 sq. ft. in floor area which works out to 38 sq. ft. of floor space per person -- only slightly more space than a full-size bed. Every house has two small windows, but they are not sufficient to permit cross ventilation or cooking smoke to escape freely. Those who have domestic animals such as cows or goats usually keep them inside their houses during the night.

At least a third of all houses included in the survey required major repairs for leaky roofs, cracks in walls and damaged doors. None of the lower caste residents has the financial means to spend money on house repairs. While government-built houses are provided free of cost, residents are required to pay a small tax to the panchayat.

The Tamil Nadu government estimates that a typical house for the poor costs around Rs. 45,000 to build. The state allocates houses to families belonging to scheduled and depressed castes based on their economic status. However, anyone officially classified as "poor" is eligible for a government grant of up to Rs. 45,000 (about $1,125) toward construction, provided that the applicant owns suitable land for the house. The government offers different financial schemes through banks that permit families to borrow money at zero to low interest rates (10% to 12%) for purchasing or developing land, and for construction of the dwelling. It also offers grants of up to Rs. 10,000 ($250) for renovation of an existing house.

Most poor people do not have the ability to apply for these benefits without the assistance of middlemen or the direct intervention of government officials. Such intervention is expensive for the beneficiary because it invites kickbacks, commissions and bribes. Further, government-built houses are usually substandard because of poor workmanship and use of defective materials.

A Failing Housing Program
Despite the allocation of considerable funds by central and state governments, the housing program for the poor is failing for a number of reasons. The plan is ill-conceived, focusing on offering shelter as opposed to improving living conditions, and executed without sufficient thought about many inter-related considerations.

While the government is the main promoter of housing schemes, several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and social entrepreneurship ventures have also entered the arena. For the most part, NGOs have to rely on donor funds that are hard to come by, and therefore their contribution has not been significant. Social entrepreneurs who expect a certain return on their investment are focusing on lower-middle-class customers who are able to repay a mortgage or pay adequate rental; these investors have not found a suitable financial arrangement to offer housing to those who cannot pay the high interest rates (ranging from 18% to 36%) that are usually charged.

Currently, the total supply of new housing is far short of the 100 million units that are needed at the very least, if the goal is to offer adequate housing for every poor family. Bad construction and poor maintenance are causing the breakdown of houses that were built some time ago, adding to the need for substantial home improvement.

Further, many homes were built without considering the size of the family or its likely new members, and consequently, they are simply too dense or congested. The average floor space of 38 sq. ft per individual, not including the space taken by cattle, creates a very unhealthy and uncomfortable indoor environment.

The focus on offering houses as "shelters" has motivated the government to look for cheap construction without offering even basic necessities. Without a small separate kitchen and adequate cross ventilation, for example, the entire house is turned into a smoke stack not suited for human habitation. The absence of an adjacent toilet with each house is inconsistent with any reasonable concept of meeting minimum human needs. Unless existing houses are extended to include a separate kitchen with proper ventilation and a small toilet, they cannot be considered "livable" dwellings.

Additionally, government housing perpetuates the centuries-old practice of separation of residences based on caste. Instead of trying to break down this discriminatory practice, houses being built by the government for the "scheduled castes" ensure this separation. Further, the government has created a number of identical structures in new areas, effectively creating "scheduled caste colonies." It is hard to reconcile the government's official position concerning discrimination and human rights, and what it actually practices.

Focus on Community
The housing program as currently implemented will hardly improve the living standards of the poor, nor will it contribute to social justice. Before more funds are expended toward public housing, the government is well advised to reconsider its approach to the problem. In arriving at a new strategy for housing, planners must not lose sight of other, interrelated goals such as offering basic amenities, preventing diseases and assuring social integration. The approach must shift from the current focus on offering shelter to developing healthy and integrated communities. That might imply a departure from a caste-based approach to assistance based on income levels.

While a great majority of the poor belong to lower castes at the present time, and therefore would be eligible for assistance under this approach, those belonging to higher castes should not be denied assistance if they deserve it for reasons of low income. Only then would it be possible to bring about social integration between different castes. This will also permit upward mobility for lower caste families who are able to afford better and bigger homes. Mixed-income housing programs have been successfully implemented in countries like the U.S. to bring about integration across race and class, and India should not shy away from taking similar approaches to achieving social equality among all its citizens.

Instead of replacing huts with cemented houses at the same location, a better strategy might be to develop new communities at another location close by. That would offer considerable flexibility in properly laying out the entire housing complex. These new developments may incorporate facilities for sharing water, sewage processing and bio-gas production, as well as fruit and vegetable gardens and small shops. When resources are shared instead of wasted, and everyone lives in healthy conditions, overall productivity will increase considerably.
Community development will certainly call for larger initial investment than what is required for building shelters. However, the long-term benefits associated with creating healthy and sustainable communities are likely to be far greater than the short term savings from building low-cost housing.

It is possible to recover some of the additional costs associated with community development through innovative financing schemes that require extended repayments by beneficiaries commensurate with their increasing income levels. An appropriate partnership between government, donors, investors and financial institutions can pave the way for financial solutions that make it possible for beneficiaries to carry some of the burden.

The issue of adequate housing is integral to poverty reduction and social justice. It must not be viewed in isolation, but as part of an effort to develop harmonious and healthy communities. In all these issues, the real solution lies in good public governance, building strong human foundations through education and health care, creating economic opportunity, and ensuring social justice for all.

Note: The George Foundation has been building houses for the rural poor in the villages around Shanti Bhavan at a cost of around $5,000 per unit.  

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Shanti Bhavan Celebrates its Anniversary with Benefit Event in NYC


On May 9th, Shanti Bhavan will be holding its first major benefit at The Bowery Hotel in New York City.

Please join us for an evening celebrating the success of the Shanti Bhavan education program. 

With this Benefit Event, we hope to introduce our educational model to philanthropists, global business executives, social entrepreneurs and new friends. 

This occasion marks our 15th Anniversary and the year that our first class will graduate from some of the best universities in India and move on to work in renowned institutions like Goldman Sachs and Mahindra. The success of these children has exceeded any expectation we might have held when they started with us as four year olds. 

This is a very special occasion for me and the children - and it would mean a lot to us if you are there. Please join us in celebrating their achievements by purchasing an individual ticket or becoming a sponsor for one or more of our children.

Your invitation is attached below. 

See you there.
 
Dr. Abraham George
Founder, Shanti Bhavan

  

Shanti Bhavan's 15th Anniversary Celebration

Honorary Hosts Padma Lakshmi and Nate Berkus

Honorary Committee Member Thomas Friedman 

Live music from acclaimed music director Mary Mitchell Campbell

Plus, an exclusive sneak peek into the upcoming documentary "The Untouchables" by Academy Award Winning Filmmaker Vanessa Roth

Open bar refreshments from Stella, Beck's Sapphire, Bulldog Gin, WhistlePig Whiskey, Santa Teresa Rum, El Buho Mezcal and more!
Silent auction and raffle items from Equinox, Beauty & Essex, Pound Ridge Golf, a luxury St. Thomas villa, and more!
Guests will receive a $20 credit to use toward Uber Car Service on the night of the event! (new Uber users only) 

Individual Tickets: $175

Sponsorship opportunities are available. 
To buy tickets, become a sponsor, or make a donation, visit: http://sbbenefit.org/


Sunday, March 03, 2013

India’s Recent Budget Tells the Unspoken Truth


The national budget announced today, March 1, 2013, tells a lot about the nature of India’s prosperity being experienced in recent years. It is not so much the lower growth rate of 6% projected for next year that troubles ordinary people most, but the skewed nature of that growth.  Let us start with some hard facts.

Only 3% of India’s population – 35 million – pays any income tax. All others do not have sufficient income – Rs. 200,000 ($3,650) per annum -- to be “qualified” for paying taxes. Of these eligible taxpayers who are considered “above water,” 1.5 million earn over Rs. 1 crore ($182,000) in annual income. They are the 0.125% of the population considered rich enough to pay the newly instituted 10% surtax for incomes above that level.  If these declared incomes are indeed true, where is the often trumpeted prosperity?

The government has introduced in the budget several new incentives for infrastructure, textile and broadcasting companies. Companies like Larsen & Toubro, Bombay Rayon and Reliance Broadcast stand to gain from these special favors, and the rest of us are expected to feel content with the trickle down impact from their increasing profits.

To offset any criticism for coming to the aid of large companies, the government has suggested new investments and tax plans in the social arena – a government supported bank for women only, financial assistance toward development of educational applications to run on the “World’s cheapest Tablet PC,” and marginal tax increases on the richest to “contribute” to the welfare of the poor. These questionable investments favoring one group or company over all others, and insignificant new taxes on the few super-rich, raise questions about the government’s desire and willingness to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor.

It is a historical fact that in 1991, India was forced to abandon its pre-occupation with socialism and embrace capitalism. But capitalism never promised fairness; instead it offered the ingredients for business success. Countries like India opened their doors to foreign companies that rushed in mainly to take advantage of low cost labor. Many Indian companies joined forces with them to exploit business opportunities in offering mostly services at very low costs for foreign consumption. The prosperity that was brought about to a few Indians employed in those industries spread to some more people, and now, there are at least 3% of the nation’s population fit enough to pay taxes.

Whether India’s aggregate growth rate improves from 6% to 10% as desired over the next decade or not, the real question to ask is whether current policies will bring about meaningful improvement in the lives of the remaining non-tax-paying segment of the population. Will there be measures to assure decent minimum wages and benefits, or will prosperity for the rich be harvested from the cheap labor of the poor? Will there be a commitment to improving the capacity of the poor, especially the young who will be tomorrow’s labor force.

A nation cannot continue its indifference toward the poor by satisfying the aspirations of the rich and the powerful. Foreign investors, especially those of Indian origin, must ask themselves how they plan to operate in a country where 97% of the people are not fit enough to pay taxes. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Rape, Incest and Other Contradictions


The recent Delhi rape incident has elevated national attention about nonconsensual sex and violence.  There is no doubt that most reasonable people disapprove sexual violence against women. Yet, the picture about what constitutes rape is not clear in India. The subject is further complicated without any legal guidance on incest.

For the starter, let me briefly describe the laws in India. Marriage for girls is permitted after 18 (except Muslim girls who may marry at 15) and 21 for boys.  But many underage marriages take place, and the government does not intervene. Sex with a “minor wife” below the age of 15 is punishable. But no one bothers if a man marries a girl below 15 as long as the couple does not disclose that they had sex with each other.

There is no law in India concerning incest, often described as having sex between a parent and a child, or between siblings. If one is to believe ancient Indian writings, incest was not very uncommon. Today in India, sex with a close relative girl above the age of 15 does not get any legal attention as long as there is no complaint. Sex is considered consensual when there is no complaint. No wonder hundreds of thousands of young girls face sexual abuse at home every day in India, and nothing happens to their male predators.

Many children in our school, Shanti Bhavan, face incidents of sexual abuse when they are home on vacation. Incidents of molestations have occurred from the very young age of five or even less. These abuses are committed by stepfathers, uncles, cousins, and young men whom the parents approve of for marriage for their daughters when they are ready. If the opportunity arises, these incidents lead to sexual intercourse with or without the explicit consent of parents.

Marriages to uncles and cousins are a common practice in many societies, especially when the girl’s parents are unable to pay dowry. Even marriages between brothers and sisters occur in some instances, especially when they are half-brothers and half-sisters, i.e., of the same mother but of different fathers or vice-versa.  There is no law in India that prohibits sexual relationships between close family members within marriage or outside of it as long as it is not with one below the age of 15 and is consensual. Some people argue that sexual relationship between any “adults” is fine as long as it is consensual.

Official complaints are rarely made when incest or sexual relationships occur between close family members.  If the girl refuses consent, she faces punishment and even violence until she gives in. Members of the family rarely complain to outsiders about each other.

When there is no law on incest and child marriage is not prohibited as long as no one complains, sex between innocent girls and adults will continue unabated. Can you call these incidents rape?

In matters like these, laws must be abundantly clear and consistent. The consequence of their violations must be certain and swift. A just and humane nation cannot practice hypocrisy of indifference.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Warping of Indian Conscience


The events surrounding the brutal rape and death of a young woman in Delhi last month have raised some serious questions on the moral conscience of a nation considered to be a peaceful ancient civilization. It is not just the terrible deeds of a few criminals that have come to question, but the actions and inaction of different constituencies of people that paint a worrisome picture of a nation.

Let me briefly explain what I mean.  First, there are the alleged rapists who physically violated a young woman and her male companion.  Not only was she repeatedly raped by these men, but was brutally attacked by inserting an iron rod into her stomach and pulling out some of her intestines.
Second, this terrible incident took place in public transport – a bus – that was used by its driver during off-hours for extracting large sums of money from unassuming passengers and for criminal acts for pleasure. There was no accountability on the part of the transport department in the use of the bus, and no background check of the driver.

Third, the two victims lay naked on the roadside after being thrown out of the bus for nearly forty-five minutes before police arrived.  Passers-by slowed down their vehicles to look at them but didn’t offer any help for fear of getting involved and the police implicating and accusing them of the crime. There was no Good Samaritan who was prepared to rush the bleeding couple to a hospital.

Fourth, the policemen who arrived in their vehicles argued for a long time on who had jurisdiction on the matter to transport them to a hospital. There seems to have been little or no concern about the terrible condition of the victims. Nearly 2 hours passed before the victims arrived at a hospital.

Fifth, the hospital health workers took their time to administer proper aid to the victims.  The young woman was bleeding profusely and had by then lost most of her blood, and yet, it took considerable time before she was administered the initial blood transfusion.  As for her male companion who had serious injuries from being beaten by the iron rod waited until his relatives arrived at the hospital and demanded immediate attention.

Sixth, when the public heard through the media the news of the rape, there was considerable outrage among some groups, especially among women, who took to the streets to protest. It was mostly women activists who led those protests (where were the men?), and the rest of the nation waited to see what the government would do.  In the mean time, several political leaders blamed the young woman victim for traveling late evening – 9.30 pm – instead of staying home.  Some accused women of “flirting and tempting men” to commit rape.

Seventh, the national discourse turned to the demand for death penalty for the alleged criminals.  One of the cabinet members suggested that a new law should be passed to deal with crimes against women, such as rapes, and it should be named after the victim. There was very little public discussion of what the law should be all about.

Eighth, recognizing the potential for serious public agitation, the national ministerial cabinet met to decide how to prevent any widening protest by the public.  Without consulting the parents of the woman victim, the cabinet decided to immediately fly her to a hospital in Singapore to “receive organ transplant” – to replace the entire intestine. By then, the young woman was in precarious physical condition from loss of blood and the resulting cardiac arrest and stroke, at the verge of death. She was in no condition to travel and receive an organ transplant for no less than three months at the earliest if she were to survive, according to medical experts in the hospital.   

Yet, a political decision was made to ship her; passports and visas were issued overnight and she was put into a special plane to Singapore. During the flight she underwent another cardiac arrest, and there were no proper medical equipment or expert doctors in the plane to handle the easily predictable deteriorating condition. Within two days of arrival at the transplant hospital in Singapore, the young woman died.

Ninth, the alleged criminals were brought to a court in Delhi for trial, but the Delhi lawyers’ association declared that none of its members would represent the defendants in the trial. The lawyers rendered their judgment even before a judge could hear the case.

Tenth, there has been little or no open national discussion on what new laws are needed to protect women in public places, the controls to be established by the public transport system, how the police and medical authorities are expected to respond in similar situations, and how the general public can be motivated to come to the aid of victims without worrying about harassment by the police. Instead, there are plenty of public pronouncements on morality, restricted role of women and defense of government actions in this matter.

The Delhi rape case occurred almost at the same time as the school massacre took place in the United States where more than two dozen children and staff died from gunshot wounds. While the nation was in grief and shock for several days following the incident, the national discourse was mainly on how to control the use of guns, prevention of such incidents in the future, detecting and identifying individuals who might be potential threat to society, treatment for mental illness, and assistance to families who need help. The U.S. legal system and process were expected to render justice to the alleged perpetrator of the crime in normal course, and hence, there was no public discussion on what punishment would be appropriate. The need of the moment was to find solutions that would prevent a repeat of similar incidents.

In the Delhi rape matter, it is terribly sad to see so many constituencies acting in a far less moral fashion than would be expected of a great nation. It is not hard to say who all contributed to the suffering and death of the young woman -- the rapists, the passers-by, the police, the medical establishment, or the authorities, or all. I leave that judgment to the moral conscience of the readers.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Complicated Task of Building Genuine Democracy


Recent events in the Middle East that are collectively termed as the “Arab Spring” have so far been a “Winter of Discontent” in most of the liberated countries. Dictatorship in Egypt under president Mubarak is replaced by a pro-Islamic totalitarian regime that calls itself democratic. In Libya, ruthless rule by Gadhafi is now substituted by militias and sectarian groups within a pro-democracy movement. It appears that a new form of authoritarianism or a new form of totalitarianism is taking hold where only their form of Islamism is allowed. The tyranny of the majority over the minority is the rule of law in most, if not all, the newly “freed countries.” It is obvious that transformation to genuine democracy doesn’t come easy.

When the Soviet tanks rolled over into most of Eastern Europe soon after the Second World War, the first item in the agenda of the conquerors was establishing a powerful secret police. The second was total control of news disseminated through the radio. It was clear that the biggest threat to an oppressive government is information in the hands of the general public. President Putin hasn’t forgotten this lesson; he now completely controls the media (except for a few city newspapers that serve the intellectuals who are no threat to the regime), and rules with a powerful secret police – FSB (formerly KGB).

In what way is India different? Our democracy is also fairly young – just over 65 years after centuries of rule by Kings and recently by British colonialists who practiced their form of dictatorship. But when the country became independent in the late 1940s, the ideals of a democracy were implemented with principles practiced by the Soviet regime. In a socialistic democracy that India embraced, the central government kept the prevailing divergent cultures in the country separate in the name of preserving their values, practices and languages. The central government maintained its control over all the different sectarian groups with a strong military, investigative powers and important monetary benefits, controls and handouts. There was no need, and was found to be not desirable, to keep the masses truly informed or united across cultures, religions, castes.

Both radio and television were totally controlled by the central government until much later when private participation was allowed. Radio became open to the private sector in 1999, and there have been three rounds of licensing for FM channels so far. Today there are 245 private FM channels in the country, and yet, none of them is allowed to broadcast news. The government knows well that over 95 percent of the Indian masses do not read English daily newspapers that might cover national issues, and most local language television channels focus on entertainment, sports and local sensational news. It is too dangerous to expose the great majority of its population to uncensored radio news, which still continue to be sanitized by the News Services Division (NSD) of All India Radio. Despite a Supreme Court ruling in 1995 that the government can only regulate, not restrict, content that is broadcast on radio, the authorities are yet to act to implement the ruling.

For nearly 50 years since the country’s independence, Indian news services and opinion columns were dominated by coverage praising the Soviet system, anti-capitalism, and “neutral” foreign policy principles, only to be abandoned since 1991 when economic liberalization began to set in.  Unfortunately, at least two generations of Indians were indoctrinated by the views of national governments and their official policies to the detriment of the country’s progress.

Why should governments be afraid of its own people? The answer is very simple: the power rests in the hands of few politicians and bureaucrats, and they have everything to lose. Also those in the private sector who have considerable wealth influence the government to get what they want. The result of this form of governance is rampant corruption, favoritism and misuse of power.

Take the case of the recent Hazare movement. When strong demands were made for legislative action in the parliament to curb corruption (regardless of its likely effectiveness) and protest marches and sit-ins were called, political leaders in the ruling party accused the movement of harming national interest. There are numerous examples of oppressive actions by state and central governments to control the freedom of public speech, expression and dissent. Serious dissent in any form can easily be brought to task in the name of national interest and security.

Reading Pulitzer Prize recipient Anne Applebaum’s recent book, Iron Curtain: The Crushing Eastern Europe, I could not avoid thinking about the many parallels to India’s so-called democracy. It is probably true that Indian citizens are less an endangered species than their counterparts in Russia and China, and in many other totalitarians regimes around the world, but it is far from a truly free and open democracy.

The country stands to gain greatly from public discourse and expressions of dissent, but it must come from an informed citizenry. The absence of an open society will continue to perpetuate some of the evils of the current society – corruption, injustice, misuse of power, and widening disparity between the rich and the poor.

Abraham M. George
http://www.shantibhavanonline.org/

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Compelling Argument for Restructuring the Government in India


If you are as disgusted as I am from learning the headline news on what is going on in India every single day, you will agree with me that there is something terribly wrong with the way the government functions regardless of the party in power. Politics has become simply a means to hold on to power and manipulate it for personal gain. The general population accepts that reality for what it is.

We seem to judge our leaders for their cleverness in outsmarting the system and the opposition, displaying no apparent concern about what they do as long as we are not directly affected. As a result, we allow our country to be governed by mostly those who are exceedingly corrupt, untruthful and arrogant enough to subvert the laws.

Sure, India has made considerable economic progress since 1991, when progress is measured by aggregate yardsticks such as GDP growth rate. It was the result of being forced to open up the economy to foreign investment that was attracted to India by the abundantly available cheap labor. Increased economic activity came from less government-run businesses and less regulations, and from more freedom for the private sector and foreign companies to do what they want to make money.

Some individuals got excessively rich from their ability to influence and exploit the centers of power. Soon, many small to medium size companies sprung up to cater to the larger established ones, and to provide services to those who could afford to pay. The trickle down economy gave birth to a larger middle class – nearly 20% of the population – whose incomes rose enough to afford some of the minimal comforts of life.

What has this new economic system created for the well-being of the remaining 75-80% of the population? By any meaningful measure of poverty levels, such as the $2 per day per person yardstick followed by the World Bank, over 75% of the people in India are still poor. The gap between the top 5% and the bottom 50% is among the highest in the world, and is widening. Yet, the idea of cheap labor as the engine for economic growth does not allow the implementation of minimum-wage laws, quality education, and sufficient skills-training for those who seek employment.

We expect our government to be terribly corrupt, and those with power and money to exploit the system to their advantage. The legal system cannot be relied upon to render justice for those who cannot afford to bribe. Many public services and permits require dishing out large sums of money under the table. Private companies engaged in power generation and other infrastructure projects routinely pay 10-20% of the contracted amounts – tens of millions of dollars – in bribes to politicians, bureaucrats and executives of companies involved. There is no incentive among the privileged to do anything about these terrible activities, and the rest of the population silently pay the price indirectly.

How much worse has the system got to get before ordinary citizens become fed up and force change? The recent anti-corruption movements are unlikely to bring about the essential structural changes needed for a just and fair system. No substantial improvement in the system will be forthcoming without a major restructuring of the government as the starting point. Only honest governments that care for the welfare of all citizens will embrace the principles of fairness and equity.

There has to be a starting point for bringing about the many difficult changes that are urgently needed. What the country must have is the rule of law instead of the rule of power. Until elected leaders are sufficiently honest, and laws are strictly and fairly enforced, there is no hope for improvement in the system.  

It all begins with whom we elect as our leaders. Democracy is not simply about how many people vote. It is more about the type of people we elect.

Without getting bogged down in the many steps that are to follow, can we force a law into effect that requires all those running for major political positions – members of parliament and state legislatures – to be those with no history of any criminal record, or serious disciplinary action? Can we require that the candidates running for these political positions (and their immediate family members combined) publish their wealth, income and sources of income? Can there be strict annual audit of the changes in their financial status? Their entire background, including professional and educational, and personal data should be made accessible to the general public through the Internet.

If we can attract honest and efficient individuals to political positions, we may expect them to do the right thing. They would hopefully enact fair and effective laws and regulations, improve the justice system, and execute economic policies that benefit all citizens, especially the poor. If we can have this simple beginning to the restructuring of government (instead of never-ending arguments on what else is needed), we can slowly build on a good political foundation to make further improvements to the system over time. But if we fail to change the course of governance, India will soon drift into an unsustainable social and economic condition.

If you agree with this proposition, please forward it to as many ordinary citizens as possible.