Thursday, 30 September, 2010

Rs 28,000cr Games expense sounds like wrong priority


It was 45 years back -chairman of world bank Lord Mcnnmara had said - "we need to think twice before granting aid/loan to India as India has a Rolls-Royes administration in Bullock cart country !! Read Azim Premji's thought provoking article!


Recently, the central government disclosed that its total spend on the Delhi Commonwealth Games is likely to be Rs 11,494 crore. This number is disconcerting for two reasons. One, because it is an order-of-magnitude away from its original estimate of Rs 655 crore. Two, because the real cost of the games will be much higher if we were to include:


*Rs 16,560 crore additionally spent by Delhi government on upgrading the capital's infrastructure — a new airport terminal, wider roads, new flyovers, Metro rail extensions, and so on;


*Real cost of labour — labourers got sub-minimum wages, worked in unsafe conditions, and were housed in sub-human tenements;


*The human cost of driving the poor out of streets and out of sight.


The term 'commonwealth' originally meant public welfare, things that are for the greater good of society. Do the Commonwealth Games pass this commonwealth test? Is this Rs 28,000-crore drain on public funds for the greater common good?


Before I respond to the question, let me clarify my position on the Games themselves. The desire to celebrate runs deep in our collective psyche. The teachings of a spiritual master, the creation of a nation, the birth of a child — celebrating each of them is important because they are our cultural compass; they remind us of things we value most. There are few things as uplifting as watching a sportsperson push physical and mental limits to achieve the incredible. The Commonwealth Games, like the Olympics, are a celebration of the human spirit of excellence. Therefore, in itself, the Games are a worthy endeavour.


However, given the thousands of crores being spent on the Delhi Commonwealth Games, we need to ask if this is money spent wisely. As a country, we are constantly forced to compromise on funds. For instance, India needs more schools, and the existing schools need better infrastructure and more teachers. This will require us to spend 6% of our GDP on education, but we manage just over half that figure. Similarly, the country has very little sports infrastructure on the ground. To encourage sports, our first step has to be to ensure children get access to playgrounds, good equipment and quality coaching. To not have this, and to instead spend on a grand sporting spectacle sounds like we have got our priorities wrong.


Despite the wonderful economic strides of the past two decades, the reality is that India is a poor country. A recent study by the University of Oxford measured levels of education, health and living standard in the world's poorest countries. This study shows that India continues to be predominantly poor. In fact, there are more poor people in eight Indian states than in the 26 poorest African countries combined. Delhi has amongst the lowest occurrences of poverty in India, while at the other extreme, 81% of Bihar's population is poor. No surprise then that many of the 100,000 labourers who worked for unfair wages to prepare Delhi for the Commonwealth Games were from Bihar.


The capital already boasts of some of India's best infrastructure. Instead of spending crores to widen Delhi's roads, should we not prioritize building roads and schools in Bihar where none exist in the first place? If we have Rs 500 crore to spare, should we use it to build basic sports facilities in thousands of government schools, or should we spend it all on renovating one stadium?


In real terms, such choices are not all that easy to make. For instance, it is important for our cities to have great infrastructure, and money spent on a metropolis like Delhi will in turn catalyse our national economy. Our leaders have to constantly juggle and prioritize among many equally deserving needs, and it is not as if they are uninformed or wrongly intentioned. Over the last decade, the Indian government has taken important strides in social welfare and inclusive development. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan are but two examples. However, ( THOUGH THERE IS LOTS OF CORRUPTION IN NREGA )it is not enough to have specific schemes such as the NREGA. Rather, equity and inclusion considerations must underlie each and every policy decision. Let me suggest that all public policy must recognize that GDP growth is meaningless if it does not uplift the most underprivileged of our country.


How can we forget that for Rs 28,000 crore we could have established primary schools and health centres in tens of thousands of villages? Can we ignore this splurge the next time a malnourished child looks at us in the eye?


At times like these, it will serve our leaders well to recall Gandhiji's talisman: "Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to Swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions?"


Premji is chairman of Wipro.

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