BEYOND SOCIAL WELFARE

For quite some time developed countries like the US, Japan and UK have been feeling an unusual economic pain. In these countries for many different reasons unemployment is soaring; production is stagnated; gross national production remains at a standstill; values of real estate remain under water. Those in a position of making investments are afraid to do so. Businesses are not expanding and sales are down. As a result their governments are earning less tax money than before. Because of the reduced income, governments are unable to spend as much on many of their welfare programs. The cut in programs forces them to lay off employees and fuels the fire of unemployment. For many, it feels like a recession. But for a large number of the population the situation spells catastrophe.

Greece, a member of the European Community, in recent weeks has become a case study of misfortune. It has been struggling to pay off its debt and its neighbors have been trying to help pay its bills. They have been rearranging its loans and making new loans to its Government. While doing so they have come to realize that Greece has to take some drastic steps which are neither pleasant nor easy. The country needs tightening its belt and following an austerity measure. The government must cut its payroll. Either does it need that many employees or it cannot afford to pay their salaries. So, the work force on a Government salary has to be trimmed. The government also has to be stringent in collecting taxes. Citizens from top to bottom seem to have no moral compunction in cheating the government or not showing their actual income and paying less in taxes. In the changed situation of the present, they have to pay more taxes for the common good. And for the citizenry this is a medicine that is hard to swallow.

Almost all of the developed countries, like Greece, have had social welfare programs where a Government spent money to provide its citizens certain privileges. Under the banner of socialism country after country in Europe and elsewhere has committed themselves to taking care of citizens from cradle to grave. Public spending and national progress became synonymous. Progressive leaders in the name of social engineering instituted social welfare programs with gusto. In a postcolonial India for example, socialism became a catch all phrase. For fifty some years, a public figure in India could not move a step without stumbling into socialism of some kind. Basically, the government took responsibility to provide food, clothing, shelter, education and health care to its people regardless of their ability to pay.

Given India’s history and the nature of a colonial exploitation such an outlook was necessary. At the beginning, the government became like a midwife that took care of an ailing population. But for its own convenience it did precious little to wean the population of being dependent on the government. Right now, under the Mahatma Gandhi work project the Government is committed to providing 100 days of work to those who are willing to work and live below the poverty line. The government also provides staples like rice and wheat to the poor in a vastly subsidized price. Both villagers and city dwellers expect to receive cooking oil and fuel oil at a cheaper rate. There seems to be no end to the list as the likes of rail way travelers, airline executives, importers and exporters want subsidies. And there lies the dilemma.

In a country like India, in order to right some historical wrongs, it was necessary that the weaker section of the population got help from the government to get ahead. However, those who are currently receiving anything freely or in a subsidized rate must be made accountable for their contribution to their own uplift. In that respect, the present government and its predecessors have been negligent. Looking at the present situation around the world, one wonders how long this free offering will continue before the entire system collapses on itself?

Even remote areas of India today have become connected to the world at large. Cell phones and the Internet have penetrated every nook and cranny of the country. These tools and many others have widened opportunities along with competition with the wider world. What is happening in other parts of the globe such as Greece or the US must affect India sooner or later. So, it falls on India’s decision makers and social engineers to make the people prepared to face such an eventuality.



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