Fraudsters are an inventive and daring lot when it comes to thinking up ingenious ways of pocketing money without shedding either tears or sweat. But they are cautious about not drawing attention to their scams, which by itself requires tremendous effort. These twin facts are borne out by an interesting story that has surfaced from Uttar Pradesh, where a new Assembly (if not a new Government) is to be elected early next year.
Records show that a certain Durgavati, a name which is possibly shared by thousands of women in the deep interiors of the Hindi heartland, gave birth to 52 children in 2009. Aged 34, she gave birth to her first child on January 2, followed by another on January 9, a third on January 16, and so on. For every child born to her, she was given Rs 1,400 under the Centrally-funded Janani Suraksha Yojana. That adds up to Rs 72,800 for her family of 54 -- she, her husband and their brood of 52 children.
Further scrutiny of records would show that there are many more Durgavatis who have 'benefited' from the largesse of our maai-baap state, well-meaning as its intentions may be, without any eyelids being batted in Lucknow or New Delhi. What are welfare funds meant for if they are not to be looted? And what are indigent pregnant women in dire need of post-natal care meant for if they cannot be impersonated? How else would the politician-babu-criminal/fraudster nexus survive?
We who live privileged lives in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Kolkata and other metropolitan cities would have a good laugh over the 'Durgavati scam'. Some of us would pompously declare that this is precisely why we need a Lokpal, preferably Anna Hazare's version of a Jan Lokpal. Others would snigger and say, "What else did you expect? We are like this only."
Actually, we are. By allowing politically-connected babus and criminals to steal money which could have saved the lives of many women and their newborn babies, by pretending faux outrage and doing nothing about it, by going gaga over an over-hyped F1 race while ignoring the grim reality of Uttar Pradesh whose Chief Minister, Queen Hatshepsut-like, raises memorials to herself at the expense of the State's taxpayers, we make ourselves as culpable as those who feather their nests by stealing that which belongs to the poor.
The Durgavati scam is a manifestation of the deeper malaise that afflicts us and has corroded the innards of our system of governance. Just as newborn infants dying like so many flies in Government hospitals in West Bengal is no more than yet another symptom of the same disease. Rather than look for a cure, the State's Chief Minister blithely tells the people 40,000 children died every year when the Left Front was in power. Suitably shocked and awed, nobody asks her to authenticate that figure.
Similarly nobody remonstrates when the Health Minister of Andhra Pradesh blames crib deaths in that State on "god's error". Nor is there any concern in Patna or New Delhi that an 'unknown' virus should have claimed the lives of 49 children in Bihar in June this year. Or that year after year hundreds of children die of encephalitis at Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh - between July and October this year, at least 384 children died of this entirely preventable disease.
National security is not only about guns and bombs and missiles and armies. It is also about how we, as a nation, build our future. What kind of a future are we building when we neglect our children so? A senior politician once facetiously told me, "Since children don't vote, they don't exist for political parties." Not surprisingly, statistical data collated during the 3rd National Family Health Survey conducted over 2005-06 showed 42.4 per cent of our children were malnourished, 37 per cent suffered from stunted growth, 77 per cent were anaemic and a whopping 50 per cent were not fully immunised. There is little reason to believe that those numbers would have changed for the better in the intervening five years.
It's not only about funds and schemes. It's also about how those funds are used and schemes are implemented. Ultimately, it's about society's integrity and responsibility. Had our society's integrity quotient not been abysmally low and sense of responsibility near absent, Government-funded panjiri, a ready-to-eat high calorie mix meant for mid-day meals at schools, would not have been fed to cattle in Uttar Pradesh. Or Madhya Pradesh would not have been comfortable with the idea that it has the highest number of malnourished children. Or children would not have gone to sleep hungry in most households of impoverished western Odisha.
Is this what we were destined to be?
The writer is a journalist, political analyst and activist