The patronizing attitude towards the poor must change
Bihar’s chief minister Nitish Kumar just recently won the NDTV politician of the year award. There is an interesting moment in the award ceremony where Prannoy Roy ,referring to Bihar’s much-touted bicycle scheme, asks Mr. Kumar: “Why did you prefer to give cash to the families instead of giving them bicycles? How do you know what families might do with the money? ” (Rough transcript.) Mr. Kumar laughs off Mr. Roy’s question suggesting that if his government had procured the bicycles, it would have merely led to a ‘bicycle scam.’
But Mr. Roy’s question deserves greater thought because it conveys much about the elitist disregard for the poor, and the utter contempt in which the poor are held. Think of it this way: If the chief minister of Delhi went to Mr. Roy and suggested that she and some faceless bureaucrats cared more for his children than Mr. Roy himself, what would be Mr. Roy’s reaction: He would be greatly offended! As most of those belonging to the so-called elitist section of the population.
But it is perfectly okay for Mr. Roy to suggest—-and what else does his question really convey?—that the poor really don’t care for their children. That if afforded the resources to ensure a better life for their children, they would probably fritter it away on some frivolous expenses. And therefore, the government needs to step in and micro-manage the resource allocation! Because the poor don’t know better. Because they don’t care enough!
The interesting thing of course is that if Mr. Roy was asked directly if he really thinks the poor don’t care about their children, he would dismiss the question off-hand, and would probably be offended. And so would most of the attendees of this glittering ceremony. And yet, their question suggests something exactly opposite. Clearly, what we have here is a classic case of subtle bias.
Now, biases are something which we all exhibit and are mostly a function of our idiosyncratic experiences. However, the bias which Mr. Roy and unfortunately the vast majority of his ilk exhibit is important because it has driven much of India’s public assistance program for the poor.
For those who stridently oppose cash transfers to the poor—and they occupy some of the most influential positions in the current government—attribute their opposition to multiple reasons: abdication of state’s larger role, intrusion of ‘evil’ market forces, and sometimes even efficiency. But what they are really suggesting is that the poor cannot be trusted to improve their status in life. That what they lack of is not resources but ambition. That some faceless people sitting in Delhi or Patna care more about the poor and their families then the poor themselves! This is not only nonsensical but dangerous nonsense.
Because this deeply patronizing attitude towards the poor extracts real costs in terms of wrong public policy. And that is why it important to explore it, and understand its troubling moral and policy implications.
Trust the poor. They are not really different from the rest of us! And if any evidence was required, Mr. Kumar provided it: Bihar’s bicycle scheme has a success rate of 92%!