SPEAKING FREELY Subsidies, or 'To those who have … '
By Samir Nazareth
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According to the Directive Principles of State Policy of the Constitution of India, the country is defined as a Welfare State. Though the authors of the Constitution stated that these Principles are not justiciable, "the principles therein laid down are nevertheless fundamental in the governance of the country and it
shall be the duty of the State to apply these principles in making laws".
Further, Article 38 states "The State shall strive to promote the welfare of the people by securing and protecting as effectively as it may a social order in which justice, social, economic and political, shall inform all the institutions of the national life."
The second part points out to the need to "minimise the inequalities in income, and endeavour to eliminate inequalities in status, facilities and opportunities, not only amongst individuals but also amongst groups of people residing in different areas or engaged in different vocations".
Articles 39 mentions the right to adequate means of livelihood, distribution of resources for common good, "that the operation of the economic system does not result in the concentration of wealth and means of production to the common detriment".
All these and more acknowledge the presence of pervasive inequities and injustice, that a society can exist and thrive only if all have opportunities for growth, that there is a human tendency to propagate and promote inequality and that it is the duty of a democratic State to step in to ensure citizens are given the respect and avenues for development due due to them irrespective of status.
Therefore subsidy. But subsidy for whom?
Most people who are opposed to subsidy are those who are rich and therefore enjoy a multitude of subsidies. Their main grouse is "why should I pay for someone else" - these are the exact words I heard at a friend's four-bedroom house, which had three air conditioners and two fridges. The outrage was fueled by example of the cost of train tickets; in a superfast train between New Delhi and Chandigarh, the price difference between an AC chair car and a non-AC chair car was more than the cost of a regular bus ticket between these two places. The cost difference implied that the rich traveller was subsiding the poor traveller.
But the question is "are the rich really subsidizing the poor" or is it the other way round? In discussing this question one needs to go beyond the usual definition of subsidy and see how being rich is a form of subsidy permitting that which is denied to the lay.
Let us use the example of an upmarket house to discuss subsidies and who is eating off whom, focussing on electricity, water and land use.
A large house owned by the rich would have an air conditioner in every room, with other electrical appliances that help one forget that the majority in India live without such luxuries. Usha, the person who cleans my house, lives in a two-room tenement flat with four children and has four electrical gadgets (a fan in each room, a TV and fridge). She has an electricity meter and pays on average 400 rupees (US$6.64) for the electricity every month.
The hollow promises of trickle-down economics claimed by capitalistic theory is seen to work very well, when inverted, in the case of subsidies benefiting the rich. The electricity tariff slabs have been constructed in such a way that those who consume more derive benefits directed towards those who consume less. So suppose the rich consume 800 units; they benefit from the subsidy for those who consume 0-200 units and 201-400 units. They are actually paying far less than the cost of energy they consume.
One is not even talking about the real and hidden subsidies in coal extraction, electricity production and transmission that the rich profit from most because they are the biggest consumers.
Owning a house is the dream of every person. The attempt to provide safety and security for one's loved ones has, for those who are able to do so, transmogrified into an amplification of ones perceived persona. Thus besides size, there are accoutrements that go along with it - everything from construction material, to fittings. Thus a 1,500 square foot or larger house could be inhabited by a nuclear family of two to a joint family of three or more. Besides the amount of space occupied per person, there is another form of land grab that is happening which is not accounted for.
The government and the haves complain of illegal settlements and squatters occupying land to build their shanties. But there is not a peep when the cars of the rich are parked on pedestrian walkways or occupy a quarter of the road. The residents of the colony where I am staying have more than one car, the colony premises is insufficient to house these signs of affluence, so the residents have got the government to grant them permission to park their vehicles on the road just outside the colony. This eats into a third of the road.
But the place where I am staying is not the only example of rich being able to subsidize and even legitimize their excesses, foregoing the greater good. Lata Mangeshkar, a hugely popular singer dubbed "the Nightingale of India", was opposed to a flyover that was to be built in front of her house. She and other affluent residents have helped to postpone construction of the 4-kilometer project since it was proposed 14 years ago. The Times of India reported that Karan Thapar, a well-known TV anchor, residing in one of Delhi's poshest residential areas was against the building of another flyover near his house.
Even on roads, pedestrians, scooterists, cyclists and users of public transport are given short shrift. Newspapers in Delhi recently reported that two cyclists die each day in road accidents, while pedestrians make up 44% of victims of road accidents in the city. The Bus Mass Transit System in Delhi, which had designated roads for buses, was opposed by car owners because of the jams in the car lanes caused by the large number of personal four-wheelers. Thus, today cars can zoom along on the roads meant for public transport.
A government truck delivers water to Usha and others in her locality. However, for those living in posh colonies there are overhead-tanks, private underground bore-wells and piped water supplied by the municipality. This picture is incongruent, but there is more lop-sidedness to it - the cock-eyed water usage.
One needs to first appreciate the direct link between size of house and water usage. The greater the floor area, the larger the quantities of water required to swab the place. Baths and toilets consume water, cars are washed daily with fresh water - n short, water-guzzling equipment is an integral part of these houses. According to a 2013 article by Vishwanath in The Hindu, "high-income households tend to consume 250 litres (per head and above) and sometimes as high as 600 litres. Many homes on the other hand make to do with as little as 40 litres per person per day."
The Delhi government charges for those consuming up to 10 kiloliters per month is 66.55 rupees (US$1.10) plus a volumetric charge of 2.66 rupees per kiloliter and a sewer maintenance charge of 60% of water volumetric charge which is common to all levels of users. The charges for those consuming between 20-30 kiloliters per month is 199.65 rupees plus a volumetric charge of 19.97 per kiloliter.
Is Usha getting water brought to her in a tanker got more to do with a section of people consuming more than their fair share because they can afford to do so? Or is it because these people are not paying enough for the quantum of water they are consuming? Besides the water consumption, is the pollution caused by it - the greater the volume of dirty water generated, the greater the pollution it causes.
The only simile to explain such a skewed situation is of someone divvying up slices of pizza who cuts a larger portion for their own self because the cutter is in her/his hands. So what we have is a situation where a few get a larger share of the pie not only because they can afford it but also because they are able to tap into benefits not meant for them, a form of second wind that ensures they maintain their socio-economic lead.
In other cases, because they are consuming a larger portion of the pie there is not much left over and what is left over may be sub-standard. The former is a direct subsidy being grabbed by the haves. In the latter case, it is an indirect subsidy being delivered by the majority have-nots to the minority haves. The reason is simple: the majority are incapable of demanding a fairer share of the pie which is theirs by law.
So how right is it to say that subsidies make the poor dependent? Aren't the rich subsidizing their affluent existence by sipping from the cup not meant from them, who use their power to maintain this ability to sup at a table they are not invited to even as they remain unaccountable?
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Samir Nazareth is a social commentator. He is the author of the soon to be released travelogue 1,400 bananas, 76 towns and 1 million people.