In the 1959 film Anari, there is a scene where the simpleton-hero played by Raj Kapoor is working in a restaurant kitchen. He finds a cockroach in the large pot of daal and he tries to throw it away. But his employer fires him and says, ‘If there is a cockroach in the daal, you don’t throw the daal away, only the cockroach’!
Indian children up and down the country have been fed mid-day meals with entire zoos of worms, insects, lizards, cockroaches sprinkled with insecticides. Chhapra was just an extreme case which drew our attention to this widespread practice just as the Delhi gangrape case had highlighted the struggles in the daily lives of women. The sarkar mai-baap can be as negligent as a stranger passing by. After all, the purpose of all such state-funded programmes is not primarily to deliver the good or service, but to allow middlemen and women to enrich themselves.
The question arises why is the Indian State so bad at performing the tasks it sets for itself? In their recent book, Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen point out the importance of education and health, but they pin their hope on the State to deliver. They know that the Indian State has failed to deliver these items not just for the past 20 years of neo-liberalism, but even during the halcyon days of Nehru-Gandhi socialism. The first 40 years of development had high ambition for steel mills and dams and machines to build machines, and not primary education or health. It created IITs and IIMs for the elite jobs it was creating.
The Indian State can deliver a nuclear bomb and launch satellites but not universal primary education or decent public health. This is not an accident. It is a choice made by the elite who have been in power for 60 years and reflects their values. Indian progressives love to talk about socialism but what they mean by it is very different from what it means in the West. Western socialism used the State to help poor masses. Indian socialists used the State to project elite power.