There is tiredness with the imperfection, inefficiency and slowness of this large democracy called India. At times one has caught a fairly strong strand of disbelief especially amongst the young in the audience as Amartya Sen reiterates why democracy is good for our economic growth. The unwieldy and corrupt bureaucracy can not seem to get anything implemented and the political system continues to announce one ambitious scheme after another. Many of us often think to ourselves that if only there was one honest soul who could wield the stick, India would be right up there and shining.
Precisely my thought as I contemplated this problem of why despite so much pressure from the international community, we are not able to achieve 100% coverage for Polio drops. Many backward countries have done a better job than us and have eradicated this disease. Wherever Polio reappears in the globe, embarrassingly often the strain can be traced back to backward parts of UP or Bihar – the usual culprits.
The administration along with UNICEF seems to have multiplied its effort to achieve complete coverage. In Bihar, the booth system has been abandoned in favour of door to door, where the team goes to each and every household, often repeatedly, to ensure that each child below five is administered the drops. The supervisor and other members of the primary team are generally locals, so they mostly know how many children there are in each household and as I saw they are a difficult bunch to evade. On this count one can vouch for a fair level of sincerity in the effort. There is a fairly fool proof plan in place, with two or three rounds of mopping up operations to ensure that no household is missed out. There are senior level teams to cover households which the first level team has not been able to convert –mainly those who have refused to take the drops. So senior level officials along with the local powers that be, personally visit these households in a bid to convert them.
Who are these people who refuse the drops? Who would refuse to give their children the benefit of immunization which comes free to their doorstep and why would they do that? Is it because they don’t understand the benefit or is it because the immediacy of the threat of the disease has receded? Or is it because of some conspiracy theory that has gained momentum? The profile of the pockets of resistance is nothing unusual – it is generally the poorest, most backward caste; illiterate, often Muslim. It is the most underprivileged bunch which often resides literally and metaphorically on the fringes in rural India; and in the unsanitary slums in urban areas. As one of the village heads explained to me –“They are junglee jaati.” Which was meant to be decoded as ‘They don’t count.’ He was probably right. They are so peripheral that they don’t count in any equation. The poorest of the poor in any country rarely do.
However, my job demanded, that I find out from them, why they have been so resistant to the efforts of a fairly dedicated team, which comes to their doorstep repeatedly every other month. In fact they have become the subject of investigation and several high level people have made trips to their doorstep to persuade them. So they were asked why did they not want to take the drops – did they not trust the quality of the drops or had nobody explained to them why it was important to take it every time? The spokesperson of the resisting community cleared their collective stand on this issue – “We do not have a problem with the drops. But if you really want to know why we don’t take the drops; ask the councilor. It is between him and us.” And suddenly their seemingly senseless act of self destruction, did not seem like that anymore. By refusing to take the drops, they had opened up a forum for themselves, where they could not only register their protest but also leverage attention and action from the local powers that be on long pending issues. The underprivileged has learnt how to bring the administration on bended knees to their door step and to force them to attend to issues which otherwise would have fallen on deaf ears. This is how the lowest strata bargain for their rights.
Would this bargaining chip need to exist if we had establishment which was on a moral high ground mandating that everybody line up outside a booth and partake of the polio drops? The weakest instinctively seem to know when they have the power to upset the apple cart. Perhaps long experience in electoral politics have honed their instincts to spot these opportunities. Even though they might be an obscure, backward community; estranged from the mainstream – they know that they can single handedly make not only India, but the world lose the battle against Polio. Balance of power? Perhaps. God works in strange ways and democracy in even stranger ones.