By Swapan Dasgupta
There were facets of this year's Union Budget that were subjected to searing criticism in a country hungry for rapid growth and a better life. Income tax payers were disappointed that the exemption limit wasn't raised further; the health sector flayed the 'misery tax' on air-conditioning in hospitals; the National Advisory Council and NGOs tore into the freeze in welfare spending; and the Left mocked the concessions extended to the corporate sector. It was all very predictable and democracy as usual.
However, if the British media was the definitive guide to India, the most controversial feature of the Budget was the allocation of nearly Rs 178 crore to the Human Space Flight and Chandrayan missions—a provision that, at best, secured a footnote mention in India. Space travel is a "luxury" that India "cannot afford" lamented Stephen Glover in Daily Mail: it "should be spending less on defence and nothing on its space programme, and diverting more funds to the alleviation of poverty." Poverty will persist, declaimed Gerald Warner in a Daily Telegraph blog, "as long as the Indian Government indulges in a space programme while millions of its underclass sleep in the streets." To him, "more reprehensible than the financial cost…is the ISRO's monopolising of 1,000 scientists who could be engaged on work of more service to humanity."
Before xenophobes and professional "anti-imperialists" launch a star wars against perfidious Albion, some clarification may be in order. The average man on the Clapham omnibus doesn't give a toss for ISRO's grand plan to plant the tricolour on the moon. He is preoccupied (and understandably so) with high food prices, savage public spending cuts, the Duke of York's shenanigans and the Premier League. So for that matter is Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph—the authentic voices of Middle England. So, why this obsession with a space programme that may even have spin-off benefits for British companies?
Mammon is the villain. At a time the Britain is teetering precariously between recovery and bankruptcy, the Department of International Development has sanctioned £300 million (around Rs 2,190 crore) of its £2.9 billion budget for aid to India. Some 90 countries are to receive British government aid but India is the biggest beneficiary.
The outrage is understandable. Why, it is being asked, should the UK underwrite a country whose rulers love playing "space cadets", a country that boasts 69 dollar billionaires (compared to Britain's paltry 29), a country with a predicted 9 per cent GDP growth and a country that has its own overseas aid programme? Rather than Britannia playing Lady Bountiful, couldn't the money be better utilised in 'poverty alleviation' and employment generation schemes at home? After all, UK needs the £300 million more than does India.
The arguments are compelling and a restive House of Commons has despatched a dozen MPs from a Parliamentary Select Committee to travel to the boon docks to examine how the money is being spent on the ground. Is aid the euphemism for a gravy train of 'development consultants' and sanctimonious NGOs? Or, is British aid making a difference and "saving lives" in the four states where DfID programmes are operational? Will the withdrawal of £300 million of aid prompt the BBC to proclaim in a suitably quaking tone that India is faced with an impending "humanitarian disaster"?
What could make the task of the visiting delegation either easier or more difficult are two awkward facts. First, the £300 million constitutes less than one per cent the State and Union governments spend on health and welfare schemes. This makes the emotional claims of a special British role in preventing a Darfur in Darbhanga seem contrived, if not self-serving. Secondly—and this is something Britons burdened with post-colonial angst find unpalatable—India has clearly indicated it will be unmoved if the £300 million of British taxpayers' money is spent elsewhere. This doesn't indicate India's "ingratitude", as one Times columnist angrily suggested, but it does suggest realism and a rejection of a self-degrading entitlement culture.
There is something else the MPs must consider: the palliative role of aid. Both the proponents and opponents of British aid to India have used the debate to flay an imaginary opponent—the uncaring Indian elite obsessed with glitzy symbols of 'national pride'. The disgust may well be aesthetic but it is also laced with profound envy. The gloom and doom of Britain is being juxtaposed with the brashness of Indian resurgence. There is an emerging caricature of Indian fat cats overwhelming Oxford Street and buying up British companies. Aid gives some Britons a handle to look virtuous and feel superior.
India needn't react with prickliness but with the indulgence due to outbursts of gap year insolence. We too must learn to be grown up.