Just ahead of the annual spectacle of India’s cultural heritage and military prowess displayed on the capital’s Rajpath, ominous visuals of shards of shattered glass panes of a school bus in Gurugram (Gurgaon) with terrified children crouching on its floor posed vital questions as to whether the Republic of hope was indeed descending to be a republic of hate and fear.
As “We, the people” recall the tryst country made on 26 January sixty-eight years ago, it has a lot to rejoice over its gains. Equally, it needs to ponder over much that has gone awry. The country is self-adulating: little does it realize that progress is not measured merely in terms of GDP graphs or BOP tables. What did swaraj mean for the common folk ~ a life of dignity, free from want, with roti, kapda, and makaan, free from fear of the daroga and patwari, and those who exploit and extort. The country awakes with a daily staple of gory happenings ~ gruesome crimes, medieval era deeds, nasty and brutish, uninhibited vigilante groups running amuck, young men making away with ATMs, Bollywood style, other gun-toting characters instantly pulling the trigger at any trivial altercation, not to ignore sickening, recurring tales of rape and ravages.
The endless chatter of GDP growth misses the cardinal aspect of the country’s cherished idealism and vision, societal values of civility, gentleness and concern for each other. In his address on the eve of Republic Day, President Ram Nath Kovind emphasised the values that citizens must maintain to respect co-citizens’ space, privacy and rights. The choices made between doing what is right versus what is convenient ring an alarm bell. The critically hurt and bleeding on the roadside, needing instant help, are ignored by passers-by who just shrug or, worse, shoot videos on smartphones. Macho disorderliness descends upon us in queues ~ at the airport, or to get into a bus or an elevator, or anywhere.
It can be conceded that pockets of the country have had material gains; people are living longer and are better-fed. Yet in real terms, the glass remains more than half-empty. After our twelve Plans and countless promises, India is home to one-third of world’s absolute poor. Thousands of debt-ridden farmers are driven to committing suicide. The Republic is betrayed by the schism of castes, sub-castes, tribes, communities, regions, religions, languages, splintered into ethnic and communal divisions, socio-economic disparities. Large swathes of the land, hundreds of districts, that have for years beyond the writ of the state, have been driven by exploitation of Adivasis and tribals to the Maoist fold.
The annual Oxfam survey report, Reward Work, Not Wealth, released in January at the World Economic Forum, revealed that India’s richest 1 per cent grossed 73 per cent of the wealth generated in 2017, while the wealth of the poorest half of Indians ~ some 670 million ~ rose by only 1 per cent. The country’s growth has a ‘missing middle’. The WEF (January 2018) ranked India 62nd among emerging economies on the Inclusive Development Index, much below China’s 26th position and Pakistan’s 47th. Of the three parameters which determine the Index, India ranks 72nd for inclusion, 66th for growth and development, and 44th for inter-generational equity.
We like to believe nice things about ourselves ~ a kind of collective mythomania. We hold the teaching profession in reverence, yet we kill a teacher who says no to cheating. We give our parents a pedestal just short of godhead but countless cases occur of old parents being dispossessed and cheated. We respect womanhood as nothing short of Mother but cases abound of rape and other crimes against women, shameful treatment of the girl child (in embryo and after birth). A young nation, India has long been ruled by a tangled web of archaic laws. The country’s civil service, a leviathan with immense power, remains obese and bloated, parasitic, alienated from aam aadmi.
Democracy in an ugly way has also extracted its own price. The criminals are no longer condemned by the collective consciousness. They saunter with impunity as cartels of exploitation. The sanctity of Parliament and State legislatures has turned into sanctimony. More often than not, parliamentarians are seen sneering, shouting, shoving and shoeing than discussing and legislating. Sybaritic lifestyles infatuate men and women in power. Antithetical of an egalitarian democracy, the virus of VIP/VVIP culture rages unabated. Security likewise is another well-contrived paranoia to commandeer commandos, a veritable status symbol.
We deluded ourselves that we are intellectually up there with the best in the world till
an OECD-conducted Programme for International Student Assessment of 15-year school children had Indian students scoring second from the bottom, only ahead of Kyrgyzstan, among half a million students from 73 countries. Although there are more children in schools today, they are now learning less. As per an Annual Survey of Education, only 48 per cent of Class 5 children are able to read a Class 2 text, and less than 30 per cent of those in Class 3 can do a 2-digit sum. The country that once feared a ‘population bomb’ now celebrates its ‘demographic dividend’. But it also faces a serious dearth of employable engineers and technicians, teachers and nurses.
Like education and skills, health has been a dismal story. The shameful toll of children at a Gorakhpur hospital ~ no isolated incident ~ signifies callous and inept management of health services. As many as 130 million Indians have no access to basic health care. The number of physicians per 1,000 population for the world is 1.5; for India it is 0.6; the number of hospital beds per 1,000 in India is 0.9, much lower than the world average of 3.3. And where the meagre wherewithal exists, it is poorly maintained. Almost 2 million children die in India before reaching their first birthday. More than a third of its children are stunted at the tender age of two years.
The nation showcases a grand paradox. It has handled with distinction highly complex tasks ~ for example, the decadal census of 1.2 billion people, elections for over 800 million eligible voters; launching satellites, earning kudos for its software prowess, but its abysmal record of doing simple things is astonishing. This relates to providing basic public services ~ sanitation, water supply, health and education. The Ganga is ever so filthy, in spite of decades of promises to clean it. Hallowed heritage sites are exploited and encroached upon; parks are ruined and wildlife poached; public land is grabbed. The capital city’s potholes and manholes take a toll of countless innocent lives. Investments are poured into public utilities and infrastructure services; they become leaking buckets, bottomless pits. For transient expediency, state governments constantly choose to forsake their rajdhama, bending before mobs on rampage, be it for eking out a job and education reservation quotas, or ban on a film.
With clear expectation, the nation cries out for a bout of introspection…which Prime Minister Modi must heed. Why must he not ensure deterrent action against an assortment of obscurantists ~ myriad vigilante goons, self-styled gau rakshaks, those who lynch people for eating beef or love jihad, and those responsible for nasty, atavistic manifestations of intolerance? They vitiate the environment and injure social harmony, divert attention from the development agenda. Modi opposed some of the more extreme manifestations of sectarian ideology, calling for “toilets not temples”, “development not deity.” There is need for a statesman-like initiative to seek societal convergence and build vital consensus on some seminal issues of cardinal national importance.
The writer is Senior Fellow, Asian Institute of Transport Development, and former CMD, Container Corporation of India