“I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, recall the face of the poorest and the most helpless man whom you may have seen and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he be able to gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to ‘Swaraj’ or self-rule for the hungry and also spiritually starved millions of our countrymen? Then you will find your doubts and yourself melting away ~ Mahatma Gandhi
Pictures of countless of our hapless labourers trying to get back to their villages after losing work and livelihood due to the Covid lockdowns, starkly exposed how far we had strayed from Gandhi’s dream of ‘wiping away every tear from every eye’. The dried-up tears and stifled cries were always there but in their quest for material progress our ‘aspirational’ classes had chosen to ignore them. Desperate families trudging along roads and railway lines showed like nothing else that the economic policies we had adopted in the last half a century were wrong.
After 42 years in public service, I feel responsible, and even guilty, for the wrong choices made by our nation which have taken us farther and farther awayfrom the goals of social justice and creating an egalitarian society. As a government officer and subsequently as member of a Constitutional body, it would have been inappropriate for me to comment on the government’s policies.
After I retired from the UPSC in August 2020, I started writing on various socio-economic issues, which we as a nation had mishandled woefully. I have been troubled by the many ills we have created for ourselves. What was most worrying was that even our intelligent people were engaged in writing and discussing fringe issues, while a huge crisis involving our education, health, shelter, employment, and social justice policies was looming just below the horizon.
The challenge is huge but it is also clear that our native knowledge and intellect alone must produce radically positive outcomes. Our entrenched values have always dictated that being socially responsible, compassionate, sincere, non-acquisitive, honest and truthful are not signs of weakness, they are the very essence of being human. In our quest for material progress, machismo and chauvinism became dominant traits and we somehow forgot the simple dictum which had historically defined us.
Following the path of righteousness is the only talisman that will save us from the slippery slope we are confronting. Countless of our unfortunate migrant labourers died on roads and rails. This, however, did not jolt us out of our reverie. We had learnt to ignore the blank eyes, tears, hunger and silent cries of the teaming masses who worked in our homes, at construction sites and small industrial units.
So, we remained apathetic to the plight of the millions as they moved out of our urban centres to an uncertain future in their villages. The shocking irony was that they were crying for having lost their miserable existence in towns and cities, where they lived in shanties and hovels, having unclean water and food, working long hours in unhygienic and inhuman conditions of work.
The private health system showed itself up for what it was – a commercial enterprise which looked upon the pandemic as a business opportunity. Overcharging and black marketing for hospital beds and medicines respectively was the order of the day. People lost their life’s savings caring for their dear ones while countless children were taken away from schools because the parents could barely feed them.
Online education, apart from being a poor substitute for schooling was in any case out of reach for children who not only did not have smart phones, tablets and computers but also had no internet connectivity in large parts of our country. These distressing developments were not caused by Covid. No, they were shown up by Covid, in all their frightful magnitude. Pictures of innumerable funeral pyres, floating bodies, people dying breathless and schools losing students by the thousands was indeed frightful. It was in plain sight that the country had failed its citizens on every socio-economic parameter. Yet, till recently we were talking about them as our human capital, our population dividend!
At some time in the last four to five decades we stopped recognising that human resources were as important as capital and raw material to run an enterprise and it was a false narrative that only promoters, investors and share holders had an inherent claim over the profits. Skill development and building partnership with workers was not required, after discrediting their trade unions! The fact that taxation is not ‘redistribution of wealth’ but ‘just compensation’ and ‘reimbursement’ for society’s contribution to creation of wealth was suppressed under a false narrative that the rich were entitled to preferential treatment because they were intelligent and hard working, unlike the poor who were stupid and lazy.
Our public policy, instead of focussing on alleviation of poverty and deprivation; inequality and disparity in literacy, mortality and nutrition etc. has been creating conditions for concentration of wealth into the hands of a few, while eroding not only the rightful claims of the masses but also their purchasing power. The model was eventually bound to destroy the economy. A lot has been written about the political system and how elections are the root cause for corruption, etc. For all its ills our democratic system based on universal adult franchise has worked.
The Constitution was written by wise men and women, who had experienced long years of colonisation, and incorporated various checks and balances to ensure that we were not subjugated again either from outside, or, more importantly, from forces within. The people were to elect their representatives, through whom they would rule, never looking for a benign ruler. Over the years, however, there has been abdication of responsibility by leaders and institutions, which have outsourced decision making to the very interest groups who would benefit from the policies ~ be it economic policy, IT, health, education, agriculture, media, infra development and, one daresay, even foreign relations, national defence and strategic affairs.
The economic indicators we use are misleading. The most widely used indices hide the disparity in incomes and the gulf between the rich and the poor. Economists are now talking about a ‘K shaped’ post-covid recovery, meaning that while India will go up, Bharat will go down; the overall indices will, however, continue to show a growing GDP. So, have we finally given up on the charade of the ‘trickle-down theory’ or ‘the big wave lifting up the small boats’?
It is now okay for industrial workers, farmers, labourers, mid level doctors, engineers, teachers to keep getting pushed down the economic ladder, while the rich keep amassing wealth. Our educated middle class who should have been questioning this wrong narrative, have got lulled by unsavoury levels of consumerism and are busy teaching themselves to remain disengaged from the reality. They remain entertained, stay in gated colonies and, apart from ostentatious living and conspicuous consumption, invest their surplus incomes in overseas assets.
(The writer is a former Chairman, Union Public Service Commission)