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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 35

India at 60: Justice Still Delayed

by Razia Ismail Abbasi

Saturday 18 August 2007


As independent India turns the page to 60, speeches and fireworks and flag-hoistings galore mark the anniversary. A flood of euphoric words and music generated by the State, Media, and merchants, will echo for a while. The Prime Minister’s hesitant voice is on record with some renewed affirmations of India’s resolve to stand tall, and to take its place among world leaders. But India at 60 needs to take stock of facts on the ground: they continue to challenge any claim of genuine progress achieved. As long as most of our people lack the basics of survival and dignified livelihood, neither the air-conditioned nor the body-guarded among us can justify a celebration. Without the presence of the ‘aam aadmi,’ there is no party, and the balloons are wasted.

In the week before 15th August, and to the day, at every traffic light in the nation’s Capital, ragged little children peddled paper flags. Some of us bought; most of us did not. Perhaps the question flitted through our thoughts: why are barefoot children, with women in tatters trailing in their wake, working the intersections today, to make a few paise? This is India 2007, poised to become a knowledge economy, already basking in a great growth rate, signing ‘123’ deals with Big Brother. If anything has preoccupied us during the commemorative rites of passage this month, it is the US ‘viral’ affecting the Sensex. Certainly not the deep malaise afflicting socio-economic justice for the unwashed millions.

It is indeed an incredible India that we see around us at this moment of remembrance and renewal.

When counting the years from 1947 till today, one therefore realises that there are some other ‘sixties’ that we need to examine. At a recent seminar on malnutrition—and why do we still need to have seminars on this subject?—the information was shared that more than 60 per cent of the world’s hungry are in India. And not as tourists. This is quite a feat when the economy is booming. Perhaps it is booming somewhere else, not where the hungry are foregathered. Whose job has it been to see these people fed?

Sixty years ago, 20 rupees in the pocket was quite reassuring. Today, for the cola generation, it buys a bottle of Pepsi. For someone else, it pays for about 250 ml. of cheap cooking oil, or not quite two kilograms of ‘atta’ flour or rice, and not even a kilogram of pulses. These are reality costs of daily life for at least 77 per cent of us. The people who manage to exist on 20 rupees a day are not in the IT industry, not even swabbing the floors in Bangalore’s glass houses. They are in the latest report of the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), gauging what is happening in employment. The government has been quick to point out that these hapless people are “not BPL”: they are above the 12-rupee level set for being below that line. Wonderful for them. The NSSO’s 61st round survey shows that some 15.4 per cent are between the BPL mark and the 20-rupee mark, and also reveals about 6.4 per cent somehow staying alive at less than nine rupees a day. These people at the very bottom would have about 45 rupees a day on which to provide for a household of five. Someone luckier than they could buy a large bottle of Pepsi.

After 60 years, we are importing wheat. The Wal-Mart stores chain is preparing for its India landing. Marks and Spencers has already settled in. What was that half-forgotten point in the past six decades when we proudly reported our self-reliance in consumer goods, and were lauded for our gains in foodgrain production ? Along with all the mounting instances of Indian Railways tumbling off poorly-tended tracks, something else has got derailed. There is a simple litmus test for economic and developmental decisions: it is livelihood security of the common citizen. This hinges on income security, provision of basic services, and the dignity of being. If the 1-2-3 of ‘roti, kapda aur makaan’—and implicitly, of employment and identity—cannot be assured, we have forgotten the deal we made with the people 60 years ago, and repeatedly since then. This, more than any nuclear agreement, is the core pact on which India’s future hangs.

INDIA’S vital statistics show, as they have for years, that more than 60 per cent of those who die in India do so in their first month of life. This may come as welcome news to the family planning half of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, since it is one way of reducing population, but it should serve to indict the ‘health’ half of the Ministry. What have we been up to, for 60 years? A part of the answer lies in the fact that the Union Budget allocation for health is still to touch one per cent of the GDP. On what do we measure the building of a nation, if not the graph of well-being of its people?

Well-being is of course not merely material or physical. The growth of a nation, the progress of a society, depend critically on access to knowledge, on the acquisition and application of skills and competencies. The NSSO report finds a correlation between being poor and being illiterate. Being unlettered does not equate to being unskilled, but clearly a gap exists between occupations and related incomes that require literacy or do without it—and the shifts in the employment market demand. Gandhi stressed the value of ‘Nai Talim’, or basic education. Nehru spoke wisely of the need for our people to develop a scientific temper. Today, Dr Abdul Kalam’s parting message has been a reminder of his contemporary perspective of the same vision of knowledge as the key to the door. The National Knowledge Commission is recommending urgent attention to vocational education and training, and to better connectivity of skills development and job-market require-ments, as much as to formal schooling. But this anniversary year calls for an audit even more than for forward planning. Plans are easy to draft.

Enlightenment does not come by the turning on of a switch. What is the investment and dividend story of our 60 years? The Constitution of India set out only one time-bound goal: to provide free and compulsory schooling to all children up to the age of 14 years, by 1965. Our founding fathers correctly valued learning, not only as a matter of justice, but as a transformative input to development. Fifteen years on, the target year went by with more than half the country’s children nowhere near a school-room. The goal has still not been met. Notwithstanding many committees, and commissions, and their recommendations, India has not moved to invest in this critical component of change and growth. Having now declared the right to education as a fundamental right, we are still to enact legislation that would make this a reality for even the 6 to 14 age group. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) masquerades as an ‘education for all’ programme, but doles out unequal levels of education opportunity to the haves and the have-nots. The call of eminent educationists like Anil Sadgopal for the institution of at least common school standards of quality and substance go unheeded.

Yes, something has been done to increase the number of schools overall, and to improve what is called “retention.” But, tracking the impact of schooling over two years, the Pratham-ASER reports on children’s education (2005, and 2006) have revealed that even though the proportion of children enrolling in school and staying on for five years has edged up in recent times, the learning achievement of children who have competed the five-year primary phase of education is abysmally poor. The teachers cannot teach, the children do not learn. Who is bothered?

The UPA’s National Common Minimum Programme (NCMP) has made rather confused commitments to both primary/elementary and higher education, but at least it reflects recognition of a longstanding default. What influence it will exert on the Eleventh Five-Year Plan is unclear. But the declaration of priorities in 2007 hardly constitutes a passing mark for the 10 Plans that have already come and gone.

The NSSO report affirms that 90 per cent of the people who are grindingly poor are casual workers. The first findings of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS) underline that 86 per cent of the total workforce have no social security net to protect them—and these are the people who live on the shameful 20 rupees a day. Not surprisingly, 79 per cent of unorganised sector workers, 88 per cent of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes population, 80 per cent of the OBCs, and 84 per cent of the Muslims, fall in the new listing of the most poor and vulnerable people of India. The government will take shelter behind the National Commission’s finding that recent decades have witnessed a fall in those who are below the official BPL line; but what will it say of the fact that the numbers in this in-between category of poor and vulnerable have gone up? And what will history say of the fact that we have kept on shifting the Poverty Line in order to diminish the numbers below it?

Some people call this the divide between ‘India” and ‘Bharat’. What lies in the divide? What could bridge it? Meanwhile, who clambers out, and in what frame of mind?

And what is the fallout of such neglect? Why should the children of the least-served be satisfied? Why should these so-called deprived sections of our people not protest? Yet in their own way, in their own time, these marginal survivors have the potential to be change-makers. Which way might their thoughts be drifting? Towards an extension of resigned acceptance, towards grasping emerging opportunities—or to anger? Do they feel part of the knowledge economy, or of the boom? Are their jobs safe, and their children fed? Along with cerebral malaria, Naxalism is also in resurgence. Why? One could as well ask, why not? One of these days, the right to information may transmute into the right to aspiration. Between then and now, India’s decision-makers live on borrowed time.

THE tens of millions of ragged poor, too, will join in flying the tricolour, as they have done every year. They will be nowhere near the VIPs in their escorted cars, but they may well sense that it could be their day. They are, after all, the crowds for whom the VIPs, on such dates, turn up.
And there will still be incidents, somewhere or the other in the countryside, of Dalits being denied the honour of raising the flag. As there have always been. These men and women may be the notables among the Dalits who still cannot drink tea at the local tea-shop. We now have two separate National Commissions for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. We still have a somewhat separate India for Dalits. How has this shadow country been allowed to persist over 60 years?

There are other shadows to acknowledge. Tribal areas are no longer sanctuaries for tribal cultures, and the indigenous and forest people’s hold on natural resources is under threat. A domestic ‘globalisation’ is making inroads into their lives. In the fledgling Chhatisgarh, a State-backed ‘divide and rule’ initiative is under way. Is this nation-building?

The development achievement levels of SC and ST children lag behind those of others.

Looking back, the question arises: what could the state have more wisely done, and why did it not have the good sense to do it?
The map of India, as we know it today, came into being in pain and bloodshed. Yet it was born in a climate of pride and hope and dawning confidence in the future. Memories of that beginning seem to have faded from the official and political mind. The sentiments may yet persist in the hearts of ordinary people. It is so important for us to recall what we set out to be. And to pay homage to both the pain and the pride of how our 60 years began.

There is enough on record to keep us mindful of what we should value. When turbulence and killings began to convulse the Punjab as 1946 gave way to 1947, the province’s Prime Minister, Malik Khizr Hayat Tiwana, set up India’s first Public Relations Directorate to try and counsel the disturbed public on what really counted. A poster was published, to be put up on every wall: it portrayed the photograph of a man’s hand, with a very small child’s hand holding onto the man’s finger. It bore a single-line message: “In whatever you do, think of your child’s future.” It could not stop the conflict then. But afterwards, when calmer times began, and since then, in whatever we have done, did we pause to think of this? Did we ever measure progress by its impact on the young, and their prospects? For whom have we been building this country?

The attainment of 60 years qualifies one to senior citizenship. That stage of life is said to be a pleasantly rosy one, with the fruits and flowers of a lifetime of labour rewarding us all in durable plenty. It is also believed to be the stage of wisdom. We must be the exception to the rule. If we are to judge by results, there is scant evidence of wisdom in the past six decades.

An honest reading of our chronicle will also reveal the rise of inefficiency and of incompetence, the steady growth of corruption, and the fall of accountability. We are not short of hardworking and productive people; we find them in private enterprise. We have simply failed to construct and hold on to a framework of responsibility in governance, in which visible public good is the indicator of success. In quality terms, how did we let our leaders and influencers fall below the minimum mediocrity and integrity lines? Did we peak somewhere, at some point in the 60-year journey? Did we never pay enough attention?

We, as citizens, hardly use our flag to declare our personal ownership of nationhood and fealty. On anniversaries, we notice the tricolour as a formal symbol. There are even discouraging rules about who cannot fly the flag. It is interesting today to pause and recall its own story. Moving on from Pingali Venkayya’s original red and green design representing the two major communities of the country, the All India Congress Committee adopted the present three colours in 1931, with the saffron for courage, the white for truth and peace, and the green for faith and prosperity, and the ‘dharma chakra’ of Ashoka as the central symbol. Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan later provided his own interpre-tation: saffron denoting renunciation and detach-ment of leaders from material gains in life; white depicting enlightenment, lighting the path of truth to guide conduct; green symbolising our relation to the soil and plant life, on whose richness all other life depends. The Ashoka wheel signified movement, and stood for life, as opposed to stagnation. There may be schoolchildren who can recount some of this little history to us. Who else thinks of the moral lessons the flag calls out every time it flies? Perhaps some of the platitudes of this year’s commemorations will have reminded us. But we have to search for convincing signs of right thought or right conduct. With all the promise of 1947, it is a pity. Perhaps we, too, should be denied the right to hoist the noble tricolour.

Long years ago, India’s leaders spoke of wiping every tear from every eye. At this 60th milestone, do we have the guts to say this to the poor and the dispossessed? While awaiting some mythical trickle-down, have we become blind to the risk of fizzling out as one great people and one great nation? It takes clear vision, and hard work to sustain and construct the dream of India. At 60, are we asking ourselves where we are going, and why? What will we be able to ask, and answer, at the next jubilee moment? These are sad questions for a birthday. Someone has to ask them. n

The author is an activist for development and children’s rights. She currently serves on the Government of India’s National Coordinating Group on Children’s Rights, and the High-Powered Committee on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

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