Sunday August 19, 2012
A sombre 65th birthday
By Coomi Kapoor
The mood at India’s independence day celebration reflects the citizens’ general sentiment. They’ve grown weary of empty promises that were hardly fulfilled since 1947.
ON Wednesday, India marked its 65th independence day with a low-key ceremony. The national mood was sombre. Ordinary Indians have only hazy memories of the heady days of the independence struggle leading to freedom from the British colonial masters. Existentialist issues coupled with endemic political and social troubles were uppermost on their minds. Despite tremendous economic progress, more Indians are now living below the poverty line than the entire population in 1947.
The 13th President of India Pranab Mukherjee, in his maiden address to the nation on the eve of the independence day, recalled the words of Subhash Chandra Bose, a freedom fighter who had said 74 years ago that the biggest challenge before the country was to wage war against poverty, illiteracy and diseases.
On all three fronts, however, only partial success was achieved in the past 65 years. Admittedly, literacy rate grew from a little over12% in 1947 to 74% last year, yet the total number of illiterates still continues to be high. Besides, a nodding acquaintance with the 3R’s, which is used to measure literacy, hardly made one literate. Women lag far behind men in literacy by nearly20%. Even now the school drop-out rate is nearly 80%, including those who have never gone to school despite free universal school education.
Being a relatively young nation with nearly two-thirds of the population below the age of 35, its quality of education is so poor that a vast majority of the graduates lack any useful skills that can prepare them for productive employment. They join the army of the unemployed or the low-paid unskilled labour force. Yet the Indian Institutes of Technology and other islands of academic excellence annually produce a sizable number of bright engineers, IT experts, mathematicians, managers, etc. to make an impact both on the domestic and global stage. This was not so 65 years ago.
As for poverty, there is no denying that in the 21st century, no Indian dies of starvation. But poverty and malnourishment continue to be huge problems, resulting in nearly 10 million children dying every year before the age of three. Healthcare, especially in rural areas, is hard to come by. Even in urban centres only the well-to-do can afford modern medicine, since government hospitals are poorly equipped and awfully crowded. The budget allocation for health is abysmally low, allowing private players to exploit healthcare for profits.
Mercifully, the country is now self-sufficient in food, growing enough to feed its people. But given the widespread poverty and huge disparities in income, very often food grains rot in government warehouses while the poor struggle for food.
However, the present government is engaged in putting in place a scheme whereby every poor family will be entitled to a monthly quota of highly subsidised food grains, including wheat and rice. The right-to-food legislation is likely to come soon for passage before Parliament.
Of course, the country has made strides in various spheres, becoming a $1.8trillion (RM5.6trillion) economy. But progress has been uneven and patchy. India now has a number of “dollar-billionaires” but it also contains the largest number of poor when compared with other countries in the world.
If India’s richest industrialist is known to have built himself the most expensive mansion anywhere in the world, a few metres from it live tens of thousands of poor in ramshackle shanty towns. Mumbai, the most cosmopolitan city in India, houses nearly three-quarters of its over 15 million population in slums or shanty-towns with nominal facilities such as toilets, water and electricity.
Without doubt, India could have made faster progress had its politicians stuck to the straight and narrow path of public morality. Even if not all previous politicians were angels, there has been a sharp decline in the moral fibre of the entire political class across the board in recent decades. Naked pursuit of power propelled by having no consideration for public weal or morality has spawned corrupt and non-performing governments in the states. The reason may be that for the first two decades after independence, the Congress Party exploited its predominant position to deny power to all other political formations.
After the death of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1964, the decline of the Congress Party caused it to adopt short-cuts to retain power. Rival parties followed suit, leading to a general decline in political morals. Most political parties are now tarred with the brush of corruption and criminality, with ordinary Indians having lost respect for their leaders. Now, extraneous factors such as caste, creed, even money and muscle power dictate electoral outcomes.
It is a paradox of our times that a prime minister like Manmohan Singh, who is widely acknowledged as financially clean, is accused by the Opposition of heading one of the most corrupt governments in free India.
Due to the outcry against mounting corruption and sleaze, two parallel anti-corruption movements by non-politicians have found traction in recent weeks. The Gandhian, Anna Hazare, has fasted repeatedly in the capital in support of his demand for a powerful anti-corruption ombudsman.
Only last week, the popular Yoga guru Baba Ramdev sat on a three-day fast in New Delhi, demanding that the government took concrete steps to bring back illicit billions stashed away by Indians in secret bank accounts in various tax havens abroad.
India has made huge strides since 1947. However, given the size of its population and unfulfilled aspirations of more than a third of the people, unless economic and social progress gathers pace, disaffection would spread.
It was never easy to govern India. But it had become doubly difficult in recent years, given the rise in aspirations and the deepening of the democratic process which has made ordinary Indians aware of their social and economic rights. Yet, on a positive note, one can boldly say that despite all odds, India has held together these past 65 years and is likely to do so for another 65.