Republic of contradictions

Over half of the world’s most polluted cities are in India. Because of the poor quality of air, 18,000 premature deaths occur each year in its metropolises.

Sixty three years ago, Dr B.R. Ambedkar spoke of the “life of contradictions” into which the Indian Republic would enter on January 26, 1950. He underlined the need for eliminating, at the earliest, the contradictions in the social and economic sphere lest they should imperil our political freedom and democracy. Were he to come alive today, he would be appalled to see the extent to which the contradictions have deepened and, that too during the period when the Republic saw one of the fastest growing economies in the world.

A report by the Naadi Foundation on Hunger and Malnutrition, which was released by the Prime Minister on January 11, 2012, has brought out that “59 per cent of the Indian children, between the age group of 0-5 years, have stunted growth, 42 per cent are underweight and 11 per cent suffer from wasting disease”. Every year, 13 lakh children die before reaching their first birthday, and about 55,000 women lose their life consequent upon birth-related complications.
Even now, as noted by the Unicef, in its report of 2009, 40 per cent of the world’s child marriages occur in India” and “about 47 per cent of Indian women in the age group of 20 to 24 years, covered by the survey, were found to have been married off before attaining the legal age of 18”. It is the socially and culturally sanctioned practices and not the provision of law that generally matter.
Many other recent reports prepared by reputed agencies, both national and international, have reminded us of the agonising reality that has continued to curl around the body politic of our Republic, and with which we have been dealing without much zeal or inner commitment.
The “human development index” value assigned to India in the 2011 report of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is substantially low. It is merely 0.547, and goes down further to 0.392 if the element of inequality is factored in. India’s overall rank is 134 amongst 187 countries covered by the report. Her position on “gender inequality index” is no less dismal; India is 129th in the list of 146 countries surveyed. When measured on the UNDP’s “multi-dimensional poverty index”, about 53 per cent of the total population of India would have to be reckoned as poor and living under distress.
It is primarily on account of this distress that in 2010 alone as many as 15,968 farmers and 28,152 self-employed persons in industry, trade and other professions committed suicide. The ever-increasing migrants to the major Indian cities are finding shelter only in the hell-hole of slums. About 38 million of them are afflicted with serious water-borne diseases. Over half of the world’s most polluted cities are in India. Because of the poor quality of air, 18,000 premature deaths and 1.7 crore cases of illness occur each year in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai.
What makes the above conditions all the more tragic is that they have persisted even when India is virtually witnessing a “Gilded Age” of nouveau billionaires and when luxury houses, posh malls and sprawling golf courses are sprouting like mushroom in its metropolises. India’s capital, Delhi, alone has been, on an average, adding about 1,000 motor vehicles on roads every day. The contradictions that the Republic is rearing are, indeed, unprecedented.
It is the poor governance capacity of our system as a whole that has badly let the Republic down. In this regard, bureaucracy has to share a major part of the blame. The Indian Civil Services, which constituted the steel frame of the administrative setup at the time of Independence, had justifiably earned the reputation of being the best in the world; otherwise how could a mere 1,000 members of the service effectively maintain law and order throughout the length and breadth of British India and also carry out such remarkable development projects as setting up of an extensive network of canal irrigation in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh? The remnants of this service and its successor, IAS, served the Republic well for the first few years of its life and played a prominent role in the integration of 562 princely states, rehabilitation of displaced persons and ushering in of the Green Revolution. But, due to the emergence of narrow politics of power and uncongenial social and cultural environment, the services started losing their verve, vitality and moral pie. They were soon overburdened with junk, and their interior spaces were infested with all types of pests.
Now, the Indian bureaucracy as a class is being labelled as obstructionist and venal. A Hongkong-based research group, named Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, in its report of January 2012, has rated this bureaucracy as “the worst in Asia”. That this appellation is not uncalled for can be seen from the fact that the 2011 report of the ministry of programme implementation itself shows that the delay in executing the plan projects would cost the public exchequer an additional amount of Rs 1.20 lakh crore.
The system of education in the Republic, too, has been marred by its unwholesome development. The recent data shows that 38 per cent of the doctors, 36 per cent of the Nasa technicians and 34 per cent of Microsoft employees working in the US are Indians and that they have mostly Indian educational background. But the other side of the system’s reality is that at present about two-thirds of universities and about 90 per cent of colleges are performing below average. In respect of school education, January 2012 report of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development regarding its International Student Assessment Programme has ranked Indian higher secondary students only better than those from Kyrgyzstan among 74 participating countries.
On its birthday, all the well-wishers of the Republic should ponder over what the future holds for her. Would her freedom, in view of social and economic contradictions that her system is engendering, be blown up, as apprehended by Ambedkar, or would she turn a new page in her life?
W.E. Channing, a famous unitarian preacher of the 19th century, had made a highly insightful observation about the manner in which a setup undergoes a fundamental transformation: “There are seasons, in human affairs, of inward and outward revolution, when new depths seem to be broken up in the soul, when new wants are unfolded in multitudes, and a new and undefined good is thirsted for. There are periods when the principles of experience need to be modified, when hope and trust and instincts claim a share with prudence in the guidance of affairs, when, in truth, to dare is the highest wisdom.”
I am not sure whether a season for inward and outward revolution has come for India, whether new depths would break up in her soul, whether a new and undefined good would be thirsted for by her, whether hope and trust and instinct would claim a share with her prudence and whether she would attain her highest wisdom by daring. But I have no doubt that unless the Indian Republic is soon visited by such a season of inward and outward revolution and she attains her highest wisdom by daring, she faces a bleak future and her contradictions and crudities would multiply and assume a more sinister form.

The writer is a former governor of J&K and a former Union minister

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