Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

The price of Partition was paid in the hope that two brothers would divide only to come together as friends and partners. That hope has been blighted for years.

India At 62

India’s plurality finds expression in its secular and democratic ethos that has withstood constant buffeting.

By B G Verghese

For Swagat, September 2009

India is an ancient and unbroken civilisation but a relatively new state. August 15, 1947 was a historic moment as a fifth of mankind came into its own. Unlike the West, India uniquely adopted democracy as the instrument rather than the end product of a socio-economic revolution. Many scoffed. Yet India completed its 15th general election last May. Over 60 per cent of a 715 million electorate voted to return yet another democratic, reformist government to office with a Sikh prime minister, Hindu Opposition leader, Christian chair of the ruling coalition, a scheduled caste chief justice, a woman President and supreme commander of the armed forces as well as a woman scheduled caste Speaker, a tribal Deputy Speaker, a Muslim Vice-President and, until June, a Parsi chief of air staff.

It was not through happenstance that India chose democracy. The country has by and large always rejoiced in its unparalleled diversity through accommodation of different faiths, languages, races and cultures to create new patterns of composite culture and interdependence. The leaders of the nationalist struggle realised that India’s unity would only endure if its diversity was not merely accepted but celebrated.

India’s plurality finds expression in its secular ethos despite rude buffeting, in its dedication to affirmative action to ensure an ever more inclusive society, in a layered federalism to encompass manifold identities, and in the access and participation it allows through a constitutionally mandated structure of regional autonomy and affirmative action. A third tier of grassroots governance, Panchayati Raj, is slowly maturing and can only grow stronger as it takes firmer root.

The political map of India has undergone spectacular change over these past 62 years.  The Integration of States was a monumental essay in nation-building after the so-called lapse of paramountcy. Over five hundred princely states acceded to and were merged in the Union and then reorganised linguistically in 1956-57. Amendments and additions followed. The process continues, with the creation of smaller districts and more (national extension) blocks, the basic unit of development.

According to Gandhiji, Independence would not be fully won until the tear was wiped from every eye. To him, God came to the hungry in a loaf of bread and hence freedom should mean freedom from want. India is only part way towards that goal. Almost 20 per cent of the population still lives on a dollar a day and maybe a little more than double that number on no more than two dollars a day. Billionaires have grown but so has malnutrition. Famine is a thing of the past but agricultural growth needs acceleration to outstrip population growth and meet enhanced calorific requirements. Crop diversification, productivity increases and improved rain fed agriculture are indicated, along with a whole new regime of water an energy management to meet the uncertainties of climate change and the challenge of low carbon growth.

Over the past 62 years, the country has moved from a permit-license raj to a less regulated and more market-oriented economy, from self reliance to a trading regime. The once-derided “Hindu rate of growth” has over the past decade clipped along at around 8.5 per cent and only been depressed by the current global recession. But the economy should soon turn around and return to a high growth path. If this is achieved, per capita incomes could double in ten years and poverty substantially mitigated by 2020.

The last few decades have seen the Government and Supreme Court acting in concert to introduce a rights-based approach to the eradiation of poverty. The right to life has been interpreted to mean the right to livelihood and a life of dignity. The rights and interests of women, dalits and tribals have been sought to be encompassed and enhanced and a number of basic needs programmes introduced that endeavour to guarantee rights to information, health, education, employment and food. The Right to Information Act has empowered the lowly citizen, as transparency entails accountability. A Food Security Act will guarantee every family a minimum ratio of subsidised grain per month. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan aims to universalise primary education, from which the target is shifting to universalisation of secondary education. The national rural health mission similarly seeks to uplift health. Grassroots insurance and pensions have been introduced for the poor and aged. Crowning these is the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) launched a few years ago under which households are guaranteed one hundred days of asset-building manual employment in the off season at just below officially-determined minimum wage rates. This is a flagship programme with a number of significant spin-offs that must be seen against the background of the immense employment challenges confronting the nation, with a need to add 12 million jobs per annum to keep abreast of net growth in the labour market.

This is obviously the outcome of the phenomenal growth in population since 1947. Numbers have almost quadrupled since then and will only stabilise 40 years hence at around 1650-1700 million. There has been a huge demographic surge, but a demographic transition has set in the southern, western and northern states but not in the east-central poverty belt which is a major source of out-migration to other parts of the country.

Another major demographic shift is evident in growing urbanisation and the emergence of large conurbations. Although India is now only about 30 per cent urban it will be predominantly urban by 2040-50, with some states attaining that status earlier. This not merely reflects more rapid industrial growth but increasing pressure on the land and declining man-land ratios. The land can no more provide for so many and a great many farmers, given the chance, would like to lease out or sell their lands (to others wanting to make an economic holding) and use the income to educate their children for a better life or migrate to the city in search of work.

These cross currents of empowerment, migration and assertion of identity represent an ongoing trend manifested by a continuous and growing upwelling from below as ever larger cohorts of hitherto deprived, disempowered and excluded masses graduate out of traditional “Bharat” into a modernizing India. This movement is boisterous, impatient and uneven but it represents tremendous energy with urgent expectations of access, participation and change. So, to remain stable, India must change.

Such basic theorems of India’s social dynamics are regrettably little understood and so what is witnessed is often viewed with alarm and dismay. Thus, there is concern over the rise of “regional” parties and of coalition politics. This, however, merely reflects the accommodation of vibrant “entrants” from Bharat in processes of decision-making and governance in the newly emerging India. Contrary to widely held belief, India is today far more democratic and stable than it was in Nehru’s time. This is not a criticism but a tribute to the country’s first prime minister.

Finally, the past 62 years have seen India move from non-alignment to engaging the world as an emerging power in what will be an Asian Century. This is something Nehru foresaw when he convened the Asian Relations Conference in Delhi in March 1947. Yet there was a certain bias towards the Soviet bloc perhaps because the Communist powers were sympathetic to the concerns and aspirations of these new nations. However, the West saw India as being on the side of the Soviet Union and therefore developed a “tilt” against it which was manifest as early as 1949 when India took the position it did on the Korean War. This resulted in what became a long term bias against this country on the part of the US and UK on the Kashmir issue and in favour of Pakistan, which had early on become an ally and “frontline state”.

Foreign policy became Kashmir-centric and India got hyphenated with Pakistan, obscuring its larger concerns and interests. The Kargil War marked a turning point when the world saw through Pakistan’s duplicity, which was subsequently underlined by its support to the Taliban and cross-border jihadi terror and its carefree nuclear proliferation through the machinations of the notorious Dr A.Q. Khan. India has hopefully shaken off that albatross around its neck and has begun to engage with the world in matters of economic development, global governance and security.

Most notably, relations with the United States have been transformed, with the Indo-US civil nuclear agreement ending a long period of nuclear apartheid and dual-use technology sanctions. It is looking East, engaging with China and is now at the high table in G-20.

India has changed greatly over these past 62 years. Much remains to be done to fulfill the dreams of the founding fathers and the solemn commitment to the cherished values enshrined in the Preamble to the Constitution. We have faltered and failed on many counts, but are now poised to move forward with redoubled vigour. India is an emerging power and must learn to exercise its “power” with due restraint, compassion and responsibility.

The price of Partition was paid in the hope that two brothers would divide only to come together as friends and partners. That hope has been blighted for years but  elements in Pakistan have begun to realize that it cannot forever remain India’s “other”, using Kashmir and Islam to define a hollow identity lacking positive content. India is not out to undo Pakistan and J&K can be shared by making boundaries irrelevant. Together, within SAARC a South Asian Community  could build great synergy for a better future for this region and the world.

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