All that is old is not gold. But surely all that glitters is not gold either. The Bharatiya Janata Party will no doubt acknowledge that their vision of “India Shining” blinded them to the realities and struggles for survival of a vast number of Indians. Our policymakers are, once again, distancing themselves from poverty and its causes. In their euphoria about gross domestic product (GDP) growth rates and sensex figures, they deliberately ignore the consequences of endemic hunger and deprivation on the people. What is even more depressing is the fact that those who watch the growth rate are not even true to the paradigm they espouse. They consciously ignore the alarming figures of infant mortality, literacy, unemployment, and the per capita income of the poorest 30%. Growing inequalities contribute to angst. The battle lines are being drawn.
The strength of India in the 21st century will not be measured by GDP alone. If a prosperous India has to be shaped, it will be defined by its capacity to deliver basic needs to its poorest. India is a complex web, inexplicable by mere figures and numbers. We need to look back as much as we need to look forward. The burden from the past will influence our future.
In the debate on tradition and modernity, arguments in India have been skewed and rationalized. If one looks back at the previous century and asks what has mattered, the answer would not depend on whether some act or idea is modern or traditional, but whether it has been just, equal, compassionate and, above all, rational.
The last hundred years have been undoubtedly the Age of the Atom. Pitched between “science without humanity ” and “religion without compassion”, India has swung from one extreme to the other. The same people often advocate either extreme!! What determines scientific temper is not whether the issue is related to science, but that the approach is rational—whether it is Roop Kanwar’s sati, the atrocities on Dalits and minorities, the burning of brides, the rape of innocent women, or the jingoism of dropping bombs on ‘enemies’.
But, most important of all, the last century has seen the beginnings of the liberation of people from caste, class and gender atrocities. It has been a long haul from the time when all these groups were voiceless and isolated. The mere fact that acts of atrocities are reported is an acknowledgement of inequalities. The first step towards remedial action is the acceptance of the truth. It remains to be seen whether the coming century will build on this foundation.
The opportunities for real well-being are linked to questions of public ethics. If we were to see that hunger and poverty, however remote, are logically and irrevocably linked to our own choices, levels of consumption and development paradigms (special economic zones, displacement, suicides of farmers and weavers, polluting the stratosphere), we will also make better choices, not merely on an objective profit and loss account. We will go beyond the tinsel of irrelevant and frivolous front page news about marriages and kisses to look at the graver issues.
There are two current myths that need serious examination. The first is that the economists have scientific answers and know best. The second is what the news and media now project—that people are largely mindless absorbers of glitter. Both these insult the intelligence of people.
Economics is not mathematics, it is more interpretative than absolute. Every economic argument has a counter argument. The power behind economic positions is determined by political ideology, the backing of power, money—sometimes ill-begotten—and a variety of motivations. The tragedy is that this group, which prides itself on its objectivity, has become the new God. Opinions are made by selective perception and, in their language, by data, sample size and schedules. The media helps reinforce the view that this is the whole truth.
Till two decades ago, it was accepted internationally that economic designs emanated from political priorities. But today we have conveniently elevated economics to a science, and we peddle it—consciously, hypocritically and ruthlessly for the well-being and reinforcement of a ruling elite, far more frightening than Big Brother ever was in Orwell’s 1984. We need to honestly question ourselves. As the Mahatma said, “There is enough for everyone’s need, not for everyone’s greed.”
The second paradigm is easier to fault. Most readers do not want to see semi-naked women and read mindless gossip. The new set of literate rural Rajasthanis, for instance, is far more interested in hard politics and in the economic policies that affect them. It is the money behind the advertisements, and the quite frightening paradigm of deliberate attempts to keep the people uninformed, that needs to be seriously questioned by us all.
Somewhere, despite all the collusions and greed, there is a necessity in democracies to listen to the voice of the people. The vote still remains a powerful weapon, especially when people transcend the narrow confines of caste and religion. Whether after the Emergency or during the India that did not shine, they had the final veto. This needs to be strengthened.
The Indian people have now learned to use democracy and its institutions beyond just elections. The Right to Information Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act are Acts that people have crafted and got political support to push through Parliament. It is in the use of these Acts that a possible future lies for a saner and better India. The demand for debate and discussion of policies in the public domain, the right to make informed choices, the demand for transparency and accountability are the poor persons’ and the ordinary citizens’ gift to making India really independent. The astute common sense of the ordinary citizen has raised the most scientific, intelligent arguments without jargon or rationalization.
Despite the complexities and pluralities, people are not going to be manipulated and trod upon. This is a warning to some and a reason for hope for the majority in this country.
Aruna Roy is member, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) and National Campaign for Peoples Right to Information (NCPRI).