Roughly a century after Christ, a Greek philosopher named Apollonius of Tyana, a disciple of Pythagoras — yes, the same guy who forces school students to study right-angled triangles — travelled to India. He said: “In India, I found a race of mortals living upon the Earth, but not adhering to it, inhabiting cities, but not being fixed to them, possessing everything, but possessed by nothing.”
Of all the praise heaped on eternal India, I’ve found this the most endearing because it captures our vast contradictions and our penchant for being ephemeral, unpredictable and permanent, all at the same time.
But emerging India is less tolerant of whimsy and eternity. As our politicians are learning, their voters want widespread change, and they want it yesterday. Five national priorities for 2011:
1.Feed our children: An ancient land with a yearning for new status cannot be taken seriously if one in two children under five cannot get adequate, nourishing food. India has more malnourished children and adults than any other country on earth, more than all of Africa. In Mumbai, the national financial capital, more than 25,000 children die every year of malnutrition, according to government figures.
New attention has been focused on hunger and malnutrition. A group of young MPs studies it closely. Aamir Khan shows up outside Parliament to talk about it. The government will pass a bill on a new fundamental right to food. And there’s been widening response to this newspaper’s year-old attempt to make these unsexy issues part of the national discourse (www.hindustantimes.com/trackinghunger).
It’s now time for targets and report cards. The prime minister heads a national council on malnutrition. For starters, it would help if he finds the time to convene it and put it to work. As for you and I and the rest of our callous nation, we could start showing some empathy.
2.Rescue the farmer: The population of farmers is declining, but 72% of India still lives in rural areas. As their children join the new economy, farmers find their lands diverted for factories, highways and cities. In growing numbers, they kill themselves.
More than 17,360 farmers committed suicide in 2009, more than in any of the previous six years, says journalist and unrelenting conscience keeper P Sainath, quoting statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau. In the last five years, terrorism and the Maoist insurgency put together haven’t claimed as many lives.
India needs a second green revolution to raise farm productivity and feed its 1.2 billion people. Its State-run agricultural support system is coming apart, and without modern granaries and cold storage, farming will continue to recede. As the farm crisis grows, it feeds malnutrition and urban migration.
Nitish Kumar showed if you build it, they will come. If states urgently build new roads, bridges, warehouses and other infrastructure instead of blindly handing out cash doles, rural India can be rescued.
3.Protect the environment: One reason for the farm crisis, hunger and a growing disease burden is the poisoning of lands, rivers and people. India has some of the world’s best environmental laws but they have been ignored or undermined for commercial and personal profit. As tigers and elephants fight for survival, so do entire ecosystems that sustain lives and livelihoods.
For the first time in decades, the Union environment ministry led by Jairam Ramesh — whether it served his party’s political purposes or not — is showing firm commitment, balancing the preservation of India’s ecological wealth with the growing need to find minerals and build the infrastructure needed for the new India.
This is not an inherent contradiction. The nation cannot be recreated and sustain its growing economy in a time of climate change if it fails to preserve its natural treasury.
4.Reform the government: In faltering Greece, dramatic reforms include a new system of governance under which no decision is legal unless it is put on the web. The cash-rich Indian treasury will not collapse, but at some point, India’s finances could come under great strain if the government refuses to reform and reinvent itself.
Over 2010-11, in its effort to build an inclusive India, the government will spend Rs. 1.36 lakh crore on social-security programmes; a fourth will be stolen or wasted, never reaching the people it is meant for.
Corruption may be on the national agenda like never before. But what you heard of in 2010’s great blaze of publicity is only a hint of the endemic, entrenched nationwide culture of corruption. Without a cut to officials and politicians, buildings cannot be constructed, policemen cannot be appointed, no government contract can be finalised, no school can be cleared.
The war against corruption, waste and inefficiency has to move from television screens into the corridors of power. Our national ambitions depend on this: whether overhauling the crumbling education system, now threatening our demographic dividend, or building new infrastructure to sustain the 9% growth needed to create millions of new jobs and keep the treasuries full.
5.Save our cities: India is urbanising faster than any other country. It took nearly 40 years (between 1971 and 2008) for India’s urban population to rise by 230 million. In half that time, the number of Indians in cities could reach 500 million. China has planned and managed its urban explosion; India is still debating whether this is good or bad. No surprise that Indian cities are some of the emerging world’s most ramshackle places.
With urban voters becoming more important than ever before, change — as Surat’s and Rajkot’s clean-up and Delhi’s Metro system indicate — is possible. Yes, we can. But will we?