As one heard Prime Minister Manmohan Singh deliver the customary address to the nation on the 60th anniversary of our Independence in chaste Urdu, reading from an Urdu script, one could not escape going down memory lane to the celebrations of the silver jubilee of our Independence in 1972. As college students, we walked from Delhi University to listen, all through the night, to luminaries of Indian culture performing at the Diwan-e-aam in the Red Fort. We walked back in the early hours next morning, enthralled by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan or Ravi Shankar or Bismillah Khan, every night, for an entire week. There was a sense of liberation, achievement and pride at the celebration of India’s diversity and freedom.
Today, as we heard the Prime Minister speak from a bullet-proof enclosure and the fortification around the Red Fort’s ramparts, one could not but notice that things have, indeed, changed for today’s youth. The scourge of terrorism has created a situation where such luxuries of freedom needed to be tempered. This is only a reminder that the battle against social and economic inclusiveness is not merely ongoing but, in many ways, intensifying. Celebrating 60 years of Independence must necessarily redouble our resolve to win both the battle and the war against all expressions of exclusivist doctrines and for achieving the inclusiveness of our vastly diverse and pluralistic society.
According to many elements in Indian tradition, 60th anniversary — Shashtipurti — is a very auspicious occasion in the life of an individual, as one plans his/her post-retirement life, elevated to the vastly exaggerated status of senior citizen. For a country, however, 60 years is ‘young’, as the PM noted. Not merely are we a young nation, but we are a country of young people. Fifty-four per cent of Indians are today below the age of 25. We probably have the largest number of young people in any country in the world.
India’s future rests on the shoulders of its youth. India’s ambitions of emerging as a knowledge power house rest mainly on how we nurture this youth by providing them with proper health, education and employment. Investing in our youth, thus, must be the central resolve of India’s shashtipurti.
To be fair, the PM’s address reflects both the resolve and the connected concerns. As is customary, there was a laudable declaration of intent. There are many commendable objectives that have been declared such as vastly expanded educational facilities and the promise to expand the rural employment scheme across the entire country. Likewise, there are commitments for increasing investments in agriculture, rural development, infrastructure etc etc. Yet, the PM himself admits, “even after years of development and rising growth rates, why have we not been able to banish mass poverty and provide employment to all? Why do some regions of the country continue to lag behind?”
This, in fact, is an admission that there are, in reality, two Indias — ‘shining’ and ‘suffering’ — that not merely coexist but the hiatus between them continues to widen. This is substantiated by the fact that the agrarian distress in the country continues unabated, with, on an average, over 20,000 farmers committing suicide every year of late. The decline in foodgrain production, which the PM noted, is ominous for the already fragile food security of the nation.
Seventy-nine per cent of India’s children in the age group 6 to 35 months — the formative period — suffer from anaemia. Thirty-eight per cent of our children are stunted and 46 per cent are underweight. Only 44 per cent of our children receive all recommended vaccinations. Fifty-eight per cent pregnant women suffer from anaemia. This is the status of nutritional health.
As far as living conditions are concerned, consider the following: 58 per cent of India, 72 per cent of rural India, does not have access to potable drinking water. Fifty-six per cent, 74 per cent of rural India, does not have access to toilet facilities. Fifty-nine per cent, 75 per cent of rural India, does not live in a pucca house. Growing unemployment and price rise only compounds the misery.
This grim reality of the vast majority of our people is counterpoised with the trajectory of high growth rate of our GDP, high investment and savings rates, a growing foreign exchange reserve so on and so forth.
Reflecting this contrast, the PM has spoken of sustaining the trajectory of high growth while making it more inclusive. Once again, a very laudable declaration of intent. However, are we moving towards translating this into reality? The PM says that there is “no magic wand”. True. But, does the direction of our policy framework move towards this objective?
Inclusive growth means economic empowerment of the majority. Notwithstanding the PM’s claims, it needs to be repeated that total expenditures on the social sector as a percentage of GDP declined between 2001-02 and 2006-07. Unless there is a boost to public investment in the social sector, the objective of economic empowerment cannot be achieved. Unfortunately, even when there are congenial circumstances to do so, it has not happened. For four years in a row, government revenues have increased by over 20 per cent of the targets annually. The PM concedes this when he admits that high growth rates have resulted in higher State revenues. This should have led to higher expenditures which has, unfortunately, not happened substantially. The test of the transformation of the PM’s expression of concern into reality lies in the sincerity to make this happen by sharply increasing public investments.
As the PM ended his address, one could not help recollecting Baba Saheb Ambedkar’s warning in the Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1949, as, ‘We, the People’ were adopting our Constitution:
“On 26th January, 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics, we will be recognising the principle of one man-one vote and one vote-one value. In our social and economic life, we shall by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man-one value.
“How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life?
“If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has laboriously built up.” As we look ahead, on our 60th anniversary, India cannot afford to deny the resolution of this contradiction any longer if it aspires to emerge as a global economic and knowledge powerhouse.
Sitaram Yechury is Rajya Sabha MP and member, CPI(M) politburo