Fifteenth August is approaching. We are getting ready to celebrate that great document that forms the foundation of our modern existence: the Constitution of India. As Independence Day rolls around again, let’s discuss the most fundamental principle of our Constitution, the principle of equality. Do we practise it in our daily lives?
The ludicrous fracas by politicians over the ‘frisking’ of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was an example of how we continue to overthrow the principle of equality. Pray, how is a routine security check a violation of anyone’s self-respect? We live in a democracy yet strangely we continue to regard democratic norms as insulting. Not only do we refuse to stand in queue and patiently wait our turn, but when a wonderfully idealistic citizen and archetypal aam admi like Kalam happily stands in queue and submits to a check by Continental Airlines, we are on our feet screaming about national honour and protocol.
Our netas and top babus all send their children to the US for higher studies. Surely, when taking the SAT and GRE exams, these students submit to American rules. In applying for visas they also submit to US legal requirements. But when Kalam submits to US laws when travelling on an American airline, we are suddenly shaken to our foundations.
The VIP culture of India is truly a slur on our Constitution. The ‘don’t-you-know-who-I-am’ syndrome violates every principle for which our freedom fathers toiled. As the Delhi High Court held in 2008: VIP security is an obnoxious status symbol. When common men are killed on the street, why should the tax payer pay for so much security for politicians? This Independence Day, let’s all take a solemn pledge. We will never again utter the phrase: ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ Instead we will all emulate the dignified Kalam who, quietly and unobtrusively, took his place in a queue.
What’s the other pledge we can take this Independence Day? Let’s bring equality to our cities. New Delhi alone has 5 lakh cycle rickshaws. The total number dependent on hawking, vending and cycle rickshaws in Delhi is 8 million. That’s two- thirds of the city’s population. As another columnist wrote, Delhi is not a city of netas and babus, actually it’s a city of vendors, hawkers and cycle-rickshaws. Yet what kind of cities are we creating for the future?
Our cities are becoming moonscapes of eerily gigantic flyovers and gargantuan roads that are created only for huge cars to scream up and down. We have few pavements, no walk-only plazas, no pedestrian tracks, hardly any socially inclusive zones. Crores have been spent on the Bandra-Worli sea link in Mumbai so that the Lexus and Mercedes can swoosh past. But similar fanfare doesn’t surround the unveiling of new drains, low-cost housing or a pretty park. Here’s another pledge for August 15: let’s create cities where equality is visible, cities that showcase the full variety of our lives from rich to poor. Let’s create cycle tracks for cycles, walking spaces for senior citizens, market corners for vendors, low-cost aesthetic housing for those who can’t afford massive rents. Let the Constitution of India live and breathe in every footpath.
There is yet another pledge we can take this Independence Day. India is in the midst of massive land acquisition for industry and infrastructure and much of land acquisition so far has violated the principle of equality. We have proceeded on the assumption that the private rights of a farmer are null and void compared to the private rights of an industrialist. The new Land Acquisition Amendment Act is a huge improvement on the earlier law and the Infrastructure Development Finance Company report on land rights has suggested even further improvements. Yet so far, the huge amount of land acquired for such projects as the Hyderabad airport has given rise to the feeling that the government is creating a new class of zamindars under the guise of public-private partnerships. Land acquisition for Special Economic Zones (SEZs) has become a land scam. Sadly, even after the amended Land Acquisition Act was sent to a standing committee of the previous Lok Sabha, MPs continued to insist on unbridled State power for the acquisition of land, revealing the sad truth that politicians tend to be on the side of the corporate houses rather than of the farmers.
To understand the principle of equality in land acquisition we must ask ourselves a simple question. How would we like it if the government came to us and said, ‘Right, here’s some money, take it, go live somewhere else, because I’m going to take your house and garden and give it to a business house’? So here’s another pledge for this Independence Day. When we build projects for ‘our’ profit on ‘their’ land, alongside the big project, let’s also erect the metaphorical tricolour that flutters for every destitute woman and smart executive and says: under my shadow, all are equal.
What causes democracies to fail? Pakistan provides an answer. Democracies fail when 200 powerful families manipulate the country for their own ends and communication between classes break down. A gleaming Pajero with beggar children scratching at the black tinted windows is a stark symbol of failing democracy in South Asia. The dreamers of 1947 had no Pajeros. Instead they wrote an idealistic Constitution. Justices S. Murlidhar and A.P. Shah recently delivered a terrific judgement decriminalising Section 377. They didn’t endorse homosexuality, but asserted constitutionality. Similarly, this August 15, let’s pledge to assert constitutionality in our daily lives.
Sagarika Ghose is Senior Editor, CNN-IBN.
The views expressed by the author are personal.