Archive for April, 2016

Secession of the urban Indian

Amidst all the recent furore over “seditious” behaviour on one of India’s premier university campuses, my mind went to the steady secession of sections of Indian society from the larger populace around them. Now, secession is no laughing matter; any talk of it in the context of a region seeking to separate itself from the republic constitutes a serious crime. And yet, through its actions (or rather inaction), the Indian state itself has been guilty of creating a secessionist mindset in certain groups residing within its frontiers. Before I am hauled up before the guardians of law (one never knows in these hyper-excitable times), let me expand on my theme to set all apprehensions at rest.

I still remember a childhood when those of us living in cities like Delhi, Bombay and Madras received, and enjoyed, the benefits of public services. Electricity came from the local power undertaking and water from the local water board. Those living in Bombay and Madras were fortunate to enjoy good public transport (local train and bus) facilities. We Delhiwallahs were not so lucky; a six kilometre journey from school to home could take anywhere up to two hours, earning the Delhi Transport Undertaking (DTU) the sobriquet Don’t Trust Us. Public health facilities were extensively used: the Central Government Health Scheme (CGHS) for minor illnesses and (in Delhi) public hospitals like Safdarjung and Willingdon (later christened Ram Manohar Lohia) for major ones. The doctors were reputed and trusted by their patients, the nursing staff was dedicated and competent and many of our friends went there for minor and major surgeries. While I don’t even remember seeing a uniformed policeman in our government colony, the friendly Gurkha watchman on his nightly vigil made us feel secure. The seeds of secession were already then being sown in primary and secondary education, though not in higher education: many of us went to private (euphemistically termed public) and missionary schools (with parental confidence in municipal and government schools at a fairly low level) but subsequently to publicly funded universities.

The last quarter of the twentieth century marked the watershed for the transition to a dual society. As the pressure of population grew, with large migrations to urban areas, shortfalls in public services and the unwillingness of better-off sections of the citizenry to live with these infrastructural deficiencies led to the Great Secession. The success of the Indian diaspora and their affluence created envy in their humble country cousins, who had to look forward to the casually tossed out gift on the annual pilgrimage home of the non-resident Indian. 1991 was the first window of opportunity for the great Indian middle class. Easier and cheaper imports, the opening up of the consumer sector to private investment and the information technology boom saw an explosion in the availability of hitherto forbidden fruit, which the Indian consumer was only too eager to acquire and consume. Money is the medium for the transfer of goods and services from the hitherto totally public domain to private enclaves of wealth and prosperity. As living standards improve for a growing middle class with aspirations to the “good life”, it would be instructive to examine how this stratification has worked in different sectors of services and how it has had its impact not just on the wealthier classes but also on the common woman/man living in urban settings in India.

Electric power supply has always been the country’s Achilles heel. Rural areas, especially in the more backward northern and eastern regions of the country, have long been inured to the absence of electricity. But urban areas, inhabited by industries and by the relatively wealthier segments of society, would not accept such a scenario. Industries went in for diesel generator sets and, where possible, captive power generation. Households followed suit very soon; as disposable incomes went up, generator sets made their appearance in private residences and housing societies. Even after the initiation of power sector reforms in the early 2000s, the scenario is yet to change, with problems persisting in all the three sectors of electricity generation, transmission and distribution. A nuclear deal was concluded, but power from nuclear plants still seems a distant dream. Oh, of course, there has been a lot of talk but, as yet, only limited progress on the renewable energy front, the inspiring example of countries like Germany notwithstanding. Bengaluru, India’s IT capital, sees its citizens stoically settling down to power cuts of three to five hours daily, while its energy policy makers scramble for excuses like low water supply positions in reservoirs.

Drinking water supply poses a major issue everywhere, and not just in years of scanty rainfall. Politicians and bureaucrats have failed to anticipate the demand for this crucial, life-giving resource, not just in rapidly growing urban centres, but also in rural areas, where water supply is fast depleting. There are a variety of reasons for this critical situation, best summed up as “the triumph of private greed over public need.” What is glaringly evident is the absence of any long-term planning for urban water management. No efforts have been made to recycle wastewater for use for non-drinking purposes, nor is there any coherent policy in place to desalinate seawater, on the lines of countries like Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States. The only ones laughing all the way to the bank are the bottled water companies, which are the major drinking water supply source to populations in cities like Chennai and Bengaluru. With a steadily worsening groundwater scenario, water tankers are the order of the day in every metropolitan area. The urban poor have to make do with the trickle that comes from their public taps or fight for access to the tankers that service their areas.

The steady deterioration of public health services has, over the years, put an enormous financial burden on the aam aurat/aadmi. Money is again the feature that distinguishes the quality of services for the rich and the poor. Corporate, multi-specialty hospitals with state of the art technology are available to those who can pay, while the poor flock to already overloaded public hospitals. The average citizen has come to distrust the medical attention she can expect to get in public health institutions, forcing her to get into debt to meet the costs of private medical care. A moribund public health care system functions (??) under the benign gaze of governments (both central and state) and a controversial Medical Council of India.

Public transport, almost the only commuting option a couple of generations ago, is probably the most striking example of the widening chasm between the rich and the poor. City transport systems have come under immense strain, even as private car registration figures shoot up. Mumbai’s famed local trains are groaning under the sheer weight of numbers and even the Mumbai bus system (BEST) is not quite what it used to be. Indian city roads have, of course, proved to be somewhat of a social leveler — the potholes on the roads are no respecter of private or public transport modes and congested thoroughfares allow for no distinctions in time spent on travel, regardless of whether you are in a BMW or on a city bus. The Delhi Metro has been the only bright spot in an otherwise abysmal tale of stalled public rail transport and Bus Rapid Transit systems in nearly all Indian cities.

Most unfortunate has been the privatisation of security systems as inadequate police forces battle with multiple responsibilities in the diverse areas of criminal investigation, law and order maintenance and VIP security. It is bad enough when housing becomes segregated (although the coexistence of prosperity and squalor serve as reminders that “no man is an island”). It is worse when these residential islands also shut off the rest of humanity (including visitors’ vehicles) and seek protection behind high walls and iron gates. As the perception of individual insecurity grows, those who are well-off but not fortunate enough to be provided taxpayer-funded security go in for their private armies of security guards. The aam aurat is left to manage on her own against antisocial elements, with no beat patrolling by constables in even crowded localities.

The final act in this secession drama is the scramble for job opportunities overseas. The earlier flight to the Gulf at least saw many of the migrants return home to better living standards in states like Kerala. The subsequent exodus to the West, especially the United Kingdom and the United States, and other areas in South-East Asia and Australia, has been rather more one-way traffic. While there is the feeling in expatriates of a homeland lost, there is also the realistic recognition that India still cannot offer the same opportunities for innovative thinking and risk taking that many other countries both to the east and west of us offer. If you don’t believe me, ask a budding research scholar in any university or an entrepreneur starting a new venture. It should occasion no surprise that India’s only Nobel award in the basic sciences came during British rule (C. V. Raman, 1930). Indians have since won Nobel awards in the basic sciences, but their research has been conducted in foreign institutions.

Ultimately, the issue boils down to the pursuit of excellence. Islands of excellence in the country still float in a sea of mediocrity, a consequence of unimaginative education systems, blatant patronage based on ethnic and other considerations and an acceptance of sloppy, disinterested performance. Perhaps we should heed the prescient words of John Gardner, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare in the Lyndon Johnson administration “The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.







Boys will be boys

Girish Karnad essayed the role of a young, idealistic dairy technologist in Manthan, an inspiring movie on the politics of starting a dairy cooperative in Gujarat. The local overlord, played by Amrish Puri, attempts to win over Karnad by offering him choice liquor, which our young man firmly refuses. Puri then, with a sarcastic laugh, states that he is very fond of idealists, since they are bound to lose their idealism one day. I don’t know how many of the actors on the prosecution side of la affaire JNU, our recent box office hit on television, have seen this movie. Even if they haven’t, they would probably have done well to have taken a leaf from Puri’s book and treat the entire JNU episode as another case of boyish spirits which merited at most a mild rap on the knuckles and a word of reproof, with a knowing nod of the head, that “boys will be boys”. By throwing one of the more draconian sections of the Indian Penal Code at the students of the University, the government of the day unwittingly conferred a distinction on these students and willy nilly dragged itself into a controversy that led to international condemnation as well as a suspicion in the public mind that there was a political agenda behind the entire imbroglio.

My generation passed through the portals of higher education during the days of the Emergency of 1975-77. Even prior to that, there was considerable ferment in idealistic sections of the student population. The exploits of Che Guevara in Latin America, the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam war protests in the USA and the distant rumbling of the Naxalite uprising in Bengal were all beacons of hope for sections of youth that had come face to face with the unravelling of the post-independence Nehruvian consensus. Scores of students from the neoliberal environment of Delhi University left their studies to pursue their dreams of a classless society. Severe state repression and the vortex of violence the movement spawned led to a fairly early disillusionment with the Naxalite movement and the homecoming of the chastened prodigals. Their future careers in academia or the civil services (almost the only two job openings at that time) would have been severely jeopardised had the then Government of India not had the sagacity to overlook their youthful enthusiasm and withdraw possible prosecutions against them. Many of these potential “revolutionaries” went on to outstanding tenures in the civil services and the academic world, especially as teachers in the university that is at the centre of the present controversy (some have moved from Trotsky to the Temple, but that is another story). There was (and is) a deep humanism and liberalism informing the approach of many of them to social, political and economic issues. The Emergency represented the darkest phase of Indian democracy, but it also had one redeeming feature: it sensitised the youth of my generation to democratic values of freedom and human dignity and developed in many of us distaste for authoritarianism of all hues. Freedom to us meant freedom of thought, speech, association, profession of any religion (or no religion) and culinary choice, to name the prominent ones. Colleagues of mine in the Indian Administrative and Police Services stood up to excesses of different political formations when they attempted to trample on the constitutional rights of ordinary citizens in the name of religion, caste, ideology, ethnicity or region.

I stress this cherishing of fundamental human values, because I am aware of the educative role of the university in developing the thinking individual in each of us. It is made all the more poignant in view of the recent calls by many highly qualified persons to students to concentrate on their studies and not on politics during their stay in the university. Proponents of this school of thought seem to view the role of institutions of higher learning as producing technology zombies of the sort popularised in the Dilbert comic strip, rather than alert, aware citizens who will participate actively in the ongoing process of social transformation. Unfortunately, this betrays a highly technological view of the roles of discussion and dissent in public discourse. Any discussion on issues relating to the human condition and efforts to better it are inevitably political in nature. It would appear that significant sections of the intelligentsia still view the development of the critical faculty in individuals from an authoritarian perspective. Probably, this has its roots in the parental and social (including educational) environments which stress conformity rather than curiosity. From personal experience, I can certainly aver that independent modes of thinking and functioning evolved only when I entered college. Nor can I claim that my true education came from the classroom: rather, it was the product of hours of discussion after class on diverse issues ranging from politics to social issues and values.

V.S. Naipaul characterized India as a land of a million mutinies over forty years ago, easing somewhat the resentment of Indians over his earlier reference to the country as an area of darkness. If Naipaul was right then, we would have to term this as the land of a billion mutinies now. Assertions of identities by disadvantaged castes and communities, not to mention the struggles of the female half for their rightful place in the Indian sun and the refusal to be denied their economic opportunities, have led large sections of the population to question the traditional, patriarchal social structures. The university has served as an avenue for upward mobility and for questioning the existing power structure. Any political party which seeks to assert the monopoly of its ideology and restricted worldview over institutions of higher learning, through manipulation of teaching processes and educational curricula, is pursuing a chimera. As Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan affirmed in a recent speech at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai “The first essential is to foster competition in the marketplace for ideas…This then leads to a second essential: Protection, not of specific ideas and traditions, but the right to question and challenge…it is by encouraging the challenge of innovative rebels that society develops.” Governments learn this lesson far too late – the Congress government in 1977 reaped the consequences of the denial of free expression to the student population in higher education institutions for twenty months.

Ultimately, the Argumentative Indian will have his say. Having had his say, he will then move on to the basic business of earning his livelihood. Governments in a democracy need to provide a pressure valve to a population, many of whose members still suffer from myriad economic and social deficiencies. Ignoring this reality can prove fatal for a government when it next goes to the hustings. The first requirement for a successful, popular politician is a keen sense of irony laced with good-humoured forbearance, a quality sadly lacking in most of the political class in India today. The first generation of Indian political leaders was jailed by the British; the second generation of political leaders was jailed by the Congress. It would be truly ironic if the third generation of leaders of independent India were to emerge from those currently being jailed by the present government. Who can tell, every cloud may have a silver lining!