Saturday, 14 August 2010

Tryst with Destiny

As I write, there remain all of 30 minutes to go before the stroke of midnight takes the date to 15th August- a day that is special for every Indian who has ever been to school. At the stroke of midnight this day 63 years ago, India finally achieved the independence that generations of Indians dreamt of, for which thousands sacrificed their lives and millions of common men and women underwent untold difficulties and sufferings.

Three and sixty years after Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India made that epic speech it is time for India to sit and ask itself the question: have we kept our tryst with destiny?

The facts are staggering. The average life expectancy in India is 68 years today against 31.8 at the time of independence. The colonised, impoverished land of 1947 is today the fourth biggest economy in the world (in terms of purchasing power parity) and the second fastest growing out of the major world economies. India's 250-300 strong middle class is expected to go up to 600 million or so in two more decades. Indeed, we can go on producing any number of statistics to illustrate the extraordinary progress India has made in the last six decades, especially in the years post `91.

Now for a reality check: After three and sixty years of independence, India ranks 134/ 182 on the United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Index. 44% of the children under five are malnutritioned and nearly 7% of the children born do not live beyond the age of 5. 72% of the population does not have access to improved sanitation facilities and about 11% of the population (which amounts to over 100 million people- more than the population of France, Spain and Italy combined) does not have access to improved water sources- figures far worse than those of Algeria.

While people living in the major cities may celebrate India's rise and our advance towards 'superpower' status, there still are a horde of statistics that shows just how far we still need to go before our 'superpower' dreams become a reality. No country can ever became a superpower with nearly half its population crushed by poverty, when thousands of farmers are committing suicide due to indebtedness. A country where millions of people are so badly off that nearly a third of its territory falls under the scope of operations of militant communists can never claim to be a major power. A country where half the population of its financial capital lives in slums has serious challenges to surmount.

Its true that steady, if slow, progress is being made in remedying these problems and that millions of people are getting the opportunity to improve their lot. Nevertheless, quicker progres is needed. Schemes like NREGS, PURA and housing development programmes need to be implemented in all honesty over several years before we can give our impoverished millions their freedom.

Let's face it: political independence and democracy means nothing if they cannot guarantee two basic meals and the most basic dignity every human being is entitled to. Every country's true status is reflected by the condition of the people at the bottom end of the pyramid. As of today, that lower end comprises over half the population.

Yes, we are a young, vibrant and rising nation. Ours is a dynamic economy, a society undergoing a profound socio-economic transformation. But our cities are dirty, our roads are pathetic, none of our cities can provide round the clock water or electricity supply to its citizens. Baring a handful of them, none of our cities have anything vaguely resembling a public transport (and I'm not even talking about the countless problems rural Indians face).

We may take pride in our improving pay packages, we still see hundreds of thousands of people struggling to find a roof to live under. We may take pride in our cars, but still find small children begging at the signals. We may have state of the art malls, but look through the windows and you're likely to see thousands below living in slums.

Only if we confront and accept that harsh truth and do something about it, will we manage to keep that tryst with destiny. If on the other hand, we continue to look the other way as we have for six decades now, the tryst with destiny will remain nothing but pure words.

Which way we go is entirely our choice . Our destiny is in our own hands

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