Debating India

The Chinese fireworks

Friday 6 January 2006, by SINGH*Khushwant

Western observers are of the opinion that as far as the pace of economic development is concerned, the Chinese dragon is moving faster than the Indian elephant. In a few decades, it will become the world’s most industrialised nation. Though I have no first-hand knowledge of China, I have seen ?migr? Chinese in Hong Kong, before it was integrated with the mainland, in Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Britain, America and different Indian cities. When I compare them with my countrymen, I am inclined to agree with the verdict: we do not stand a chance of winning the race against the Chinese.

The usual explanation for this prediction is that the Chinese are a dictatorial, communist and rigidly regulated society without freedom of speech or action. India, whereas, is a democracy where everyone does what he likes. So the pace of progress is bound to be slow. That, in my opinion, is a small part of the explanation. More significant is our differing attitudes towards work.

Of the Chinese, it is said that they work eight days a week; of Indians, the common saying is saat vaar and aath teohaar (in the seven days of the week, there are eight festivals). We have more holidays than any other nation in the world; the Chinese have the least. We keep adding to our holidays, waste time in celebrations, pilgrimages and meaningless rituals. We also have a large section of people who do no work at all - swamis, sadhus, sants, mullahs, nihangs, as well as thousands of others who live by preaching to others how to live. M.N. Roy described this lot as holy beggars. They are parasites of Indian society, which give them more respect than they deserve. China has no such nikhattoos (non-earners).

Besides, the Chinese have no food fads. They eat whatever is not poisonous, including snakes, monkeys, dogs, rats, mice, etc. We regard what we eat as part of our religion. Some vegetarians won’t eat onions, garlic and other root vegetables. Our non-vegetarians divide themselves on the edibility of pig meat and beef and whether what they are eating is halaal or jhatka. There is no moral justification to sustain our food fetishes.

Is there any chance of ridding ourselves of this mentality? Not as long as we regard idleness as a virtue. I coined an adage of which I am very proud and keep repeating it whenever I can to my countrymen: “Work is worship, worship is not work.

Architect of modern India

No sooner retired than forgotten. There was a time when Tarlok Singh was regarded as the second most important Indian after Prime Minister Nehru. On our Independence, he was asked to rehabilitate Hindu and Sikh refugees fleeing Pakistan. Then he was put in charge of formulating the country’s five-year plans. He started the Planning Commission from scratch and made it the third-most important body in India. It was commonly said that India is governed by three sabhas: Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha and Tarlok Sabha - the name people gave to the Planning Commission since Tarlok Singh was the moving spirit behind it. Nevertheless, when Tarlok died on December 10, there was not a word in the media. I read about it in the paid-for obit columns of newspapers.

Tarlok was a year senior to me in college in England. He became my role model. He was bookish, and brighter at his studies than his counterparts. I was neither bookish nor bright at anything. He was a great favourite of Professor Harold Laski, who often lent him books. Laski could not tell one Sikh from another and at times accosted me in the corridors of London School of Economics to ask if I had finished the book he’d lent me. I was very amused as Tarlok and I were as different in appearance as Navjot Sidhu is from Daler Mehndi.

Tarlok made it to the ICS at first go - not by nomination or minority quota but on merit. I sat for it the next year and failed to qualify. I lost track of him after he joined service. Years later, we met in Paris where I’d taken up a lucrative job at Unesco. He persuaded me to return home and involve myself in development projects - the salary would be meagre but there would be more job fulfilment. I quit my Unesco job and returned to Delhi. He had me appointed editor of Yojana, the Planning Commission’s mouthpiece. I did my best but soon discovered that no one takes government propaganda seriously. After two years, I threw up the job and took over as editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India. Tarlok was disappointed in me.

Thereafter, we met only a couple of times. He had retired from service and unlike most bureaucrats, did not seek other posts like ambassadorship or governorship, which he would have got for the asking. He lived in a modest apartment in Sunder Nagar in New Delhi. He shunned social life. He took to writing serious books on subjects like poverty and the need for social change. His name will go down in history as one of the builders of modern India.

See online : The Hindustan Times

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