Debating India

Surviving India

You Call This Surviving?

Kiran Nagarkar

Wednesday 13 August 2003, by NAGARKAR*Kiran

The poor can’t afford the notion of deferred pleasure. But even the rich behave as if there’s no tomorrow. Why this cult of poverty?

Forget the last 56 years, ever since the National Democratic Alliance ministry with the bjp at the helm took over the governance of the country, the progress that we have made is surely staggering. Let me cite just a handful of examples.

- How can any right-thinking Indian not be proud of the fact that we are now a nuclear power? The benefits of the bomb are, as you know, enormous. If one is to believe Mr Pramod Mahajan, nobody knew of India till we showed the world that both India and Pakistan can nuke each other out of existence.

- Which other democracy can boast of a Parliament which bestows immunity upon its members and does not make them accountable to the law of the land even if they have a criminal record? (We are indeed setting an illustrious precedent here for Mr Berlusconi, the Italian PM seems to have already learnt a lesson or two from us.)

- Where else in the world could you see god-like righteousness walk the earth as Mr Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, did when in his great wisdom and mercy he aided and abetted the legal process whereby several of the perpetrators of the Gujarat bloodbath were allowed to go scotfree? (It is rumoured, completely baselessly, of course, that the good CM may have stage-managed the riots themselves. Fortunately, we are a mature polity and will not give credence to such bilge.)

- Where else but in ’Mera Bharat Mahan’ can you come across the stupendous imagination and the sheer daring of the commercial complex, alias the Taj Corridor, adjacent to the Taj? (There is much debate at the unesco about which is the greater wonder, the Taj Mahal or the Taj Corridor. A completely fatuous controversy, you’ll agree. The Corridor will win hands down.)

- Which other country has voted a film producer and actor Man of the Year because he got us an Oscar nomination?

- The word is that President George Bush is awestruck by the truly staggering performance of the state of Maharashtra. Weeks ago it had single-handedly run up a deficit of Rs 99,000 crore and was upping the figure every day.

Maharashtra is, doubtless, gifted with genius. The current Opposition party in the state legislature simplified life for all and sundry by calling the Bombay international airport, the central railway terminus and the museum, Chhatrapati Shivaji something or the other. I cannot, in conscience, take credit for this brilliant and original idea. But you’ll have to grant that I too am not altogether untouched by genius. I have put it to our great and remote leader himself (may peace be upon him) that it is time we called all local and through stations, Ajanta and Ellora and other monuments and cities in the state of Maharashtra after the great Maratha king. Imagine, you’ll never have to tax your memory ever again. All you need to tell the bus conductor or the woman at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus is that you want a return ticket for Shivaji Station and they’ll know exactly where you want to go. But my contribution to the radical simplification of life does not end there. I have suggested to our Revered Leader that from now on all children, whatever their sex, caste, creed, and religion, be called Shivaji. Can you imagine the colossal, the monumental benefits that will accrue from this one action? Gender discrimination will disappear overnight. Girls will inherit exactly as the boys. The terrible curse of this land, the caste system, and the deadly enmity between Hindus and Muslims will vanish without any trauma whatsoever.

Tell me you are not impressed. Do you want me to go on any further with this roll of our stupendous achievements?

Sarcasm is the weapon of the loser and of the impotent. I must ask your forgiveness for this heavy-handed performance. But there are times when the most cussed of optimists will give up on this beloved and benighted land of ours. Truly, how do we all survive India-the corruption, the lethargy, the boundless chicanery, the telephone man who won’t fix the instrument unless you ’warm’ his hand, the absence of action against those who were caught red-handed on camera by Tehelka, the standard victimisation of upright officers, the travesty of justice exemplified by dumping the report of the Srikrishna Commission and those of innumerable other commissions? If we survive these and many other trivial and major travails because of our forbearance, fortitude, stoicism, or the heroic proportions of our sense of resignation, that would be dreadful and indefensible. But our guilt, as we all know in our heart of hearts, is much greater. We either don’t give a damn or we will not break our silence against any wrongdoing. We are the one and only immovable object in the universe. I doubt if even the Good Lord can move us to take responsibility for our all-pervasive indifference. If it doesn’t stop my next breath, if it does not infringe upon my salary, my black earnings, my family, at least not today, why should I be concerned? How am I affected?

When did we give up on ourselves?

How did this indifference come about? There are doubtless many reasons for this. One possible explanation is that we as a people have lost ’tomorrow’. ’Tomorrow’ began to go out of our lives not too long after we fought perhaps the most remarkable freedom struggle ever. And won it. But the slide from idealism to the ’me-me-me’ culture was rapid. The erstwhile state of Punjab, which then included Haryana, was led by a man called Kairon who was considered one of the most efficient chief ministers of the Nehru era. It was said that five paise of every rupee earned within the state went into Mr Kairon’s pockets. But he made damn sure that he delivered on the other 95 paise. It’s a cliche# today to say that all of us almost take it for granted that anywhere between 50 per cent to 95 per cent of state monies must find their way into various pockets.

What is relevant here is the premise that underlies our silence and indifference. Our concerns today rarely extend beyond self-interest. Even our richest and most affluent are afflicted with what Oscar Lewis called ’The Culture of Poverty’. The poor, he tells us, have no tomorrow. They do not know when and where their next meal is going to come from or if there is going to be a next meal. Which is why they have no notion of deferred pleasure. If they get one roti, they will eat it instantly. And if they get 15 rotis, shrikhand, two kilos of biriyani and many other goodies, they’ll try to polish them off right then and there. Because they must make the most of what they get now and not trust the future. But the rich and the middle class too behave as if there is no future, only the here and now. We seem to be strangely reluctant to invest time, money, imagination, and the full range of our talents today, to reap the benefits tomorrow. What is even more critical is that we care; that we believe that we have a common stake in the country’s economy, culture, and its democratic institutions.It’s not enough that we are not corrupt; it is incumbent upon all of us that we speak up against corruption in the body politic.

The Panacea

Sorry, there is no such thing. Oh, we’ll survive all right and perhaps the children too. But is it enough to survive, however degraded and abysmal the quality of our lives? Am I beginning to sound like a prophet of doom? Am I suggesting that there is no hope for our country? Quite the contrary. There may be no magical solution to the myriad problems and ills of this country. But they are not intractable, not by a long shot. Most of them are man-made. And they can be unmade by the likes of you and me.

We are surrounded by people who have said, "Enough is enough. I am going to change things. I am going to make a difference." Nobody would touch a leper till Baba Amte came on the scene and almost single-handedly changed the fate of lepers. He fought against ignorance and prejudice and proved that leprosy was curable. And, just as importantly, generated employment for the victims of the disease and brought dignity to their lives. If the timber lobby has not yet wiped out the forest cover in this country, it is because of people like Sunderlal Bahuguna who started the Chipko movement. Arun Shourie, the former crusading journalist, stood up along with the publisher of the Indian Express, Ramnath Goenka, and spoke up fearlessly. They stood out as lone beacons during the Emergency when Indira Gandhi abrogated the Constitution and the fundamental freedoms. Medha Patkar, Anil Aggarwal and hundreds of others whose names we do not know are commoners like you and me and they are the true heroes of our times.

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