Soon after India got freedom, we made a new beginning. We chose democracy as the way forward. New institutions were created and nurtured — Parliament, the Election Commission, the Supreme Court, the Planning Commission and others. The country has indeed made phenomenal progress. It has become a major military, industrial and economic power, an IT superpower and a space giant eyeing the moon and Mars. As I write this article on the eve of Independence Day, I have great expectations that the prime minister’s address will touch upon some of the following issues.
India is now the 10th largest economy by GDP and the third largest economy by purchasing power parity. We have the sixth largest number of billionaires. But we also have the largest disparities between the haves and have-nots. After all, we take pride in being a country of diversities!
We are ranked 135th in the human development index (out of 187 countries). One in every three Indians is below the poverty line.
One in every four is still illiterate. We still have high infant and maternal mortality rates — far worse than even Sri Lanka. More than half the population is malnourished. The rate of unemployment is so high that it contributes to disgruntlement, frustration and even criminalisation among the youth. It could become a breeding ground for disruptive forces of various hues. Drug abuse in some states has reached alarming proportions. The education system has let the country down, producing millions of unemployables. Ironically, there is no dearth of policies, programmes and funds to deal with these issues. Massive corruption is preventing the percolation of the benefits.
While many old problems persist, we also have new challenges and opportunities. We are a country of young people. More than 70 per cent of Indians are below 35. They have new aspirations. Are we equipping them to meet these aspirations? Let there be an employment mission to coordinate all the relevant programmes. Nearly 250 million of the young people are adolescents, who have their peculiar problems. They are no longer children but not yet adults. They worry about what is happening to them physically and emotionally. Their curiosity and experimentation make them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. This is the time to give them life-skill education.
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Population issues have gone off the political radar altogether. As a result, India’s population will overtake China’s by 2028. The department of family welfare was quietly abolished a decade ago. One factor contributing to the population explosion is child marriage. One in every three marriages in India is illegal, involving parties below the legal age for marriage. Yet not a whimper is heard. Early marriage leads to early pregnancy, which creates health complications for adolescent girls not physically or mentally equipped to deal with it. We should adopt an integrated adolescent development programme (and not just for health) and implement it in mission mode.
Crime and violence against women is a major issue, one that is getting uglier every day. A large number of assault cases take place when rural and slum women go to answer the call of nature, usually at dusk or at dawn. That is when they are most vulnerable to predators on the prowl. Where is freedom for women?
India has the dubious distinction of being a country with the highest number of open defecators — 60 per cent of the population. In his election campaign, Narendra Modi rightly flagged women’s toilets as a high priority issue. It is hoped that his vision will be translated into action soon. But why leave it to the government alone? The corporate sector should assign it top priority while meeting its CSR obligations. If the entire country takes it up on a war footing and resolves to end this national shame within the timeframe of a year or two, it can be done. Synergy has great strength.
The December 16 gangrape shocked the conscience of the nation. In a knee-jerk reaction, we came up with a law that may not necessarily strike at the root of the problem. Nobody uttered a word about society’s gender attitudes. No solutions were offered to educate the youth and inculcate in them the right values. The result is that we still see the shame being repeated with sickening regularity. An attitude change is more important than any law. It cannot be left to the government alone. Society as a whole must take responsibility. Do we look critically at the gender attitudes of our sons? A national gender education drive must be considered.
Incidentally, we rank 132 on the gender development index and 127 on the gender inequality index.
Another threat to freedom and development percolating to all sections of society is social disharmony and unrest. It’s an irony that elections have become the root cause of corruption as well as of communal and caste polarisations, the three curses of our society that constantly pull the country back. Rooting out these problems is imperative. All institutions of freedom and democracy must unite to ensure that they are buried forever.
The social polarisation that is rearing its ugly head can do unfathomable damage. The absence of
intermixing creates ignorance about the “other” which breeds a vicious circle of fear, hate and aggression. Growing up in an atmosphere of hate and fear is destructive for children’s psyche. Mental pollution is the worst pollution.
Infighting weakens the nation. Peace and harmony are the prerequisites for development.
Nothing should be done to hamper the realisation of the PM’s slogan, “sab ka saath, sab ka vikaas”, a very inclusive vision that has received global acclaim. Pluralism is one of India’s core strengths, its great USP. It should be strengthened and not weakened.
A government with a strong majority should be an opportunity to strengthen all institutions of democracy. The sanctity of the constitutional wisdom of separation of powers must be respected. At the same time, all constitutional institutions themselves have the duty not to allow the erosion of their moral authority, which seems to be under stress.
This is India’s defining moment. I hope we choose the right course. That would be the best tribute to those who died for our freedom.
The writer is former chief election commisssioner of India