A Wish a Day for a Week
Friday 17th January 2014, ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival, Diggi Palace
On being invited to the Jaipur Festival, I was naturally nervous about attempting an opening address to such an elite gathering. However, about ten days ago I saw in the newspapers, indeed in all of them, that India has entered triumphantly into the “elite club” of the world. The Times of India’s headline said: GSLV-DV launch successful, India joins elite club”. As an Indian citizen, I immediately lost all fear about not being able to get into the elite club. However, I had a problem in not knowing what GSLV-DV is. Or does. On probing I found that GSLV-DV is famous because it carries a GSAT-14 communication satellite. That seemed just what I needed. And so I decided to use the GSAT-14 communication satellite to communicate well beyond my station in life.
High above the clouds I came across a figure who looked very impressive, who explained that she was the Goddess of Medium Things. “ Gosh,” I said. ‘Medium you may be, but you look very impressive.” “You should see,” she replied, “ the goddess of LargeThings.” “You could please introduce me to her,” I said, “but are you sure that you are really a goddess?” “Yes I am,” she responded firmly, “I am – as I told you – Goddess of Medium Things. But, you are right, I am very informal, and you can call me GMT – that is my pet name.” “Isn’t GMT some kind of time?” I asked her. “Yes,” she said, “ I can give you the correct time, also one of my specialties, but more importantly I can grant you a wish – in fact more that one wish- for your country.” “ How jolly,” I said, “May I have seven wishes – a wish a day for my country for a week? Please, let us get on with it!”
“Sure,” GMT said,” but why are you in such a hurry?” I explained, “ I am going to the Jaipur Literature Festival. You have heard of the famous Jaipur Literature Festival, my goddess?” “Yes,” GMT said, “but it is really so big now that it has been moved from my care to the care of the Goddess of Large Things. Still, I will try to help you. Make a medium-sized wish about literature.”
So I jumped in: “Classical education in language, literature, music and the arts are being seriously neglected in India. Very few people study Sanskrit anymore. Nor do they study ancient Persian, or Latin, or Greek, or Arabic, or Hebrew, or Old Tamil. We need serious cultivation of classical studies for a balanced education. In India’s increasingly business-oriented society, there is generally far less room today for the humanities, and that is surely a problem, is it not, goddess?” “But,” said the goddess, “ Rabindranath Tagore in your village, Santiniketan, used to grumble that science education was being neglected. So how can you say the opposite?” “That was then, madam,” I said,” and this is now. Rabindranath was right in his day, but bright students now, everywhere in India, go for science and technology, and look down on humanities.”
“So,” asked the goddess, “you wish to have a greater role of humanities in Indian education?” “ Something like that,” I said. “What a vague statement: ‘something like that!’, GMT said, ”you must have clearer ideas.” “ Clearer? Do you mean more precise, dear goddess?” I asked. “No,” said GMT, “you are making the common mistake of assuming that a clear statement needs to invoke precise magnitudes. A good statement of an inherently imprecise concern – and most important concerns in the world are imprecise – mustcapture that imprecision, and not replace it by a precise statement about something else. You should learn to speak in an articulate way about ideas that are inescapably imprecise ( as a man called Aristotle put it more that two millennia ago). And that is one of the reasons why the humanities are important. A novel can point to a truth without pretending to capture it exactly in some imagined numbers and formulae. Okay then, now go on to your second wish.”
“Well,” I said, “may I go into politics?” GMT looked unsurprised and said, “ I think I can guess what you are going to ask, knowing your left-wing views – you are on the left in India, aren’t you?” “Nothing escapes you goddess, “ I replied, “ I am. But my big political wish is to have a strong and flourishing right-wing party that is secular and not communal.” “Why?” asked a slightly puzzled goddess. “There is a an important role,” I explained, “ for a clear-headed pro-market, pro-business party that does not depend on religious politics, and does not prioritize one religious community over all others.” GMT said, “Surely there was such a party in India, led by some very smart people, wasn’t there?” I said, “Yes, madam, there was – it was called the Swatantra Party, and among its leaders was MinooMasani, an extremely smart fellow indeed – but the party died. I wish it would be revived.” “Let me recollect,” GMT said, “this MinooMasani – was he really in favour of non-communal politics and did he believe in the brotherhood of all people, what the French revolutionaries call ‘fraternity’? I seem to recollect that he said some unflattering things about fraternity in one of his public speeches.” “Yes, goddess,” I told GMT, “he was staunchly secular and very much in favour of fraternity. But in a light-hearted remark in 1946, Masani said that he adored fraternity but given the misuses of the word after French Revolution, he did not use it. He went on to say in the Constituent Assembly of India on December 17th 1946, “When I introduce my brother, I call him my cousin.”
“Would that be your favorite party then?” asked the goddess. “No, absolutely not,” I said. But I would very much like such a party to be there, giving Indian voters the choice of supporting a secular, pro-business point of view – it would be very good for Indian politics. The support that a right-wing pro-business point of view receives should not have to be parasitic on making an alliance with religious politics.”
“Okay,” said GMT,” but can you make your explanations short- we don’t have much time. Let me remind you that you are speaking to me and not lecturing at the Jaipur Festival. What’s your third wish?” “ I would like the parties of the left to be stronger, but also more clear-minded and much more concentrated on removing severe deprivations of the really poor and downtrodden people of India.” “ But what about the priority that is attached to their dedication to fighting against American imperialism?” GMT enquired – and then went on, “ Now that the Soviet Union is gone, the Chinese are beating the Americans in the market economy, the Latin Americans and the Vietnamese are racing ahead with their own economic and social progress, surely the Indian Left is the only remaining political group in the world on whom the mantle of fighting American imperialism has fallen. And in giving priority to their dedicated pursuit of that philosophical priority, they have made various Parliamentary moves that have reduced the number of seats they themselves have in Parliament. It is not easy for me to make them politically stronger until they themselves think afresh”.
“I hope they will,” I said. “What the left really has to concentrate on is reversing the terrible state of the really poor people of India, rather than nursing an antiquated understanding of imperialism, or joining the other political parties in agitating for cheaper amenities for parts of the middle classes.” “Another lecture!” said GMT, “But I am a patient goddess, and ready to listen to your grumble about your own friends; so go on – what’s the fourth wish?”
“I would like the media to be more responsive to the needs of the poorest people, and less single-minded in their coverage of the world of glitzy entertainment and shining business opportunities. They are right to grumble about the way subsidies waste economic resources, but largely fail to denounce subsidies for the better off, in the way subsidies for the unemployed and the hungry are savaged in the press. Reading the papers or listening to media on fiscal irresponsibility of supporting employment schemes and food subsidies, you would scarcely guess that many times as much governmental money is spent on subsidizing electricity for those who are lucky enough to have power connection (a third of the Indian people have no connections at all), subsidizing diesel, cheapening fertilizers, offering low cost cooking gas (most Indians have no instruments into which these inputs would go) than on supporting food and employment schemes for the poor. The latest figures are the following: Subsidies on food 0.85 percent of GDP; employment guarantee scheme (NREGA) cost 0.29 percent of GDP. Compared with that the power subsidies, in various forms, for those who have electric connections amount altogether to more than one full percentage of the GDP, possibly closer to 2 percent, to which should be added 0.66 percent on fertilizer subsidy and 0.97 percent on petroleum subsidy (diesel, cooking gas, etc). So the much criticized food subsidy and employment guarantee for the poor and the unemployed cost about 1.14 percent of GDP, whereas the cost of subsidizing electricity, fuel and fertilizers for the relatively better off is minimally 2.63 percent, and possibly closer to 3.63 percent of GDP – more than three times what is allocated to feed the poor and provide employment to the unemployed.”
“Yet,” I continued, “reading the papers and hearing broadcasts you would tend to think that it is subsidy for the poor – food and employment – that strains India’s public resources, even though two to three times as much governmental funds are spent in subsidizing the better off. In fact, since the Government spends only a miserable 1.2 percent of the GDP on health care (unlike in China where the percentage is nearer 3 percent) the total government expenditure on health (in all forms), food subsidies and employment subsidy is much less than what the government spends on subsidizing the consumption of power, diesel, cooking gas, fertilizers, etc, for the relatively rich – and much more vocal – people.
It is sad that the most vibrant media in the world is so silent on the needs and predicaments of the poorest. A third of Indians have no electric connections. The media made such a fuss – quite rightly in its context – about 600 million people not having power on a day in July two years ago when there was a terrible administrative bungle about power supply, but neglected to report the fact that 200 million of those 600 million people never had any power at all – a perpetual black-out – because they were not even connected to electricity.”
“Enough, enough,” said the goddess, “go on.” “My fifth wish is easy to speak about,” I said, “since it concerns persistent deprivations I have been nagging about for decades: all children must have decent schools to go to; every person must have medical care beginning with preventative care; women should not have to lead more deprived lives than men; the country should not be full of undernourished children (not to mention the most undernourished in the world); every child has to be fully immunized (rather than a third of the children being left out); everyone should have a home with a toilet (rather than half the population having to defecate in the open, even as India supposedly joins the elite club of the world); and there should be generally good higher education and a sustainable environment.” GMT said, “You ask for a list of different things as parts of one wish. However, I will not be small-minded, since I am medium-hearted.
“But all that you have asked for should be very easy to achieve if your countrymen start making intelligent use of the resources that economic growth generates. And this will work both ways: The advancement of human abilities resulting from these supportive changes will, in turn, help to sustain high economic growth in long run, because nothing, ultimately, is more important for economic growth than having a healthy and educated labor force (ask the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and other Asians and they will tell you). That is the biggest lesson of East Asian development that India has missed. “
“Since we agree on that, may I put in a wish, dear goddess,” I said,” which concerns a peculiar judicial decision in India, which has recently recriminalized homosexual personal behavior. The British rulers had made that a criminal offence in 1861, and made many people vulnerable to black-mail by the police and to penalization. That Article 377 of the Penal Code was overturned by the Delhi High Court as being contrary to personal rights guaranteed by the Indian constitution, but then the Indian Supreme Court – represented by exactly two judges – has reversed the reversal, and made a strictly private behavior, once again, a social crime. Can you reverse the reversal pf the reversal, dear Goddess?” “Let me see,” said the Goddess, “How I can persuade the Indian Supreme Court to think again – may be they will listen more to the voices of the Indian people than to the plea of a goddess above the clouds.”
“Let’s go on, “continued GMT. “Do you really want another wish?” “May I? I wish we in India will recognize our strength because of the nature of the country as well as the opportunities given by India’s democracy, which has been skillfully used recently by AamAdmi Party (even though they have a lot to learn about on what their programs should really be). We have a lot of corruption, but it has become a major electoral issue, which, in a democracy, is the best way for a long run solution, which will require many administrative reforms. But there are many achievements already, and it is not the case that nothing happens here other than what the business community does, and the state, in particular, cannot achieve anything (as many people go on repeating) . India was the country of families until the empire ended, and we haven’t had a real famine since independence, thanks to public action, India was expected a few years ago to have the largest concentration of the AIDS epidemic, but the public attention and social engagement has removed that threat. Since polio eradication became a politically sensitive issue, things have happened and India is now polio-free. We had a super-cyclone in the fall coming from the Bay of Bengal, many times the size of Katrina in the USA, but the government moved a million people off the coast in a good time, and predicted disaster did not happen. Even though India’s record of social achievements is low, wherever they have tried hard to make a change – like in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh – education and health care have surged ahead and so have economic growth, so that these erstwhile poor states are now among India’s richest. We can do things if we put our mind to it.
“Take gender inequality”, I went on. “There is a lot of attention that is right now being given to the incidence of rape in India, which is an improvement. But some recognitions are missing still. The reported rate of rapes in India is low (it is 1.8 per hundred thousand in India compared with 27 per hundred thousand in the USA and 29 in UK). There is surely a huge underestimation here, particularly when the victims come from the poorer and less privileged classes. But even after raising the Indian number ten-fold, the rate of rape in India would still be lower than UK, USA and most countries in the world. The main problem is not the high incidence of rape in India, but the difficulty in getting the police to cooperate and help victims, and for the society to take greater interest in sexual assaults on vulnerable women, particularly from the poorer and less privileged classes and castes. Some steps are being taken right now to change this, including stopping sexual trafficking of girls from very poor families. But much more needs to be done, and indeed can be done if we try.”
“People are very worried – and rightly – that selective abortion of female fetuses is so common and makes the female-male ratio at birth much lower in India as a whole than in the range for European countries. But nearly half the Indian states – in fact all the states in south and the east in India (from Kerala and Tamil Nadu all the way to West Bengal and Assam) – have female-male ratios at birth that are well within European range, and it is the fact that all the states in North and West have much lower female-male ratios than in Europe that makes the Indian average come out to be so low. So there is much learn from within India itself. Can you help in this, GMT, in making Indians less defeatist?” I asked.
“I can’t do that”, said the goddess, “it has to be the Indians who change their defeatist mind-set.” “That’s a letdown,” I said with frustration. “Not at all,” remarked the goddess. “I am telling you that you can solve these problems yourself – you don’t need anybody’s help. You have to know what the problems are, and how they can be solved.” “But, “I complained, “ even if it becomes clear what our problems are and how they can be solved, how can we share this knowledge, and make all Indians take an interest in our real problems?” “Well,” said GMT, “the social media can help, and – very importantly – you must read more books.”
“And,” GMT added, “the time has come for you to go to the Jaipur Festival – good reading! “ As the good goddess suddenly vanished beyond the clouds, I returned to my little GSAT-14, launched by the world famous GSLV-DV, to come straight to the festival. And I am grateful that you are all here. Thank You!”