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On development in India

The Hindu today carries an extremely articulate interview with Arundhati Roy, which begins by talking about the Narmada Dam issue, but ultimately addresses the larger scope of the costly “developmental” strategies being employed in India.

Q: Given the relentlessness of the onslaught of globalisation, would you say your views paint you into a small corner?

A: I’d say our views paint us out of the small corner – the small, rich, glittering, influential corner. The corner with ‘the voice’. The corner that owns the guns and bombs and money and the media. I’d say our views cast us onto a vast, choppy, dark dangerous ocean where most of the world’s people float precariously.

The rest of the interview, especially the latter parts, are sobering and extremely thought provoking. While some of it may be exaggerated (for example, a claim that the situation in Nepal may be duplicated in Delhi within a decade), there is a lot in there to give one pause and examine the nature of so-called progress and development in India.

The last ten years have seen a drastic change in the yardstick we use to benchmark progress. When I was in school, I can remember newspapers and media talking about literacy, crime rates, number of people below the poverty line, food distribution, population growth, percentage of children attending school and so on. Today, though, all we seem to care about is about how high the Mumbai sensex will go, how many foreign contracts did Infosys garner, and how the IIMs compare with Harvard. GDP growth has become the single statistic by which we convince ourselves that we’re progressing, regardless of how that GDP is distributed between corporations and people, or how it’s distributed between rich and poor.

We’ve woven a surreal illusory world around us, a second maya-jaal if you will, that a nation’s progress equates with the progress of the middle and upper classes and with that of profit-driven corporations. Perhaps the most glaring proof of this is BJP’s “India Shining” campaign during the last election which brought back the cold verdict – no, according to the masses, India isn’t shining. The TDP in Andhra shared a similar fate, even though India as a whole was “impressed” with the IT development and GDP growth coming out of that state. But when rural farmers are desperate enough that suicide becomes a regular and common phenomenon, there’s clearly something wrong. We have the democratic process in India to thank (or hate, depending on your point of view) for the fact that we get occasional reminders that india is about a billion people, a figure larger (and not just numerically) than 12,000 points on the stock exchange, or 50,000 Infosys employees, or 10% GDP growth.

So why look beyond our current comfort zone to empathize with people who are so very different from us? Not just because we share a common land, identity and humanity. Not just because it’s perhaps the most noble ideal to serve the whole community, especially those who are less privileged. (Though these reasons are good enough). But because both sides are inextricably linked, what happens to one reflects on the other. Whether it is repressed youths lacking opportunity turning to crime, or educated unemployed crowding into urban centers, or food shortages causing inflation… we are in no way “separate”, and economic repression of the poor just because they don’t have a voice that reaches us will eventually affect us. The longer the repression continues, the more explosive the eventual reaction will be. The alternative to the explosion is terrifying – and that the repressed vanish or are crushed. That is a crime by international law, and not something that we can live with.

Seeing the big (and the real) picture may not be immediately compatible with a soaring sensex or a rising GDP, or even with providing the urban centers 24 hours of electricity to run their air conditioners. Or who knows, maybe a way can be found to make them compatible. But nobody will find it unless they search.

The people in-charge of this, of the care of the nation as a whole, are the people we mock every day. The government. We would rather have our “essential services” run by private corporations because we trust them more. But nation building can’t be privatised. The only way is to start by becoming aware of the issues, and showing the government that we care. Only then will something happen. The Indian Express has an article today that compares the government’s response to communal tensions in Gujrat today to those in 2002. In a large part, the differences are there because the people and the media spoke up in no uncertain terms.

We have the (admittedly unenviable) duty of monitoring and reacting to the world around us, for our own sake, if not for others. It doesn’t make sense to keep that model incomplete. It’s time to start seeing the big picture. Time to start creating a nation in which everyone has the right to prosper, live with dignity and with peace.

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