Dreams, desperados, El Dorado and the demise of reason
By Shankkar Aiyar | Published: 20th October 2013 06:00 AM |
Nobody has said nonsense yet. But nonsense it is.
India is struggling to make sense. In an age when young app-crazy Indians yearn for smart governance, the government of India is subscribing for a lottery, basis a dream-tip-off from a sage about the existence of a cache of 1,000 tonnes of gold buried somewhere between superstition and speculation.
To appreciate what a travesty, what a tragedy this is, consider these nuggets from history.
• In 1946, Jawaharlal Nehru—who chaired the Indian Science Congress till 1964—illustrated scientific temper as a way of deciding what is best for the community or the nation. He said, “It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, of a rich country inhabited by starving people.”
• In 1976, his daughter Indira Gandhi amended the Constitution (Article 51A) to induct development of “scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform” in the fundamental duties of citizens, and by implication, embedded the same as the obligation of the state.
• In 1984, soon after taking over as Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi said, “the challenge before us today is how to get India into the 20th Century”. The crux, he felt, was inculcating scientific temper as “it would remove the fear of the unknown which people back, which keeps people from moving ahead…” It would appear the challenge persists.
• In 2013, as Nehru’s great-grandson takes charge of the grand old party, Government of India is placing bets on an extra-terrestrial communication.
Consider the odds for the desperados chasing dreams for an illusionary El Dorado. In 1857, around which time Raja Rao Ram Bux Singh of Unnao is said to have left this treasure behind, gold was priced at around $20 per troy ounce (31gm). Assume dollar was equal to the rupee. Now do the math to figure out if the king with this small principality would have had the cash flow to have bought 1,000 tonnes of gold. Assuming he had, and it’s a big IF, would he have the resources to acquire gold in that quantity? Did India produce that quantity of gold at that time? It is not known if these questions were aired, answered or even debated. More importantly, it is not known if anyone considered the impact on institutions tasked with providing the nation with scientific answers. The Archaeological Survey of India, which is meant to drive the leading edge of inquiry into history, is now deployed to prospect the prophecy of superstition.
The location of the prophesied riches is itself not without irony. Unnao is among the 100 worst districts. It figures among the poorest districts in my study, India’s Socio-economic Fault-lines, and has been on the list of worst districts impacted by deprivation since 1960. It has a high under-five mortality rate, with 85 of 1,000 children dying before they turn five. Daudia Kheda—the site of the dig—is among those villages of rural India where an electricity connection is a valued aspiration. Neither the comparisons with Peepli Live nor the dark humour enveloping the saga is, therefore, surprising.
There is no sign of the gold yet. But there is a queue of demands and claims. The descendent of the king, who wants 20 per cent of the moolah to be invested in developing the area and the fort, to the sundry Uttar Pradesh politicians who believe anything found in Uttar Pradesh should belong to Uttar Pradesh, to local representatives of the seer who have submitted a list of development projects to the local administration. There are PILs in court, there is a police cordon around the site, ASI officials are at the dig, local, national and international media is present in full strength and unsurprisingly, the unknown sleepy village is now on map of the bizarre.
What is more bizarre is the choice of priorities, the corners of discourse. This week, India found itself on the marquee of nightmares. IMF and the World Bank downgraded India’s GDP growth forecasts. Indians were informed that there are 30 million slaves in the world and nearly half of them are in India. India is also among 16 countries—mostly south of Saharan Africa—where hunger is described as “alarming”. The Global Hunger Index states more than 40 per cent of children under five are undernourished and underweight. Home to one in four hungry in the world, India is ranked 63rd on the Hunger Index and trails countries like Congo, Niger, Djibouti. Each of its BRICS peers is ranked way higher. Even Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh do better.
The silent crises of India are scarcely on the agenda of the pre-poll discourse. And that may be by design. The juicy speculation around the rationale to bet on the tip-off drips with cynicism. The spin doctors have apparently sold this as a win-win idea. It is a distraction from the usual and ghastly news, it affords the political class an opportunity to promise and bequeath, and who knows there could just be that pot, nay 1,000 tonnes of gold, at the end of the dig.
It is not relevant what is found or what will not be found. What is profoundly tragic is what has been lost, what every Indian must mourn—the demise of scientific temper.
Shankkar Aiyar is the author of Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change