In a recent report, India has been ranked 102 in the Global Hunger Index among 117 nations. As expected, it did not trigger any shame or indignation in our media or academic and political circles. Official responses were conspicuous by their absence. There are several such key parameters that India should be concerned and ashamed about. We are still one of the ‘top-ranking’ corrupt countries in the world, with the 78th position in the Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International.
Even while acknowledging our improvements in several areas, we cannot be blind to a number of core issues that continue unabated. Infant Mortality Rate (which is as high as 39), poor nutritional status, rampant unemployment, urban poverty, air pollution, poor quality of clean drinking water, unaffordable healthcare costs and contagious corruption malign our claim to be an emerging superpower. Perhaps any such claim will ring hollow as long as these key parameters continue to mock at us.
What is saddening is the absence of any national sense of urgency to address the core issues that affect human dignity. Every ministry in the Centre and department in the states continues to have hundreds of schemes and missions, all of them cumulatively spending staggering amounts every year. The time has come to stop this ‘expenditure without outcome’. Unless there is a consensus and commitment at the national level to address, within a time frame, problems like poverty, corruption, malnutrition, clean drinking water, good primary education and affordable healthcare, we will continue to wallow in make-believe proclamations and feel-good imagery.
Unfortunately there seems to be no ferment of sleep-depriving urgency to heal the nation of these maladies. No agenda should be more important to the nation than this. All our political and administrative energies should be channelised towards this with a sense of non-negotiable urgency. The entire administrative dynamics and accountability architecture need to be reconstructed to achieve these national objectives.
Political and ideological differences among states and the Centre should not be allowed to mar this march towards human dignity to our citizens. As long as the political leadership does not display such steely resolve, bureaucracy will fish in troubled waters engaging in its favourite pastimes of make-believe reporting, creative statistics and clichéd excuses.
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Charged with such an urgent national mission, the government should freely share with the people the real-time achievements and lapses. This will generate a new alertness in civil society that will make the delivery mechanisms more accountable. Unfortunately, governments always indulge in statistics that they are happy to see and turn away from inconvenient truths.
Then there is the media management machinery of the government that refuses to understand the disservice they do to a democratic polity by suppressing uncomfortable facts, highlighting unimportant achievements and trying to manipulate images to inspire pseudo complacency. It is time we wake up and call the bluff. A nation that shares with its citizens its targets, achievements and lapses can hope for correction and redemption. A society that is angry and alert with the harsh truth is ultimately healthier than a society lulled with tailored news and manipulated statistics.
Our trajectory towards a $5 trillion economy is not a lonely path. The size of the economy is the cumulative by-product of a million activities. And if these poverty and deprivation gaps remain unattended, even a $5 trillion economy will lack sheen. No country can be truly rich if a substantial number of its citizens live in poverty and children languish in malnutrition.
How can we hanker after superpower status when development lacks social justice and economic growth lacks environmental sensitivity? Where is the moral acumen to resist the tidal waves of corruption? The government might be committed to uprooting black money and breaking the parallel economy. But what about the ubiquitous underworld of corruption? What about the still elusive accountability of bureaucracy for optimum results with every rupee spent?
While it is interesting to dream big, without action, dreaming becomes an act of omission. Where the fundamental parameters of human dignity are not attended, our fascination with the ‘promised super tomorrow’ becomes morally questionable. Where a bifocal lens is needed, a single glass can be unhelpful and sometimes dangerous. The country today requires a clear view of the future as well as a sharper vision of the present with its myriad problems. Power by definition has a penchant for self-deception. The more we talk about the glitzy future, our eyes become blind towards the unhappy present. The more we listen to imagined symphonies of tomorrow, our ears become incapable of listening to the still sad music of the poor.
It will be in national interest if we cure ourselves of this core-blindness syndrome. The treatment protocol is very simple though it calls for great commitment and determination. That national determination should deconstruct the way we address these issues and administer our programmes. That protocol should declare relentless war on corruption. That treatment should have the poorest of the poor in focus.
Even if our economy grows a little less, our democracy will be deepened if these debasing socio-economic problems are fixed. If the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi should not end with just hyperbole, good optics and vacuous verbiage, let us commit ourselves to addressing hunger, malnutrition and pollution, and redeem the dignity of the poor. That will be our homage to the Mahatma, who considered poverty the worst form of violence.