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We don't have to go to the gallows, but tend to the grassroots
August 21, 2007
It is also a day to remember that 'what comes free today was once fought for.' And how. The masses waged a long struggle, lakhs courted imprisonment, thousands paid with their lives -- all selflessly smilingly at the altar of freedom.
That part of our history is generally better known to the present generation in varying details. But what is not sufficiently known is that during the freedom struggle there were serious discussions as to what we shall strive for after the attainment of Independence. And, a prior question: How free India shall be best governed.
Gandhiji asked us to reflect how Britain a tiny nation located 8,000 miles away succeeded in establishing its rule over India -- a vast country with huge population. The answer lay in the fact that, at the time in history, India was not governed by her people through popular will, but by autocracy -- the maharajas, nawabs and feudal lords. It made it easy for the British to either co-opt such rulers by inducements or by setting them one against another -- divide and rule, or defeat their individual small armed force one by one.
The moral was that in order to secure freedom, when won, it was imperative that political power was not concentrated in a few hands but universally dispersed -- entrusted in the hands of each and every citizen for safekeeping.
The citizens were to be the rulers and exercise their right through democratic means. It is thus that in 1950 our Constituent Assembly adopted the system of adult franchise -- one person one vote -- political equality to the core.
The passage of adult franchise was, however, not all that smooth. The objectors were concerned about the prevailing massive illiteracy. They advocated deferment of adult franchise till every citizen had been educated at least to a minimum level. The assembly recognised that illiteracy had not stood in the way of millions to fight for freedom. They had thus earned the right to rule via vote from day one. It decided to introduce adult franchise straightaway but adopted Article 45 to universalise elementary education within a period of 10 years.
Alas, this deadline has been honoured more in the breach, and not implemented fully till date. True, there is a sizeable number of those who have since scaled the Everest of higher education and done us proud. But, we have failed to provide the necessary cement of elementary education to all and thus fortifying our political edifice built on adult franchise.
Those looking today for challenges ahead could lend their shoulder to extend education facilities to every child in a mission mode.
Political stability is inseparable from ever increasing social and economic progress. In fact, this was another aspect highlighted during the freedom struggle. When embarking on public life Gandhiji wrote to Dadabhai Naoroji, 'I am inexperienced and young -- guide me -- Indians look upon you as children to the father.' Dadabhai advised that all the three great purposes -- political, social and industrial -- must be set working side by side. The progress in each will have its influence on others.
Thus, it was emphasised that after securing political freedom we would also have to win economic social and moral freedom. These freedoms Gandhiji warned were 'harder than the political, if only because they are constructive, less exciting and not spectacular. He proposed an all embracing Constructive Work Programme, which evokes the energy of all, the millions.' Get a copy, knowing it is a must.
In the social and economic sphere what was to command prior attention was hunger and unemployment. The stomach is a biological tyrant. It demands food at least twice a day. It is universal -- it affects each and every human being. To answer this character and compulsion of the demand for food, it was plain that the supply of food must be easy of access. Possessed of this realisation, Gandhiji formulated in 1928, what he called the Economic Constitution of India:
'According to me the economic constitution of India and for the matter of that of the world, should be such that no one under it should suffer from want of food and clothing. In other words everybody should be able to get sufficient work to enable him to make the two ends meet. And this ideal can be universally realised only if the means of production of the elementary necessaries of life remain in the control of the masses. These should be freely available to all as God's air and water are or ought to be; they should not be made a vehicle of traffic for the exploitation of others.'
We have millions of farms -- largely marginal and small, and millions engaged in agricultural labour. They have all been deprived of support -- be it credit, technical advice, minimum wages or organisational framework for increasing local production of food for local consumption and thereby ensure local employment opportunities and purchasing power.
What we have done instead in the past 60 years is the very reverse of it. While in absolute terms agricultural production has increased substantially the pattern of production promoted has created a few small pockets of high output.
Only 15 per cent of our 500 districts produce the surplus grains, which are then transported across from north to south, to east at tremendous cost. Worse still the food grains do not reach the hungry stomachs in time or if they do the hungry have little purchasing power. Consumption has been divorced from local production.
Is it surprising then, as the finance minister stated in his recent Budget speech that in our population of over one billion, 47 per cent of our children in the age group 0 to 5 years are suffering from malnutrition. Imagine it is half of our future generation. Of course in the next breath he praised our economic growth rate which was embracing 9 per cent which alas shines fully only on ten percent of the population.
Imagine also the likely impact of such gross disparity in income, education and food in-take (hunger-malnutrition) on the stability of our political system based on arithmetical equality: One person, one vote. Added to this is mounting discrimination and injustice heaped on women, dalits and the tribals. These are all a threat to our political system, which rests on equality.
The fault is not in our freedom but how we are milking the magnificent opportunity it has afforded. Should we not ponder and correct the course -- in both the direction and pattern of our economic growth, and then align it with our political foundations of equality?
The likes of Bhagat Singh did it for us. We don't have to go to the gallows. We could instead tend to the grassroots -- and morally bask under the Kite Runner Khalid Hossein's new title: A Thousand Splendid Suns.
Dr L C Jain was an active participant in the Quit India movement and has been engaged in economic-social development for the last 60 years. He was a member of the Planning Commission and India's high commissioner to South Africa.