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The meaning of Freedom
August 14, 2004
In writing this piece, I could follow convention. Begin by invoking the spirit of our founding fathers and their magnificent vision for our Republic; talk about our civilisational heritage and the nobility of our freedom struggle; point to the wonders of our improbable democracy and recent economic successes and, while at it, also promise a future when India, knowledge economy and all, will at last take its appointed place -- as the cliché goes -- in the global comity of nations.
Or, I could leave this grandstanding to those more well versed than I in statecraft, and speak straight from the heart. About an India that, after 57 years of freedom and self-government, still falls short on most globally accepted standards of human progress and well-being; an India that still promises vastly more than it delivers; an India, in one word, that still takes for granted a majority of its citizens.
In the end, I was forced to take the less charitable view; not because I don't share in any of the high sentiments that are so lovingly invoked in Independence Day messages. But because our long and continuing catalog of failures -- think of the recent Human Development Report -- has a far graver bearing on our freedom than our evident strengths. Because flaunting our perfect, indeed perfected, past and millenarian future -- like rare badges of pride -- is a sad reflection on our collective sense of self-worth. It speaks of a society that is happy to trade its present for the comforts of other times, past and future; a society that is content to aim low for fear of showing itself up.
But, most crucially of all, because this country today is a place vastly different from what it was even 10 years ago. It is now an overwhelmingly young country. And as is true of youth everywhere, it is restless and impatient. It has no time for conceit or platitudes. This, I dare suggest, is also the message behind the recent parliamentary polls -- that the India of 2004 is tired of political rhetoric. It wants governance: Bijli-sadak-pani [Electricity, roads, water] but also good education, decent healthcare, and a share in our newfound urban prosperity. In short, it seeks a taste of real freedom. A freedom which demands for its fruition, an economic, political and social landscape that guarantees individual dignity and makes available to every citizen the opportunity and resources to pursue the good life.
This freedom still eludes India. Despite the recent economic boom, a majority of Indians live in grinding poverty, and face deprivation every single day of their lives. Democracy has, perhaps, saved us from the horrors of famine. But it has yet to deliver us from the specter of chronic malnourishment. The tragic cliché of starvation deaths -- amidst agricultural plenty -- remains a sadly recurrent fact of our lives.
It is nearly the same story everywhere. Our literacy levels are slowly rising but the goal of universal education, despite every political promise and constitutional guarantee, remains elusive. Our system of healthcare, where we have the distinction of spending less public money per capita than just four other countries -- Sudan, Nigeria, Myanmar and Indonesia -- is a shambles and our civic infrastructure pitiful.
For millions of young children, particularly girls in rural India, the day still begins with a daunting trudge for water. Shockingly, more Indians have access to television than to tap water at home. An estimated 1.5 million children die every year of avoidable water-borne diseases. The Indian Constitution is among the finest in the world in terms of gender rights, but our sex ratio -- 933 women for every 1,000 men -- is well below the global norm.
Over the years, we have only added to our already formidable list of woes. The rapid rise of sectarian animosities is one such. India's record in protecting minority and civic rights is perhaps better than most, but, compared to the best, it is abysmal. A nation that prides itself on its plural traditions cannot countenance intolerance and the fear and insecurities that it generates. No freedom is complete without the freedom from fear, terror and torture.
What then is the way forward? After 15 long years of piecemeal reforms, we know enough about the power of the market and what it can achieve. But we also know what it can't. The market can give us efficiency but not equity. It can generate profits but not justice. In one word, it is not a substitute for legitimate functions of the State.
But the Indian State is ill equipped to play that role in its present form. Pouring more developmental money into the black hole that is our babudom is clearly not the answer. What is required is a drastic administrative overhaul. We must learn from the rare successes of state-run development schemes -- from the mid-day meal scheme in Tamil Nadu to education for all in Kerala to the employment guarantee scheme in Maharashtra -- and, where necessary, build new models of public-private partnership.
But more than that we must fashion a new public ethos wherein reaching out to those less privileged than us is no longer a cynical, self-serving political slogan. Those not so young might recognize it as a return to the inclusive spirit, which once founded this Republic.
We live in a time when hope is fashionably unfashionable. It is time to find it, to re-discover that faith and idealism which fired an earlier generation. Because it is this quality more than any other which has scripted our few success stories.
It is hope in this wider sense, which enabled my father to build, from scratch, one of India's largest modern enterprises. His was an undertaking powered by hard work, initiative, self-belief but, above all else, the capacity, as he would often say, 'to dream with your eyes wide open.' As dreams go, this one worked like magic, persuading million of small middle class investors to join in with their hard earned savings. In time, it gave meaning and substance to the idea of capital markets in India. The success of an individual eventually became the triumph of a nation.
The life of my father, a man without any of the inherited or acquired advantages that define success in this country -- from formal education to money to power -- perhaps best embodies the meaning of freedom, which I have been trying to put forward. His was a journey that took him, as all freedoms must, from the realm of necessity to that of choice.
Today, as we look forward to another year of our Independence, I ask the young of India to follow in Dhirubhai's footsteps: To dream big and then pursue those dreams relentlessly. As my father once said: 'If one Dhirubhai can do so much, just think what a thousand more Dhirubhais can do for the country.'
As we look forward to another year of freedom, I'd like to leave you with that intriguing thought.
Anil Ambani, Vice-Chairman and Managing Director, Reliance Industries Limited, is an independent member of the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of the Indian Parliament. He can be reached at email@example.com