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Parthasarathi Shome: A sense of independence

In spite of today's negatives and negativities, there is much to celebrate in the idea of India

Parthasarathi Shome 

Children are taught by their parents in their early years. Thus my mother taught her children a song by poet Dwijendra Lal Ray:

Dhan Dhanya Pushp Bhara Hamara Yah Vasundhara —
Our earth, with its abundance of crops and the richness of flowers
Holds within its midst a land that is the most beautiful of all lands

This land is built of dreams and bound by memories
This, the land of my birth, the queen of all lands, is ne’er to be found anywhere else
...I pray that I breathe my last in this land where I was born.

That memory of the overflowing sound of her pedal organ as a cacophony of kids chimed in the words and the competing intoxicating aroma of the surrounding flora has lasted intact.

It is August 15. I ready myself for a morning constitutional. Underneath, I feel upset. Independence from what? From abject hunger? Farmers commit suicide on their parched, unirrigated lands under debt burdens that break their soul. Cowed down, few question. Yet guaranteed dig-and-fill employment ensures unresponsive labour supply at harvest time. A quarter of Indian babies are wasted and half suffer from malnutrition or stuntedness. Save the Children claims India is worse than Bangladesh. The vast majority of them leave high school to have to feed themselves. The basis on which the term “demographic dividend” is used is mysterious.

Squalor surrounds urban and rural environments. It beats countries in Latin America, Asia or Africa. The Metro to Delhi’s airport is suspended reportedly due to cracks in its holding pillars; there is no shared information on who is responsible. After every shower, roads reduce to dirt patches. Ostriches. Nero.

Inflation (except most recently) has remained abnormally high. There is no dearth of lower numbers floating out of crystal balls. Crops rot or are meals for mice. GDP growth has crashed. Given our labour supply, a growth rate of 5-6 per cent should be considered natural in economic parlance. Any genuine effort should achieve higher growth. Manufacturing is weighed down by excessive, distorted and inequitable taxation. Its indirect tax burden, when considered in light of embedded, and cascading, taxation is among the highest in the world. Yet we have not enacted a goods and services tax (GST). Indeed, the proposed GST structure is at such odds with the world that it may be better to return to the drawing board. Ditto for the direct taxes code, where simplicity, clarity and certainty should be reinstated by revisiting the earlier versions and recognising that the world of taxation has moved on.

A sense of independenceInternational rankings of the cost of doing business and corruption reveal how challenging it is for economic activity to take place in India. Productive activity is confronted by bureaucracy that, by global standards, enjoys greater freedom from accountability and little need for specialisation. In the productive sector, what is crucial is to deepen competition. Why the reluctance to open up to international competition in the services sector? Can’t we observe how difficult it is to receive insurance benefits, especially by the lower deciles when they make legitimate insurance claims? Have we not experienced better banking with more foreign bank branches becoming available? Has opening up single brand retail in clothes or shoes obliterated domestic sectors? Would not the supply chain benefit, and farmers be better off than having to suffer crops being abandoned for lack of transport or people to move them? 

The prime minister said last Thursday: “The mindless atmosphere of negativity and pessimism that is sought to be created over ... corruption can do us no good.” Also, “Experience has shown that big-ticket corruption is mostly related to operations by commercial entities. It is, therefore, also proposed to include corporate failure to prevent bribery as a new offence on the supply side”. The chaotic yet crowd-pulling expressions against corruption that are gathering storm all around us point towards the need to not ignore the demand side either. The daily life of civil society has become near impossible. The lack of water and electricity even in upper-class neighbourhoods recently brought out their denizens hurling stones and bricks. With the rains, dengue has made its inevitable return, nesting in stagnant water that isn’t cleared despite being Budgeted for. Urban slum dwellers pass 10 or more hours daily without electricity, and often receive just an hour of water. Let us not even ponder rural civic amenities.

I enter my neighbourhood. I see the bust of Netaji and the tricolour unfurling. I enter Rabindra Sarobar. I see youth in imaginative uniforms in a drill under a commanding officer of sorts. I move under a canopy of neem and gulmohar trees along the meandering Lakes to my right. Loudspeakers blare patriotic songs from across the Lakes. I see Scout troops standing at attention at a distance, and guests across the water at the Rowing Club gathered for the flag-raising function.

I walk on. The sounds mellow. I find myself at a blue pandal set against an ample banyan tree and glistening waters. An orchestra is seated. It comprises six violins and a violin-master, a cello, a viola, a percussionist, a synthesiser, and a guitar. Sanjib Mondal and his men, linked to the Calcutta School of Music, Chamber Orchestra, and Youth Orchestra, are playing Scottish-Irish ballads familiar in Tagore operas. I sit down carefully amidst the attentive audience. There is chamber music; I recognise Mozart’s Symphony #40 in G Minor reminiscent of Itna na Mujhse Tu Pyar Badha, sundry western pop of yesteryears, alternating with Tagore’s marching songs as well as Saare Jahan se Achha. The programme ends with Jana Gana Mana to gentle applause.

I rise chastened with a sense of independence. People are celebrating by being out in droves. They have made the effort to organise enjoyable yet meaningful events. They seem to believe in India. Where else could you hear such a potpourri of world music? India is inclusive despite hiccups and heartburn. In spite of adversity, the poor do not loot. The startling mandated upward movements in the political and the commensurate social and educational status of the backward classes are unique to India. It gives Indians hope. Indians are an active people. Economic activity reigns over slothfulness. As I end my walk, I know why I keep returning to India and why nowhere else compares. It is the Indian peoples.   

I have a pen pal whom I have never met. He reads what I write. As I lamented the lack of a next topic to write on, he emailed back, “It would be great if you can write on development that has taken place in India in the last decade. Our cities have become like global cities, infrastructure, including rural infrastructure, has improved much, public transport has seen a sea change, and our economy is still one of the fastest growing in the world. India is blessed. Can any country take care of a 120 crore population ... only India can do this with pride. I firmly believe that India should always think positive, act positive, as it can be the biggest economy in the next 30-40 years.”

The author is professor, Icrier, New Delhi. These views are exclusively the author’s

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First Published: Mon, October 15 2012. 00:13 IST