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Special Content

volume-19, 10-16 August, 2019

Transforming India The Journey Ahead

Dr. Gautam Choubey

As we enter the 73rd year of political self-determination in India, we should be prepared to be a two faced Janus; we must look back at the great sacrifices and the monumental achievements of the past, even as we look ahead in anticipation at the prospects of a new India. Niti Ayog's vision document for India in 2022 takes these two imperatives in the same stride. It candidly foregrounds the challenges we have inherited from the past, even as it draws elaborate roadmaps for balanced prosperity and comprehensive social justice.  However, the significance of all democratic goals must be assessed across five axes: region, gender, community, class and the natural ecosystem. While the regional development schemes for the North-Eastern states and PM's Aspirational District Program (ADP) for the naxal affected districts aim to disseminate benefits of economic growth to every region of the country, our commitment to sustainable environment is enshrined in Swachh Bharat Mission, Atal Bhujal Yojana, our resolve to increase forest cover to 33.3% of country's total geographical area and in our commitment to voluntary emission reduction. Similarly, through endeavours such as scholarship schemes for minorities, proposal to double farmers' income by 2022, Jan Arogya Abhiyan , Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao campaign and through a concerted attempt at improving female labour force participation rate, India aims to keep its promise to the minority, the deprived and the vulnerable. At the same time, we are also trying to  encourage private and corporate engagement with developmental activities. This also entails, in no small part, sensitising citizens towards their responsibilities; occasionally over and above what is statutorily mandated.

But have we always been a society where inspired individuals complemented government-sponsored welfare activities? What emboldens a country to set such ambition goals, even the level of conceptualisation? In the spirit of the NITI Ayog's document on India at 75, this essay undertakes to address these questions through an exploration of the historical changes evident in public culture, science and democratic institutions-the three different-yet-interconnected fields.

Social justice as Public Culture

In 1957, Humanyun Kabir, the celebrated Bengali author-politician, contributed an article to a special volume of Phi Delta Kappan. This volume of the influential American journal sought to address the 'problems and promises of education in Asia.' Drawing upon his extensive involvement with India's education sector, his experience as the minister of education under Nehru and the

lessons learnt during India's first decade as a free nation, Kabir made a case for the universal applicability of technical

education. In India, traditional pedagogical practices have always been overwhelmingly theoretical and normative in their orientation. Further, till not so distant a past, our attitude to life was so exceedingly spiritual that accumulation of material comforts was seen as an affront to the much-revered Indian ethics of renunciation. By the same token, attempts to fulfil individual aspirations, or even having such private desires in the first place, was considered anathema to the spirit of community-living. However, as the nation was on the cusp of transition, India had to set its socio-economic priorities in order. Under the circumstances, and given the fact that the makers of our constitution had recast India as a citizen-centric nation, the quest to guarantee basic life-comforts to every citizen became pivotal to all roadmaps for a prosperous future. Technical education, inclusion of skill augmentation training in academic curriculum and a concomitant emphasis on bolstering entrepreneurial abilities of the young labour force were crucial to the newly-independent nation's fight against poverty, illiteracy, disease and superstition.

However, in spite of the challenging living conditions in India of the 1950s, appeals for voluntary forfeiture of state-guaranteed basic goods and services, that were necessary for a comfortable living, were frequently made. Responding to these idealist entreaties, Kabir argued that "independent India has rightly decided that the question of voluntary limitations of wants can arise only after the basic human needs have been satisfied. These are not today satisfied for a large majority of the Indian people." However, more than seven decades later, things have changed. India has reached a stage of economic prosperity where such pleas for voluntary renunciation and charity are met with enthusiastic embrace. In fact, such appeals have become logistically significant to government's endeavour at ensuring social justice. These trends are reassuring of the health of democracy in India. It is true that we are a welfare state and that the onus of providing necessary life-possibilities to the teeming millions falls largely on the government. Yet, these acts of individual charity reaffirm the belief that securing economic and social justice in India may be the statutory responsibility of the state, but in practice and spirit, it is a collective enterprise. While we do have challenges to surmount, roadblocks to level and frontiers to conquer, it is important to stimulate an atmosphere of optimism and a progress-oriented public culture.

Science for social justice

Fortunately, the scientists in this country, right from the early years of nationalist movement, subscribed to a public/progress oriented work ethics. The August 1947 issue of the acclaimed journal Current Science made an interesting prophecy about India's future.  Started in 1932 by a group of legendary scientists comprising the likes of C.V. Raman, Meghnad Saha and S S Bhatnagar, the journal opined that a combination of the 'spirit of the East', as represented by Gandhi, and the scientific temper of the national leadership, as embodied by Nehru, will usher in a new era of peace and prosperity for India. "We assure our national leaders that the enthusiastic cooperation of the scientists is at the service of the nation…that (which) seemed impossible only a year ago is now easy of achievement," the journal declares. Gandhi's persuasive voice, which had invented a new weapon of civilised humanity, capable of resolving conflicts both domestic as well as international, was fulsomely complemented by Nehru's resolve to turn India into a study in the social fruitages of science. There are two things worth noticing here. First, from the initial years of an independent India, perhaps from a period even earlier, our scientists have harboured an acute cognizance of their social responsibilities and their duties towards the process of nation building. Second, from Indira Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee to PM Modi, the majority of prime ministers who have inspired our scientist by expressing faith in their enterprise, come from non-science backgrounds. Although Nehru had a degree in natural science from Cambridge, he is best remembered as a lawyer and as the author of The Discovery of India. This syncretic exchange between science and society, and between the best of our minds and popular leaders, as is evident in the relationship between successive governments and our science community, attests to the fact that tradition of research and innovation in India has always had a strong social facet.

Over the past seven decades, Indian science community has galloped forward, from strength to strength. We have firmly established ourselves as a global leader in research. India has emerged as a major destination for outsourced R&D projects. Our ambition to break into the top 50 countries in the Global Innovation Index by 2022-23 is completely achievable. We have recently joined the exclusive club of countries with capacity to strike satellites in space, thereby strengthening our space security. With Chandrayan 1 (2008), Chandrayan 2 (2019) and Mars Orbiter (2014), we have not only achieved new milestones in technological self-reliance, but have also developed models of exceptionally cost-effective projects. Further, with the simultaneous launch of record 104 satellites from a single rocket in 2017, ISRO has scaled itself to an enviable plank in space commerce. It must be emphasised that such missions are not borne out of competitive nationalisms or fray for global prestige. They accrue from imperatives of water mapping, mineral exploration, weather forecast and a host of other purposes, which connect the most complex of science projects with the simple life of an average Indian farmer. In recent decades, projects such as National Innovation Foundation (2000) and Atal Innovation Mission (2016), to name a few, have managed to connect innovation with employment generation and sustainable development goals. While India's current capability in the fields of renewable energy, agricultural innovation, marketable technology transfer, smart urban planning and corporate investment in research leaves a lot to be desired, it may be hoped that PM's stress on anusandhan (research) will bear fruits in near future.

However, our basic democratic infrastructure is far more significant than both scientific infrastructure and public culture. It is therefore important to inquire whether we have fared well in terms of our democratic credentials too.

Strengthening our democratic credentials

The constituent assembly, which commenced its business on December 9 1946, embodied the spirit of Indian society: heterogeneity, fierce disagreement and yet, a unity of purpose. The twelve volumes of the constituent assembly debates are a dossier on our founding fathers; these volumes speak of their sagacity, concern for justice, political prudence, legal dexterity and democratic imagination. Although the majority of delegates were from the Congress and only 9 women participated in these debates, yet virtually every conceivable ideological hue found a voice in the assembly; socialists, feudalists, princely states, Hindu organisations, minorities associations, organisations of the so called lower castes and eminent scholars of law, each of them enriched the proposed blueprint for free India by bringing contradictory perspectives to the table. This broad social base was rendered yet more participatory by the exercise of comprehensive public feedback collection; a practice which lives on in contemporary India. This broadening of constituent assembly's social base and its representative character was partly a response to the sceptics in the Muslim League and British leaders like Winston Churchill, who dismissed the idea of a truly pan-Indian constituent assembly with the contention that the exercise will only bulldoze majoritarian views.

However, the fact of the matter is, not only was the Constituent Assembly justly inclusive, it was moored to men and women of unparalleled personal integrity and political acumen.  If Nehru was its liberal face, who could quote at will from both ancient Indian sources and histories of French and American revolutions, Patel was the real taskmaster who introduced and secured consensus on some of the most important clauses. He was instrumental in clinching incorporation of fundamental rights, equality of opportunity, a liberal determination of citizenship criteria, abolition of the practice of conferring titles, minority rights and rights of civil servants. In Rajendra Prasad, the assembly got the most amenable moderator and in B.R Ambedkar, it found the fiercest critique of decadent traditions and social orthodoxy. B.N Rau's experience as a legal advisor was invaluable and S.N Mukherjee's dexterity with words was unmatched. This collaboration resulted in a document so comprehensive that virtually every aspect of India's democratic paraphernalia was adequately addressed. Although we have borrowed generously from the Government of India Act, 1935 and there are several overlaps between pre- and post-independence India, there are significant departures too. As Paul Brass has noted in Politics of India Since Independence, our adoption of universal suffrage and fundamental rights, which were unthinkable during the colonial regime, attest to the democratic ethos of India's nationalist struggle and its formative leadership. Even as our founding father trudged painstakingly towards a truly inclusive democracy, they were always prepared to carve out independent and uncharted trajectories, so long as they promised brighter prospects for the country. Thus far, our constitution has been amended 103 times and over the past four years itself, 1420 archaic laws have been repealed.

This has been the story of Indian experiment with democracy. And the story, it must be empathised here, has been one of steady advance towards aspirational benchmarks. In terms of the composition of the Lok Sabha, the number of women MPs has increased significantly from a mere 22 in 1951 to its highest at 78 in the 17th Lok Sabha. There has been a significant jump in the number of women candidates contesting general elections: from 45 in 1951 to 716 in 2019.  Moreover, the fact that there are 300 first time MPs in 17th Lok Sabha underscores the dynamism and vitality implicit in the composition of this institution. It also goes to show that we are gradually breaking away from the monopoly of political cliques and dynastic politics.

To a great extent, our durability as a democratic country may be attributed to the institutions of democracy. India's election commission oversees world's most ambitious democratic exercise, our Supreme Court works as the guarantor of social justice and fundamental rights and our legislature unfailingly seek out constitutional resolutions to demands of the average voter, even at the cost of constitutional amendments. Although people have written obituaries to Indian democracy, citing its mind boggling diversity and the many contradictory claims which threaten to pull it as under, Indians continue to prosper and flourish. These negative prophecies flounder because they tend to underestimate the vibrancy of our democracy and our great love for its central exercise: the elections. 

The author teaches English at ARSD College, University of Delhi. Gautam.choubey922@ gmail. com

Views expressed are personal.

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