Durgabai Deshmukh’s vision and tenacity as a social and political activist emerged from her rich and eventful life as well as a deeply personal sense of ethics. Beginning in 1921 as a spirited 12 year old volunteer in the Freedom Movement, she was to mature as a freedom fighter who engaged in diverse nation-building tasks while retaining the ability to read the narratives of disadvantaged groups separately within the generic upheaval of the Freedom Movement.
A leading criminal lawyer at the time of Independence, she worked for the Relief and Rehabilitation Committee in the wake of Partition, founded institutions like the Andhra Mahila Sabha, was a member of the Constituent Assembly and sought an amendment to make the Directive Principles part of mandatory reporting. In 1954, she became the Chairperson of the Central Social Welfare Board (CSWB) and was the founder of the Centre for Social Development (CSD) in 1962.
But this cross between a rebel and an institution builder never settled into the growing privileges of the governing classes in post Independence India. Referring to the two decades of planned development, she declared that, “...the results are not commensurate with the efforts”. As a member of the Planning Commission, she told Jawaharlal Nehru there was no use talking about social welfare without making budgetary provisions for its institutions. She remained a perennial outsider in the corridors of power.
Towards Just and Equitable Development is a collection of 15 lectures delivered as part of the Durgabai Deshmukh Memorial Lectures since 1992 at the CSD edited by Rajiv Balakrishnan. The lectures represent some of the most respected and experienced minds working in the field of social and political activism, driven by goals of delivering reform and welfare in post-Independence India.
They offer critical insights in the fields of health, education and environment. Working with disadvantaged groups and engaging with the most difficult issues of our times has enabled them to study the specific failures of the Indian state and its growing insensitivity towards its own citizens and their future. Aware of the precedents set by activists of Durgabai’s time, the descriptions of the challenges they face today confirm the fact of our decline as a nation which regards equitable development as a national goal and acts to achieve it meaningfully. These are ideas and critiques which ought to be central to the planning process, particularly because they have gone missing from most contemporary narratives of a “successful” India.
Sociologist Suma Chitni who has served as VC of SNDT University in Mumbai shows how the ill-effects of poorly conceived policies and flawed decision-making by the government can also constitute the opposite of social uplift and welfare.
Writing in 1992, she provides examples of the manner in which the indiscriminate increase in the numbers and capacity of higher education institutes has amounted to nothing more than political tokenism. Showing just one example of the lack of seriousness with which the issue of reservation is implemented, Chitnis cites the case of the Homi Bhabha Science and Mathematics Education Centre in Mumbai. This body has studied the needs of socially and otherwise disadvantaged students and recommends that these students need assistance from standard III onwards or at least after class VIII.
The Centre has scientifically designed and prepared the learning material and strategies required for the purpose. But such measures and their nuances have never been taken up in a public discourse which has grown increasingly coarse and distorted. Chitins adds that proposals for giving a year’s coaching to reserved quota students invite questions in Parliament, as to why courses at IIT are allowed to be so elitist as to require coaching!
Dr Pushpa M Bhargava, the architect of modern biology and biotechnology lists the problems related to the launch of improperly assessed Genetically Modified Organisms. India must engage with the potential of biotechnology but think it through as a responsible nation aware of national and even international good. One way of doing this for instance would be to keep seeds under the national jurisdiction as many other countries have done.
Dr NH Antia, a tireless worker in the field of community health care, writes of his grassroots experiences in exploring effective, low cost health delivery systems. He finds the state complicit in exaggerating the inefficiency of the public hospitals, first by starving them of funds and then by politicising them through interference.
“The public is made to believe that health is a subject so complex that only the newest most expensive private hospitals should be entrusted with it”. Dr Antia cites the 1981 ICSSR-ICMR report, Health for all, as an alternative. A low-cost and decentralised people-oriented model operated right from the village to the specialist hospital, it describes the skills, limitations and facilities required at each level. A key component is the use of local women who can work as village functionaries and whose intimate social ties and local knowledge of health practices and issues, in combination with a local functionary catering to a population for 2500 to 5000, is the bedrock of a cheap and effective system.
Durgabai’s differentiation between social reform, social work and social welfare, even as she addressed the distinctive imperatives of each in a broad spectrum of activities, continues to hold true today in a context when social and political activism are sought to be artificially separated particularly with reference to the alternately modish and self serving definitions of civil society.
As activist Aruna Roy points out, the RTI and NREGA were created not just by civil society alone. The campaigns and struggles of the poor to which the progressive middle classes also contributed, was largely responsible for the enactment of these laws. Roy is troubled by the self-serving cynicism and apathy of the middle class which can afford to ignore the invitation to participate in democracy, unmindful of the fact that this creates a profound social and political deficit in the country.
One of the delights of the book is the manner in which an emotionally charged but intellectually clear empathy is expressed in very personal terms by many of the speakers who choose to set aside the obsession with academic objectivity to speak their minds. Roy refers to her work as a social activist thus: “... one has to simultaneously deal with external exigencies and the inner voice of doubt ... ”
Reiterating that Durgabai’s attempts to mobilise women in nation building tasks through the CSWB amounted to nothing less than political action, Vina Mazumdar, political scientist and veteran of many feminist struggles provides a fine account of the history of women’s movement, political activism, voluntary sector and their natural synergies.
The sociologist Gail Omvedt makes a case for caste census and also points out that perhaps it is time to study the elite structures and not just the masses, to understand the many facets of social inequity in contemporary India better. Shanta Sinha, child rights activist says deficit childhoods can be seen as failures of a state which lacks whole hearted commitment to make any significant interventions. Today, networks for child trafficking span the country which also has the highest population of undernourished children in the world, the highest number of child labourers in the world and half a million female foetuses aborted each year.
The book is not easy reading for those who assert pride in the nation’s current avatar as a leading player in the global economy. But there is some comfort in knowing that the founders of the nation and the activists working today in diverse realms to make a more equitable nation had a great deal in common.
TOWARDS JUST AND EQUITABLE DEVELOPMENT — Durgabai Deshmukh Memorial Lectures: Edited by Rajiv Balakrishnan; Konark Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 206, I Floor Peacock Lane, Shahpur Jat, New Delhi-110049. Rs. 695.