“Why will anyone do anything for us? We are another country after all,” Mohammad Latif, of Jabla village in Kashmir asked the visiting team from the Planning Commission. “Another country?” they repeated. But it is from the stories of men like Latif that this book was born, stories from a country that certainly is not India Shining.
Beautiful Country is part travelogue, part social chronicle, driven by the passion and curiosity of its authors. For the same reason, the book shows no sense of hopelessness, given the immense task ahead of them. A point that the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia stresses in his foreword to the book: “Syeda has the ability to make things come alive in a way that government reports festooned with official statistics can never do.”
Hameed and Veda, both part of the Planning Commission, the first as member, and the second as officer on special duty, are good raconteurs. In their travels across the nook and corner of the country, they study its problems, but at the same time, mercifully, enjoy its immense variety. They were “two witnesses to this vast country as it unfolded before our astonished eyes.” It helped that they were sympathetic, were ready to lend an ear, and had a keen sense of history.
Rich with quotations from Urdu poets and heavy with research into places, people and their stories, Beautiful Country is much more than a sob-story chronicle, and certainly has not even the semblance of official documentation. They walk the tightrope between acknowledging the enormity of what is yet to be done on the field and marking efforts that have been put in, both by the government, the non-governmental organisations and individuals.
Starting with the North East region, widely acknowledged to be suffering from years of chronic neglect, is a clear statement of intent. “The needs here were very different from other parts of the country. But sitting in Delhi and making uniform policies for the country, we could not see this,” the authors state, with endearing frankness.
Chapter by chapter, they cover much of the country, from Kashmir to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Elaborate, sometimes longwinded, descriptions follow, of places and their histories, but also of the culture and traditions of its people, in addition to their deprivations. Which is how the reader gets a peep into the life of the Khasis of Meghalaya, the Kattunaikans of the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve, the Jarawas of the Andamans, the out-of-work plantation workers in West Bengal… “The names changed,” the authors note at one point, “the stories of their deprivation did not.” Lack of roads, drinking water, access to quality health care, education, government welfare schemes — the motifs were more or less consistent right through.
In the midst of this, the authors hunt for, and find, stories of courage in the face of adversity, of success stories, of dedicated individuals who make a difference or just do their jobs well. An anganwadi worker, Jilli Das, in Assam, a doctor couple, the Bangs in Gadchiroli, a collector, Amudha, in Dharmapuri, a woman Panchayat president in Kerala — all change makers, agents who keep hope alive in people who have seen the worst.
Hope, as the postscript says, is the fulcrum on which the authors based the book. And pragmatism. “We would have liked to say that yes, we changed it all. That we didn't just observe and record but actually wrought change … No, our dream world remained just that, a dream.” But answers have begun to emerge: the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme; Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the National Rural Health Mission. But clearly, the stories of the voiceless have been told, beyond sarkari files, a well-intentioned beginning has been made.
Keywords: Planning Commission