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Updated: May 28, 2012 23:55 IST

The same old story, everywhere they go

Ramya Kannan
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“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.

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@Rishabh Agrawal:I agree with heartily. Reading the book makes the problems of people in the margins come remarkably alive. It will go a long way for a common Indian to understand and appreciate efforts of men and women from within the Government, the real unsung heroes and heroines and invisible ambassadors of change, full of promise for better things to come. The book could not have come at more appropriate time when people of India are sick and tired of corruption, feeling helpless, despondent and becoming incorrigible cynics. This is a must read book for every Indian interested in inclusive growth.

from:  N.G. Krishnan
Posted on: May 30, 2012 at 20:03 IST

Amidst books which discuss about how India emerged from a dark
country, both literally and metaphorically, to a shining one, I whole
heartedly welcome this beautiful effort. Unlike others books, once mentioned above, it seems authors in this book has tried to understand base problems which exists cause of ‘diversity’ and how single law cannot be just for everyone. What I feel most appreciating about this book is that it has been written in a way that readers will fathom prevailing bitter issues at the same time understand the most important asset of our country - diversity.

from:  Rishabh Agrawal
Posted on: May 30, 2012 at 12:38 IST

@mouli - absolutely correct. Unity in misery and mediocrity is what India is. The illusions to the contrary are wearing off fairly quickly, thank God!

from:  B S Kumar
Posted on: May 30, 2012 at 12:18 IST

How much money spent in 60 years to keep Kashmir. Some say 30k crores and others add one more zero.What we get. Just satisfaction of Ego!!! The other side is getting broke for this challenging condition. Just Ego. Sit on table and come to mutual result...but not possible as Paid Media(condom of politicians) has brainwashed mass. No Veto power country is ready to assist....Who will buy ammo if it is settled!!!

from:  ram
Posted on: May 29, 2012 at 22:40 IST

Extremely nice of The Hindu to have reviewed the wonderfully written book. I am half the way through reading this book and the authors have seamlessly communicated to me as aptly observed by Amartya Sen "a great observational introduction of India". Every Indian will greatly benefit going through the travelogue and experience as the book cover says very aptly "the hope and despair, misery and triumph, failures and innovation of another India - an India that does not make it to the front pages of newspapers and has not been captured by the roving cameras of the 24X7media channels - an India that remains invisible to most Indians". Books comes as breath of fresh air at a time when most of us are sick and tired of cascading number of mega scandals rocking the country daily. Authors Syeda Hameed and Gunjan Veda joins the irrepressible Aamir Khan of weekly TV programme of Sathyameva Jayate fame, in giving glimmer of hope to the suffering millions of 'Another India'.

from:  N.G. Krishnan
Posted on: May 29, 2012 at 21:09 IST

If this is stories from another India, then what would you call
P.Sainaths reports, there is no much difference. It is no more Unity in
diversity, it is unity is poverty and frustration.

from:  mouli
Posted on: May 29, 2012 at 20:24 IST
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