In a 1982 essay, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen asked how India was doing and concluded that its progress was mixed. Revisiting the question 30 years later, C. Rammanohar Reddy notes the co-existence of change and changelessness that is India today. Everything that makes you shudder is here. So too everything that says the citizen will not give up the fight for her rights

Thirty years ago, in an essay titled “How is India Doing?” (New York Review of Books, December 16, 1982) Amartya Sen took a synoptic view of where the country was. He concluded that while India was “doing quite well in many respects,” this progress was mixed and “had to assessed in the light of the persistent inequities, and the basic weakness of modern India that sustains them.”

India’s politics, economy and society have changed hugely in the intervening decades. But when reflecting on where we are today, what strikes one is the change with changelessness that is India in 2012.

Let us look at just four of the many broad areas that Sen covered in 1982.

First, the growth of the economy. When Sen spoke of signs of a pickup in the early 1980s, it was the beginning of a phase of the fastest economic growth in India’s recorded history. While we tend to look at what happened after 1991, the acceleration in economic growth started in the 1980s and continued thereafter. The pace of growth in the past 30 years has been almost 60 per cent higher than in the previous three decades. The phase of high growth has been related to the much greater role given to the private sector and the larger process of globalisation.

Economic opportunities have expanded, entrepreneurial avenues have exploded, some sectors are now organised on very sophisticated lines and millions in the urban middle and lower middle classes can aspire to a better life.

But what of “the human condition” or the quality of life of all Indians?

The one major success since 1982 has been in combating illiteracy. In 1982, only 36 per cent of Indians were literate; now it is only 26 per cent who are illiterate. But on the big question of extreme poverty, the answer is decidedly ambivalent. If we cut through the academic debates, it is clear that the extent of poverty has certainly come down in the past 30 years. This contrasts with Sen’s perception that there was no evidence until 1982 of a decline. However, elaborations as well as qualifications are required.

One, the decline in poverty has not been uniform across regions and communities. If in 1982 your parents lived on the banks of the Cooum in Madras or in Dharavi in Bombay, it is likely that today your economic status is better than theirs. But if you are from a Dalit or adivasi family in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, or Uttar Pradesh, chances are that you are no better off now than your parents were in 1982. Two, the benefits of growth have indeed trickled down, but that is exactly what has happened: it has been just a trickle. The incidence of poverty has declined, but a quarter of the population or around 300-350 million people are still desperately poor. Three, if other basic necessities like shelter, access to clean drinking water and sanitation are included, the picture is much more dismal. Research by R. Jayraj and S. Subramanian shows that severe “multidimensional poverty” afflicted 470 million in 2005-06, not much lower than the estimate of 520 million in 1992-93. Four, in certain critical areas — for instance, malnourishment and maternal mortality — conditions remain terrible. Close to half our children suffer from malnutrition, much the same as 30 years ago.

So if we paint a broader picture, the old sliver of the beneficiaries of India’s growth has only thickened a bit. For the large mass of India’s poor, daily life remains a struggle. There is no doubt India lost a major opportunity in the past three decades.

Let’s turn to the third area addressed by Sen — the status of women. Over the past three decades, a strong feminist movement has emerged, there has been a greater participation of women in economic activity in the cities, and there is reservation in panchayats for women, all of which would suggest a growing empowerment of women.

The sex ratio has at last begun to see some improvement, though only in the past decade. And the life expectancy of women is now, as it should be, longer than of men. But we are in a far worse situation than in 1982 with respect to the status of the girl child. The sex ratio at birth — the number of girls born for every 1,000 boys born — has declined in recent decades. And the sex ratio of children under six has also worsened. Whether the result of sex-selection at birth, female infanticide, or neglect of the girl child, India has become an awful place for girls.

Fourth, the position of the deprived castes. We have seen the emergence of strong movements that have turned into political parties demanding the redressal of traditional inequities. The epochal change is that the political parties of the lower/backward castes now exercise a major say in regional and national politics. These parties have brought caste back to the table.

The outcome, however, has not been any major improvement in the economic status of the deprived castes. It may be too early to express any definite opinion on the achievements of these parties, but the early optimism that they would position the demand for lower-caste rights as part of a larger movement for justice and equality has faded. These parties have at times turned into movements solely for the advancement of sectional interests, and, worse, have become vehicles of personal aggrandisement.

If these are the changes in four areas that Sen examined in 1982, one also has to recognise that major changes have taken place in other areas.

(i) Electoral Democracy

A significant change from the 1970s — which levelled off in the mid 1990s — was a rise in voter turnout, specifically of the rural electorate, women, and Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. All this has made elections more “inclusive.”

Yet, while the procedural practices of democracy — elections — have been placed on a strong foundation, the substantive practices — the accountability of institutions/elected officials, engagement with institutions outside elections, and the like — have weakened. Now even some of the procedural practices are falling apart, most notably in the working of the legislature.

I see three related causes for this weakening of electoral democracy. One, the absence of inner-party democracy. Today, no party — big or small, regional or national, cadre-based or family-based — practices democracy internally. How then can we expect elected bodies to function properly? Two, related to this is the rise of the family in political parties. Patrick French’s analysis of the current Lok Sabha showed that over 65 per cent of MPs under 40 had a prior family connection in politics. In the future, will a majority of our MPs be in Parliament because of who their parents are, not because they earned their spurs by working in forums of democracy? Three, money and politics. The assets of today’s MPs are obscenely large. The Lok Sabha is not a Hall of the People but of the Wealthy. The links between elected representatives, business, and the executive (and organised plunder) are now so intertwined that it is difficult to see state financing making a difference.

(ii) Decline of the Public Institution

There are public institutions that have been strengthened over the past 30 years, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India and the Election Commission being two of them. People have also developed greater faith in the judiciary, which it has been ready to respond to. But the larger trend is a decline in the responsiveness of public institutions to the citizen. A single Right to Information Act cannot neutralise the deliberate abdication of all state agencies in providing services in education, health, public transport, drinking water, sanitation, energy, and housing. Much of the abdication has been in the name of privatisation. Corruption is the other face of a decline of public services. It disempowers the citizen, and reflects a weakening of the rule of law, and most dangerously, the intertwining of business and politics (and crime).

(iii) Communalism

For a country that became independent amid gruesome violence on religious lines, communalism has been no stranger. Soon after Sen’s essay, we had the anti-Sikh riots of November 1984. Mass murder was conducted over three days in the capital under the benign gaze of a new Prime Minister. The message was: if you mobilise yourself with force, you can get away with anything. The message was heard, and put into practice in Bhagalpur 1989, Bombay 1993, and Gujarat 2002.

Beyond such open violence, it is the routinisation of communalism in daily life that is new. Mobilisation on communal lines took new forms after the Vishwa Hindu Parishad/Bharatiya Janata Party decided to raise the issue of the Babri Masjid. The rath yatra of 1990, the Congress’s cynical attempt at soft Hindutva, and the destruction of the Babri Masjid completed the post-Independence transformation of India on communal lines. All this has contributed in no small measure to the growth of domestic terrorism. India is tragically now a less tolerant society than what it was in the early 1980s.

(iv) Regionalism/Secessionism

In the early 1980s one could still speak of India having successfully navigated the “dangerous decades” after Independence. But the accumulated resentment that exploded in Kashmir after the sham 1987 elections showed that political India was far from “stable”. Whether in Kashmir or the north-east, insurgent movements have enjoyed considerable local support.

The Indian state has responded with the use of force and by propping one group against another with only the occasional nod in the direction of dialogue. This approach flows from a rigid interpretation of the nation as conceived during the freedom movement. The routine use of force to deal with secessionist/regional movements also brutalises the nation; as a result, we as a people have gradually become desensitised to state violence.

(v) Environment

Ecological degradation and the destruction of natural resources have increased sharply in the past quarter century. Our cities have become time bombs for health disasters. In rural India, it is deforestation, occupation of common property, over-exploitation of groundwater, and indiscriminate use of fertilizers and pesticides that have caused problems.

Many movements have emerged to protect the environment, much legislation enacted and many regulatory bodies constituted. But the core belief of the ruling elite continues to be that growth must come first and environment protection later.

(vi) Media

The media in 2012 is unrecognisable in numbers, variety and content from what it was in 1982. Beyond its “growth,” questions are now being asked of the government rules under which it has to operate and its own lack of rules on integrity. But the big question the media is loath to reflect on is how it has silently come to identify itself with the state and the dominant ideology.

The media now has a visible “pro-business” tilt, as the political scientist Atul Kohli would call it, towards selling a particular vision of India. Many print and electronic channels peddle a certain kind of “aspirational” lifestyle for the new India. There are close connections between this and a particular view of how the economy should function. As Kohli points out, the media also interprets the new lives of the upper middle classes “in terms of a pro-business mindset.” There is a similar identity of interests between the media and the state on national security, and India’s position in the world.

There are of course exceptions. There will also be exposés and confrontations with the state. But the media has begun to think like the ruling elite because it has bought into the dominant ideology and therefore refuses to question it.

The main sets of changes outlined here can be brought together to offer a larger understanding of how we are doing. The key lies in identifying who rules India and how they manage (not resolve) the country’s many divisions.

In a very rough formulation that borrows from elements of both political sociologist Partha Chatterjee and political scientist Atul Kohli, I would say that as before, we have a small ruling elite. And as before, this elite is a coalition of interests.

The ruling elite is made up of large Indian businesses, the new entrepreneurs in real estate, finance, and IT, the upper segment of the urban middle classes, the upper echelons among the bureaucracy, and even large sections of the media. This is neither a homogenous group nor is its formation set in stone. The state is neither a handmaiden of the elite nor is it autonomous. The new elite is impatient at being held back by the backwardness of India. It is dismissive of electoral politics, though it is this electoral democracy that legitimises its exercise of power.

Consider an example of how the system both stabilises and destabilises itself. The state introduced the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act against all opposition from the ruling elite. It did so not just for “electoral considerations” but because it realised that it had to set in place some survival support systems for those in rural India who were excluded from growth. When the state finds the scheme has become very large and there is opposition from new quarters, it finds it cannot roll it back because the deprived use their vote to ensure its continuation. To shed some of its fiscal responsibility, the state then starts contemplating alternatives like cash transfers in other important areas like the public distribution of food. All the while, the state sanctions the undermining of livelihood systems and oversees their sale to big business, though these systems are more important than anything NREGA can provide.

The system worked like this even earlier but there is a new violence to the dominant agenda. Before the 1980s, there was a larger nation-building project. We did have sharp divisions, class interests took control of the national agenda, and there was corruption and manipulation of the system. But the narrative then was to build a nation of opportunity for all. Political parties represented particular interests, but as Kohli puts it, “politics also had a public purpose.” Citizens with their votes would invest in the executive the agency to try and realise this public purpose.

The first post-Independence project did not succeed. In its place now is a different kind of transition, to a more selfish society. Today’s elite is more involved with itself. It is impatient with anything that holds back the expansion of its economic muscle. Hence the talk now of “policy paralysis” and the political investment in something as trivial as foreign direct investment in retail. The “self-confidence” about India that is part of the dominant narrative is simultaneously intolerant of any questioning from within or without.

There is a violence in this agenda because here the larger nation does not exist. There is a new disdain among the elite for the deprivation that surrounds it. Hence the mental and at times even geographical separation from the larger part of the country. All this together makes for a less compassionate, more intolerant, and less sensitive country than before.

We have always been a very deeply divided society. The practice of democracy over six decades has not closed these divisions. Electoral democracy has actually built on them. In recent decades, new dimensions have been added to these divisions and these have contributed to greater inequality. Until the 1980s, the division used to be not very accurately portrayed as one of India vs. Bharat. Today’s divisions run along multiple fractures — class, caste, gender, urban/rural, advanced/backward regions, and even religion.

There is a bleakness in this understanding of contemporary India that gives little reason for hope. But a counter can ironically be found in the daily and relentless struggle of citizens to demand their dues from the state. What holds out hope is the continuous mobilisation, the daily demonstrations, the pressures exerted on the state not to be subsumed by the ruling elite, the ferocious, and sometimes even destructive, contestations.

A lived and tragic example of the many dichotomies of India is the story of Naimuddin Mohammed Yunus Ansari from Naroda Patiya, Ahmedabad, who suffered grievously in the 2002 killings):

“The mob killed my mother Abida Bibi. They flung my seven-year old niece Gulnaz Bano into the fire. She died. My sister Saeeda died of burns at the hospital the next day. I was attacked by swords and lost my 11-month-old daughter while trying to flee. I found her at the Shah Alam camp two months later,” says Naimuddin. His wife Naseem (name changed) was gang raped by four men; her left arm chopped off with a sword, he adds.

… It was only in 2010, when special court judge Jyotsna Yagnik started hearing witnesses’ testimonies that Naimuddin persuaded Naseem to give hers, the only woman to survive gang rape among the hundreds of victims of brutal sexual violence at Naroda Patiya.

“Jyotsnaben listened so attentively to us, we salute her a hundred times. If the defence lawyers stared at us or tried to intimidate us, she would tell them off,” says Naimuddin who made a living selling bread and biscuits in Naroda Patiya but has been unable to restart his business since. He works as a daily wage labourer now. “I told Naroda police at the Shah Alam relief camp that I recognise the attackers. Many of them used to buy bread from me.” (Anumeha Yadav, “A Partial Sense of Closure,” The Hindu, September 6, 2012)

This is a story of India today. First, the grinding poverty. Naimuddin was a poor itinerant seller of bread before the riots. Today he is a wage labourer. The years of growth and Gujarat’s prosperity have passed him by. Second, the violence, when your neighbours and acquaintances set out to do the most terrible things to women. But we also have here an example of the state’s unwillingness to protect its citizens. Third, in spite of everything, Naimuddin and his wife retained faith in the system of justice. Fourth, the system — even if it needs a nudge — can deliver, as in this case when 32 people, including one former minister and one political leader, were given life imprisonment. Fifth, when citizens fight for justice against all odds, individuals holding office can on occasion meet their expectations. Here it is the judge, Jyotsna Yagnik, who is an example of the state showing the impartiality that the citizen expects of it.

This is a microcosm of India today. Everything that makes you shudder is here. So too everything that says the citizen will not give up. And, finally, that all is not lost with the state.

This is the reason why we must remain optimistic about the future. In the end, one of the achievements of electoral democracy and the working of the Constitution is that the citizen knows she has rights and will fight for them, however much she may despair at not being able to exercise them.

(This is a revised and shortened version of the 2012 S. Guhan Memorial Lecture delivered in Chennai on December 5, 2012. The author is Editor of the Economic & Political Weekly, Mumbai. Email: ram@epw.in)