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A false sheen?

`The country is forging ahead, it's poised on the brink of greatness, and there are even these advertisements that tell us so'. So is DILIP D'SOUZA justified in being sceptical? Is India really shining or is it just this?...


COME with me to Joda. Take the road that arrows inland from Orissa's coastal plain, through muted hills and stands of sal trees whispering in the breeze. Come with me to this corner of Keonjhar district, this mining town that wakes each morning to a blanket of gentle mist.

And when we reach Joda, come with me to an anganwadi in the mine-workers' slum of Banspani, on the rust-red iron-ore slag-heap outskirts of town.

Migrant mine-workers — most of them are from across the State border in Jharkhand — only a few miles away. Parents leave their children at this anganwadi while they go to work. And as these children — skinny, bright-eyed and cheery — play about us, join me as I pore over this sheaf of charts the anganwadi maintains. Weight charts, these, printed and distributed by the Government to record children's weights as they grow.

Pore with me, because I promise we will learn some lessons about India.

First, every single kid who has passed through this anganwadi — about 100 — is malnourished, most seriously. The chubbiest five-year-old recorded weighs 13 kilos. (My four-year-old, no fatty by any means, has crossed 20).

Second, many children were actually normal at birth. By six months, every single one sinks into malnutrition. Why? In a word, neglect. Under pressure to work and earn, parents must leave home for long hours. Mothers don't breastfeed. Barely older siblings take care of the tots, feed them, bring them to the anganwadi.

Third, several children endure frequent sharp weight losses — half their weight, in some cases — from one month to the next. These are caused by diarrhoea and malaria. In already sickly children, these attacks are devastating. Sometimes fatal.

Glad to know all this? There's a punchline. The charts come preprinted with four curves, marked "1", "2", "3" and "4" — for four levels of malnutrition.

Level "1" ranges from 2.75 kg at birth to 15 kg at five years old; level "4" from 1.5 to nine kg; "2"and "3" are in between.

Think of this for a second. Why does the Government print these curves on the charts? Because it assumes that the mine-workers' children will be malnourished. And it's a good assumption: as I mentioned, the charts say that every single child is malnourished, most hovering around the two lowest curves.

Learn all this with me, and maybe you're saying this happens only in distant and hapless Orissa. Think again. Think Melghat in industrialised Maharashtra, where malnourished tribal children have died by the score.


Now let's do something else. Let's ask these kids, or let's ask each other: is India shining? Is this one of those now-famous "feel-good" moments? Let me guess. You've thrown up your hands, dismissed me as one more of those pinkos from our Nehruvian past who see only the bad in India. The country is forging ahead, it's poised on the brink of greatness, the Sensex is through the barsati, and there are even these ads that tell us "India Is Shining", dammit! And old man D'Souza sings a tired old song of a tired old India? Nobody wants to hear it any more! Which is just the point, actually. You see, I look at it this way. I'm told our spanking new highways — Bombay-Pune, the GQ — instill pride in our hearts: pride that India can also design great engineering projects, then implement them as well as anyone. The highways are always cited as a reason for India shining forth. Sure, on a recent trip to Pune, I too marvelled at the highway as we zoomed along at speeds I've never before touched in India.

Yet the highway is a minimum of an hour from my home. I want to know why do I need to spend an hour to reach a place where I can feel proud of my country? Why shouldn't I feel the same pride as I step out of my home? When I do step out, I see piles of dirt and stones on some of the worst roads on the planet, highways or no highways. I see grubby children begging at every corner. Heaps of garbage with pigs and more kids rooting in them. A woman who lives in a nearby flowerbed — yes, you read that right, a flowerbed — eating and drinking and defecating right there.

You get the idea. Hardly unusual sights.

I open my newspaper to read that some of the top cops in my city — seriously high ranking enforcers of my own country's laws — are neck-deep in a grubby, but massive, swindle to do with stamp paper. I find that an idealistic young engineer, working on those same splendid highways, was murdered for doing his job well. I read that some of my countrymen belaboured some others of my countrymen purely because they came to my city from other parts of my country, searching for jobs. I read too that unemployment is rising, leading directly to greater crime and violence. I learn that the child sex ratio — girls to boys — has fallen so steeply that we have actually killed a million little Indian girls in a decade.

Slaughter on that scale, in Rwanda in 1994, we called genocide.

You get the idea again. And I remember, nearly every day and always with a jolt, curves in Joda.

What am I supposed to do, I wonder. Feel pride in these things as I feel pride in our highways? (Ah, what an engineering marvel is this fake stamp paper! Better than the real thing!) Or pretend they don't exist in India, circa 2004? Well, the "India Shining" ads carry no mention of them — I imagine the slogan wouldn't sit well on a backdrop of a Bihari being thrashed in Bombay — so perhaps I must not mention them either.

That is the point, after all, and it's very simple: don't talk about these things. If any of us care, there's a long litany of concerns in India. By the bushel, I could rattle off figures and anecdotes about them, and I know you have more. Nobody likes listening to them, true. We all get tired of bad news, dismal truths, about our country. Should that mean we decide one day to stop listening, to pretend this stuff isn't there? Shut your senses off from anything unsavoury and boom! India Shining it is! Is anyone fooled by this "India Shining" campaign? Do we all feel good merely because we are all told endlessly that this is a "feel-good" time? Have we hit upon the ultimate solution to our real and hard problems: just repeat to ourselves that our country shines? Is it our final goal to deceive ourselves? Let's be clear, though: a lot of things have changed in India.

STD booths at every corner first revolutionised communications here, in the late 1980s. Affordable cellular service is today's revolution. My friend Santosh, the dhobi, tells us proudly about buying a mobile phone for his parents in their remote village in Uttar Pradesh. Before now, the nearest phone to them was a five-kilometre walk away; talking to them an intricate, and lengthy tango, of messages travelling those kilometres. Now, their nearest phone is in their hands. Businesses of every kind — from Jet Airways to tiny publishers — are competing toe-to-toe with the best in the world, more than holding their own. Some of the world's sharpest minds are finding innovative ways to flower. Come with me to see all this and more too.

But as we do so, let me say this. I look forward to the day in India when I won't see old women sucking the scraps out of Chinese takeout plastic bags they find discarded in the trash. To a time when riot criminals are swiftly and firmly punished, irrespective of who they are or what their religion is, solely because they are criminals. To seeing every Indian child enrolled in a reasonable primary education system that gives each one a reasonable chance at life.

To visiting an anganwadi and looking at growth charts which do not have preprinted malnutrition curves.

I look forward, most of all, to an India where we don't hide some things away and trumpet others. Where pride or shame or things shining are seen as the empty words they are; where governments that peddle this emptiness are seen as the bankrupts they are. Where we recognise who we are, understand what we can be, and simply set about getting there. Take me to that India too.

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