At least a Vajpayee, if not a Nehru

Transformational leaders will be judged not merely by the style of their speeches but more by the substance of their actions

Published - August 18, 2014 11:51 pm IST

DEGRADING: Manual scavenging persists in India, even though affidavits filed by States claim that this most dehumanising practice has been abolished. Picture shows a manual scavenger in Surendranagar district, Gujarat.

DEGRADING: Manual scavenging persists in India, even though affidavits filed by States claim that this most dehumanising practice has been abolished. Picture shows a manual scavenger in Surendranagar district, Gujarat.

The Prime Minister’s maiden Independence Day speech from the ramparts of Red Fort has drawn wide encomiums. While invoking our founding fathers, he was decidedly partisan in not mentioning Jawaharlal Nehru, a key architect of the modern Indian nation state with its profound commitment to parliamentary democracy, secularism, science and technology, and economic development. Other than this glaring and undoubtedly deliberate lapse, the speech brought into sharp public focus a couple of social evils that continue to be a scourge on our society.

Low child sex ratio

First, the Prime Minister’s concern over female foeticide and infanticide, reflected most vividly in low child sex ratios (0-6 years), was very timely and urgently needed. Such a ratio at around 950 (that is, 950 girls per 1,000 boys in the 0-6 years age group) would be considered acceptable. But in India, it has fallen from 945 in 1991 to 927 in 2011 and further to 914 in 2011. All our previous Prime Ministers too had expressed anguish at these numbers. Over the past two decades, determined social and political action have improved the situation somewhat in Punjab and Haryana — two States with notoriously low child sex ratios. The 2011 census revealed that the child sex ratio in Punjab was 846 as compared to 798 in 2001, while in Haryana it was 830 in 2011 as compared to 819 in 2001. These are still unacceptably low but the trend is encouraging.

But Delhi continues to be a cause for worry, showing a fall from 868 in 2001 to 866 in 2011. And what about Gujarat that is often held out to be a “model” of development for the entire nation to emulate? Gujarat’s sex ratio in 2011 was 886 (as compared to 883 in 2001) — a marginal increase no doubt, but significantly worse than the ratios in the southern States (959 in Kerala and 946 in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka). Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan and Jammu and Kashmir showed sharp declines in child sex ratios between 2001 and 2011. Incidentally, while overall sex ratios (number of females per 1,000 males) have shown an increase across the country in 2011 over 2001, they have shown a decline in three States: Bihar, Jammu and Kashmir and the Prime Minister’s showcase, Gujarat, where the overall sex ratio in 2011 was 919, as compared to 1,084 in Kerala and 996 in Tamil Nadu.

Second, the Prime Minister’s pain regarding the unconscionably high levels of open defecation in India should be shared by all unreservedly. Open defecation is an assault on the dignity, privacy and security of women. Less appreciated is that poor sanitation practices in our country are leading to a condition that public health experts call “environmental enteric dysfunction.” This condition contributes significantly to the persistently high levels of child malnutrition seen most visibly in stunting levels and tragically, perhaps, in loss of cognitive abilities as well. Clearly, chronic malnutrition cannot be combated only through ensuring food security. It must involve a fundamental transformation in sanitation and hygiene as well.

The Prime Minister stressed the provision of toilets in all schools, particularly for girls. That is certainly needed. But actions across many other fronts are also called for. The Indian Railways that carries over 20 million passengers daily is the world’s largest open sewer. More than extraordinarily expensive bullet trains that will cost upward of Rs. 100 crore a kilometre, what the country desperately needs are trains with bio-toilets. At present, over 60,000 coaches in use need to be retrofitted with this Defence Research and Development Organisation-developed technology and, of course, the 4,000 coaches that are manufactured annually must already have this installed when they are pressed into service. These bio-toilets are as essential for India as missiles and other technologies developed by the DRDO.

Thanks to the decisions taken by the United Progressive Alliance government as part of the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA), some 28 per cent of all Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) works in 2013-14 related to the construction of toilets. The unit cost of the toilets now being built was increased from Rs. 3,500 to Rs. 10,000. This has made a difference. For the first time, the NBA had provisions for dealing with liquid and solid waste management. The Prime Minister has spoken about involving the corporate sector as well. The UPA government had already made sanitation an important part of the guidelines for corporate social responsibility (CSR) stipulated in the Companies Act, 2013.

The Prime Minister’s priority to sanitation cannot but get support from across the political spectrum. States like Sikkim, Kerala and Himachal Pradesh are almost open defecation-free. Kolhapur is about to become Maharashtra’s first open defecation-free district and Churu and Burhanpur are on the way towards this distinction in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh respectively. Tiruchirappalli has become India’s first open defecation-free municipal corporation. Women’s self-help groups that have been a remarkable success story in State after State must mainstream sanitation into their activities. But toilet construction is only one part of the story — much more important is a gigantic shift in mindsets and behavioural patterns. Nothing short of a social or cultural revolution will do. The nation needs to be shocked into it — that was the spirit of my “toilets before temples”, “women have more mobiles in India than toilets” and “no toilets, no brides” remarks that created a furore when they were first made two years back and got the Prime Minister’s ideological brotherhood all agitated.

Manual scavenging

Given the time he devoted to sanitation in his speech, it would have only been appropriate that the Prime Minister spoke feelingly about the persistent prevalence of manual scavenging across the country, even though affidavits are filed by States in courts stating that this dehumanising practice sanctioned by our caste system has been abolished. The 2011 Census revealed that there are still 26 lakh dry latrines in the country and there could still be 3 lakh families engaged in this appalling and degrading occupation. In September 2013, the UPA government had got Parliament to pass a tough new law, The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. This “right to dignity” was very much part of the rights-based approach of the UPA that was launched with the passage of the Right to Information Act in September 2005. The Prime Minister and his colleagues have often criticised this approach but surely the ruthless implementation of this new legislation on manual scavenging is deserving of his special attention.

Transformational leaders will be judged not merely by the style of their speeches but more by the substance of their actions. The nation awaits a Prime Minister who, even if he disdains Nehru, governs at least in the Vajpayee mould: in a large-hearted spirit of give and take; one who takes people of different political backgrounds along amicably in the pursuit of pressing national endeavours.

(Jairam Ramesh is a Rajya Sabha MP and former Union Minister.)

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