Nation in disarray

BERTRAND RUSSELL wrote in the 1950s that the sum of human misery has never in the past been as great as during the last two decades. It may no longer be true of the western world for which he primarily wrote then. But this assessment unfortunately applies to our country today. How else to assess the horrendous situation where nearly one third of children under 16 are forced into labour, 135 million people are denied access to primary health care, 226 million are without safe drinking water, 640 million lack basic sanitation and 50 per cent of the world's illiterates live in India.

The results of the recent Assembly elections dealt a blow to the Sangh Parivar and its opportunistic allies. But that advantage was dissipated by Ms. Jayalalitha assuming the chief ministership of Tamil Nadu. As it is, the tieup with her by the Congress(I) and the Left parties in spite of her conviction on corruption charges had spread disgust among the people towards the political system. Is panic then unreasonable if one feels that the situation is akin to a slow flame burning under a giant powder keg of discontent ready to explode any time. A situation like this was the prelude to the French Revolution when people standing in the streets read aloud Rousseau's ``Social Contract'' emphasising the public good. Where do we stand measured by that yardstick?

The much-publicised claim that India has achieved food sufficiency conceals a terrible reality. Even Planning Commission statistics accept that 268 million people in our country do not have enough to eat and half the women in the age group of 15-19 and three-fourths of the children are anaemic. And yet governments stubbornly refuse to start a food-for-work programme which will also give employment to millions. But such is the hold of bureaucratic oligarchy that this idea is not even being debated inspite of mass deprivation in Orissa, Gujarat and Rajasthan.

The richest 25 per cent of Indians consume 43 per cent of all production. Some 90 per cent of Indians, according to the World Development Report 1998, spend $ 2 a day, a figure it considers below the poverty line. What prevents a violent uprising in such a heart-rending situation is a constant mystery to me. I can only pray and hope for the development of a strong ideological political tool which could fashion this discontent into a peaceful, purposeful movement for social change in the country.

One of the essential functions of a state is to impartially use its coercive power against criminality in society. But it is here that it has totally failed - and that goes for governments of all political parties. The admitted politician-criminal nexus which has encouraged criminals to share and dominate political power has created a situation where the average citizen has no assurance for his personal safety and honour against the mafia. It is now openly admitted that for recruitment to the lower constabulary, bribes up to a couple of lakhs of rupees per post have to be paid to political masters. Obviously, an average person cannot afford that amount. So the mafia has stepped in with funding, which ensures that their criminality is never investigated and their moles sit in police stations.

The Central Government yielding to globalisation under the tutelage of the United States is a matter of deep concern. New Delhi's open support to America's National Missile Defence (NMD) has found us few friends. Permitting multinationals' entry even in defence production is a shameful surrender and a dangerous step. Even when defence production is exclusively in government hands, criminals and other anti-socials have easy access to armaments. With privatisation and the incursion of the U.S. armament industry, it would be a veritable opening for the underworld and the international mafia and thus pose a threat to the country's security and integrity.

The unpardonable manner in which we treat one third of the country's population, namely Dalits/Tribals, has the potential for a blow-up. Over 80 per cent of the Dalits are rural-based and half of them are agricultural labourers notwithstanding the so- called land reforms. Only 25 per cent are cultivators - the figure has come down from 38 per cent in 1961. In education (1993), only 16 per cent enrolled at the primary level as against 60 per cent enrolment among non-Scheduled Castes. But more than the physical and economic deprivation is the total social alienation and the insults that are heaped on Dalits. It is still common to find separate wells for them in rural areas. Even after the earthquake in Gujarat, the Patels refused to allow the tents for Dalits to be pitched next to theirs. This was a challenge to our Constitution which had abolished untouchability. In my view, the inaction of the Gujarat Government against such practices should have resulted in its dismissal. I was shocked on my visit to Tamil Nadu to be told by a Dalit Christian priest that so much is the social ostracism that the Dalit Christians are not allowed to be buried in the same graveyard as non-Dalit Christians. Rammanohar Lohia had warned that ``the system of castes is a terrifying force of stability and against change, a force that stabilises all current meanness, dishonour and lie.'' He had wanted Dalits to be pushed into positions of power. He was clear that it was futile to talk of revolutionary politics unaccompanied by social change and further that ``only that political party has a future in the country which would make itself the spearhead of this social revolution and herald a new dawn.''

And yet none of the political parties is willing to take up this issue as a priority. But then how can you expect this when Mr. Ajit Singh, the western Uttar Pradesh Jat leader, when taunted for cozying up to the BJP justified it by unabashedly saying that ``policies and principles are of no consequence in today's alliance politics. Caste combinations and mutual interest matter the most''. Can political cynicism fall any lower?

The Union Government has taken a decision to host the Afro-Asian Games at a cost of hundreds of crores of rupees even when the country is facing drought and starvation deaths. The insensitivity of the Government and politicians who use their position to indulge in self- advancement is disgusting. Compare this with the friendly chiding to Tagore who asked Gandhiji why he did not enjoy the beautiful picture of birds singing early in the morning. Gandhiji reminded Tagore that he had seen birds who for want of food had no strength left and that he had found it impossible to soothe suffering with a song from Kabir. The Afro- Asian Games will not put a morsel in a hungry mouth. It will only feed the petty vanity of the politicians; but let them remember the grim warning uttered by Gandhiji that ``to people famishing and idle the only acceptable face in which God can dare appear is work and promise of food as wages''.

Looking around, I find an eerie similarity to the period of the French Revolution which made Rousseau say ``when a prince no longer administers the state according to laws then the state is dissolved, the social pact is broken'' and political life has been destroyed''. Unless our political leaders heed the warning in time the powder keg could blow up any time.

(The writer is former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court.)