Questions of real national security

August 11, 2009 12:00 am | Updated March 08, 2010 10:38 am IST

Pushpa M. Bhargava

Policies with regard to agriculture, education and health need to change in order to ensure a meaningful and wide-ranging security for this country.

The arms business is probably the second largest business in the world after the food business. It is, therefore, not surprising that we consider national security to be just what the defence and allied services provide the country.

But there could not be a greater illusion than that. With all the weapons in the world, we must not consider ourselves secure unless we have agriculture security (which is synonymous with food security, farmers’ security and rural sector security), education security, and health security. If India were secure on these fronts, there would have been no so-called left-wing extremism affecting a quarter of the districts: in many areas the government’s writ does not seem to run now.

We waived farmers’ loans, but did we take steps to empower them so that they do not need to take any more loans? What we did was for political gain. For what we did not do, the explanation is that we pay only lip service to farmers’ security.

Agriculture security concerns seeds, agro-chemicals, water, power and soil. It involves the marriage of traditional and modern agricultural practices; the de facto empowerment of panchayats and women; the marketing of agro-products at fair prices. Such security requires the provision of sources of augmentation of income to agriculturists and village-dwellers through the development of traditional arts and crafts, medicinal plants, and the unparalleled repertoire of fruits and vegetables. Also involved here are organic farming; the use of post-harvest technologies; orchid tissue culture (for example, Arunachal Pradesh has 650 varieties of orchids which, if exploited, can bring the State an income of Rs.10,000 crore a year), mushroom culture, and the appropriate use of fisheries and marine wealth. Other elements include intelligent energy use; the empowerment of the rural sector with knowledge; microcredit; the integration of rural and urban sectors; appropriate research such as on organic farming, bio-pesticides, and the development of varieties with all the advantages of hybrids, that would benefit India: research that is being encouraged under the Indo-U.S. Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture would be of greater use to the U.S. The integration of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme with carefully thought-out developmental plans; prevention and management of disasters such as floods and famine and the cleaning up of land records are also not to be forgotten. Then come a system to prevent, detect and take care of bio-terrorism against agriculture. Emerging new and exotic diseases of plants and animals need to be tackled by setting up centres of plant and animal disease control. Climate change has to be addressed, bearing in mind the fact that a one-degree rise of temperature can bring down the production of wheat by 5 million tonnes. None of the above constituents of agriculture security has been adequately taken care of.

If a power from outside India wishes to control this country’s destiny today, it is not going to drop a nuclear bomb: it only has to control Indian agriculture. And to do that, it needs to control just seed and agro-chemicals production. The Indian government is not cognizant of this: otherwise, more than 30 per cent of the country’s seed business today would not have been under the control of multinational seed companies. Indeed, a moratorium on genetically modified (GM) crops would have been declared until preparations were made to test them adequately.

As regards education, the most important division in the country today is between those (numbering less than 10 per cent) who have access to good education and those (adding up to more than 90 per cent) who have only education without any value. The former are the rulers and the latter are the ruled.

With the extensive commercialisation of both school and higher (including professional) education leading to a university degree, education has become a commodity to be sold and purchased. India is perhaps the only country in which this has happened so extensively, with the buyer getting the minimum that the seller can get away with. So a private school has no hesitation in charging Rs.10,000 as laboratory fees for a Class I student, and there is often no correlation between what is charged and for what amount the receipt is given. You could sometimes get your required registration and university affiliation for an engineering, medical, pharmacy or nursing college that you are setting up by buying off the inspection team and officers of the accreditation authority. It is no surprise, therefore, that 80 per cent of the engineering graduates (in fact, graduates in all areas) India produces are unemployable.

Till the 1960s, there was no commercialisation of education, and government-run or trust-run schools were uniformly good. The children of the rich and the poor went to the same school, and the rich and the powerful had a stake in government schools. Now only the poor send their children to government schools; they might as well not do that too for, at times the school may exist only in name or the designated teacher may not come for weeks on end. Or, if he is a little more considerate, he may send a surrogate replacement for 20 per cent of his salary which he would compensate for by engaging in a more lucrative business activity during school hours.

The Right to Education Bill that has just been passed by the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha, if it is notified by the government, will only be a boon for those who make money in the school business, while it will be a disaster for those who have no access to education today. Unfortunately, that is what the rich and the ruling classes want. For education is the most important weapon of empowerment, and the best defence against exploitation.

To be truly independent as a nation, and to maintain national dignity, India needs a knowledge society in which every citizen has a minimum amount of knowledge. The country can do that only by decommercialising and decommodifying education and setting up a common school system (for which there has been a continuous demand since the days of the Kothari Commission in the early-1960s) in which the students of the rich and the poor in the same neighbourhood would be studying in the same school without paying any fees, and with a new curricular framework. That is the only way for us to ensure education security.

As regards health security, the lack of a sense of ethics in the medical profession (with some exceptions granted), and corruption in the Central Government Health Service, in the corporate health sector, and in the Medical Council of India, are matters of common knowledge. Inflated bills, pay-offs, unnecessary medical tests and a lack of general physicians are all well-known and well-documented phenomena. In Bhopal on September 24, 2008, a gas tragedy victim was denied medical assistance in the Bhopal Memorial Hospital which was permitted to be set up by Union Carbide expressly for the gas tragedy victims; he died the next day while waiting in the hospital. But who cares?

Our rural health-care scheme covers just a few diseases. Contrast our health-care efforts with that of China’s recently announced well-thought-of programme of spending $124 billion to modernise its national health-care system in the next three years.

We seem to really care only about the requirements of countries such as the U.S., the multinational companies, and the top 15-20 per cent of our rich and the powerful. According to an article in The Lancet (May 16, 2009), a small country like Ghana lost $60 million since 1951 which it spent on training health workers who have migrated to the U.S., the U.K. and Canada. The U.K. alone saved £103 million in training costs by importing Ghanians. It is unclear what the corresponding figures are for India and the U.S., but there is no doubt that the U.S. will be the winner.

Ironically, the Indian government can do everything required to ensure agriculture, education and health security. The Green Revolution was based on our own varieties and not seed companies’ hybrids. Some of the best schools in the country even today are the Central Schools, or Kendriya Vidyalayas. And many of the best institutes of higher learning in every sector are government institutions. Some of our best hospitals, such as the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi, the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh, and the Christian Medical College Hospital in Vellore, are run by the government or a trust without a profit motive.

If the present Indian policies with regard to agriculture, education and health security continue to be pursued, there could well be a civil war in the next 10 to 15 years.

(Dr. P.M. Bhargava is former vice-chairman, National Knowledge Commission.)

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