At the cross-roads of hope & despair: Which course will the country take?

| July 18, 2015 | 0 Comments

At the cross-roads of hope & despair: Which course will the country take?

FIVE decades and more of freedom! But freedom for whom and from what?

Published in: The Sunday Tribune, Feb. 20, 2000.

by P. M. Bhargava

Are 40 per cent of our people who live below the poverty line, really free? And what proportion of our people are free from injustice, exploitation, corruption, prejudices, victimisation, partisanship,subjectivity, ignorance, dishonesty and the like. I have lived long but I don’t believe I have known anyone who has either not indulged in any of such practices or has not been a victim of such indulgence on the part of someone else.

Living among these cobwebs, we must not, of course, forget the sum total of our accomplishments in the last five decades which, in relative terms — that is, in comparison with what we were and where we were at the time of Independence — is not trivial. And these accomplishments have covered a wide spectrum of activities, so much so that we are considered world-wide as the most developed of the developing countries. We must, however, recognise that this has not been the result of a consistent and deliberate policy. It has been primarily a consequence of our unique history and tradition and the contribution of a small number of outstanding leaders we have managed to produce in every field, from science to art to economics. Indeed, we have produced stalwarts in every field, but very, very few and far between.

As this makes us today, more than five decades after Independence, a country of unmatched contrasts, so much so that, perhaps, the only statement that is true about India is that no other statement about the country is true or false. Our accomplishments show that we are capable and can behave responsibly. Our failures that far outstrip and outweigh our accomplishments show that, in the balance, we are slipping in respect of our place in the comity of nations. No matter what criterion we use — be it the female education index or the human development index — we stand very much at the bottom of the ladder of nations. Our peaks are almost as high as anywhere else but our average touches the rock bottom. Let us look at some reasons for this state of affairs that stares us in the face.

Our political system is unsuited to our conditions. If the ballot paper in the last few elections had a column, “none of the candidates is suitable”, I would imagine that this would have been the most filled-in column in the ballot papers nation-wide. Our political system is not tuned to spotting talent and grooming real leaders; it seems ideally suited for the corrupt and unknowledgeable, for the inefficient and insensitive.

Although we are the only country with a Science Policy Resolution passed by its Parliament and a Technology Policy Statement issued by its Government, and with scientific temper as one of the duties of its citizens, we are characterised by a total lack of scientific approach — a systems approach — to identifying and solving our problems. We have not recognised that there has never been a country or a culture which has not had problems. It is not the existence of problems that is our problem but it is the lack of the ability to arrange the problems in a hierarchy, so that if the problem at the top of the hierarchy is not solved, the problems down the ladder would never be solved. We have not recognised that education, water, energy and corruption are at the top of this hierarchy, and that if we do not take care of these, no other problem — be it elimination of poverty or containment of population — would be solved.

We have been committed to a strong local-self government on paper or in speeches all through the last five decades. We even have a fine Panchayati Raj Act passed in 1993. (It probably has some problems but these are minor and surely solvable.) What, however, is distressing is that our Panchayats neither know what their rights and duties are, nor are they in a position to make use of the various provisions of the Act, because they are not adequately informed and do not possess the knowledge necessary to derive optimal benefits under the Act. By ensuring the absence of a system for providing appropriate information packages to the Panchayats and a mechanism of updating the information, we have ensured that local-self-government exists only in name.

In fact, our emphasis has been on form and not on function in virtually every sphere of our activity. It is thus incredible that, with all the infrastructure and trained man power, we have not been able to eradicate malaria, tuberculosis and polio and not contain AIDS. As regards polio, our health authorities have held the nation to ransom by including the oral polio vaccine which, according to all available information, has been ineffective in India, and excluding the injectable Salk vaccine which is known to be effective, from our national vaccination programme. We were the last country in the world to have been host to the AIDS-causing virus; today we have the largest number of cases of seropositivity for this virus and are, perhaps, sitting on a time-bomb in this respect. But, then, who cares?

We have sold ourselves to multi-nationals and to WTO, or else we would not have the scandal of the Monsanto’s Bt cotton. We have not recognised that if a country wishes to dominate us today, it will do so by acquiring control of our seed and agrochemicals business and thus our agriculture. We are taking no steps to prevent this from happening. For example, there is nothing that prevents us from ensuring that seed business is our own business and that we do not import any seed from outside unless it becomes absolutely necessary and is approved by a high-powered and incorruptible expert committee. Just try taking any seed from India into the United States!

Our anti-dumping laws are lax, and we do everything in our power to kill indigenous industry and to support what comes to us from outside, no matter how expensive or ineffective it may be. We have had, perhaps, the greatest opportunity ever of integrating the best of tradition with the best of modernity. For example, we have the largest repertoire of plant-based drug prescriptions in our Ayurveda, Unani, Siddha, Tibetan and tribal systems of medicine. In my estimate there are, perhaps, 40,000 independent prescriptions that use plant material in these systems of medicine. While there is no doubt that some of them probably do not really work, there is also no doubt that some of them do work. We should have, therefore, by now set up on a priority basis facilities for validation and standardisation of these prescriptions which have the potential of providing alternative, cheaper and more effective route to national medical and health care. But, again, who cares for the health of the silent majority?

We have not recognised the historical imperative that in the years to come, all around the world, governments will have to shed their executive role and confine their activities to supervision, legislation, providing support, laying down policies and seeking accountability. The executive role in the time to come would be shouldered primarily by the industry, professional organisations, and non-governmental organisations, all of which will have to learn to behave responsibly. The Government should have, therefore, by now, established linkages with these sectors and knit them into a network that would make each sector stronger. But who in the Government would want to shed the power of being able to do favour and demand more favours?

Our civil service which is at the core of the famed Indian bureaucracy is today, irrelevant in its present form. We are already in the age of specialisation in every area. It is, at times, hilarious to see even our bright civil servants trying to grapple with situations that need very high-level professionals to take top decisions. No surprise, therefore, that most of our government decisions that relate to technical matters are unworkable and not in the long-term interests of the majority of our people.

We haven’t still shed the vestiges of feudalism. Thus, we seek no accountability from our superiors or from those whom we may patronise. It is rare for the powers that be in the Government sector, to appoint the right man for the right job. Even in the area of science and technology, we have had many instances of people being appointed Directors of laboratories that have their primary focus in an area that the newly-appointed Director is totally unfamiliar with. And this was done not because properly qualified people were not available but because what was of prime importance was to have one who would be beholden to the powers that be and thus do their bidding.

A rational system of accountability requires an objective system of rewards, awards and punishment. Our awards and rewards, in most cases, are given on everything but merit. If occasionally, an award does seem to go to a meritorious person, it is likely that his/her being meritorious was merely an accident, and was not important for those who gave the person the award.

Our science has been known to be increasingly dominated, since the late 1960s, by what is now widely known as the scientific mafia, a term I had the privilege of coining. The politicians in power have been well aware of it, but have not had the courage to do anything about it. The nexus between politicians, bureaucrats, the scientific mafia and the rich industrialists, has been one of the biggest blocks to the country’s overall development along sound lines at a rapid rate.

Our parochial language policy across the country has put additional impediments in the intellectual and economic emancipation of the under-privileged. And it is shameful that we continue to have reservations after five decades of freedom, thus consolidating — instead of eradicating — discrimination based on the circumstance of birth.

What perhaps, has been most disturbing as one reminisces over what has happened in the last five decades, is that, as of today, we have all the ingredients of making our country flourish, but we have not learnt how to put them together. Our larder is full but there is no cook to put together a good meal!

If we wish to succeed in the coming millennium, we will need to learn not only how to play but also how to score a goal. In the world of tomorrow, the division between the weak and the strong will become sharper. In fact, a new definition of the weak and the strong would emerge, the weak being defined as those who can only become weaker and the strong being those who can only become stronger.

As we enter the next millennium, we stand on a threshold: one push this way and we will fall on the weaker side, and one push that way, and we will go from strength to strength. This is the challenge that all of us collectively face, and we may not have much time to play around. Perhaps, the next ten years will be crucial from this point of view and decide our fate one way or the other.

Scientist and administrator, the writer was founder Director of Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) Hyderabad.

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