We are not quite at a do-or-die moment yet, but we are the international puzzle of the decade. As India reaches its 67th Independence Day, its margins are considerably reduced. India is big. India is old. India can be the go-to nation. But it isn’t.
Much of the crawl is because India somehow lacks in spirit. We have a man with individual integrity and learning as Prime Minister – a man the world respects. But he heads a feckless government with poor governance instincts and terrible communication skills.
We have an array of political parties with different backgrounds and agendas, making for the most dynamic of political environments in the world. But they all behave and conduct themselves in a depressingly similar manner – devoid of vision, effort and grace.
We have a fabulous Constitution, written with such clarity and wisdom that the world bows before its sense of fair play. But we have so mauled our guiding principles in thought and practice that few if any of our young know the greatest document ever written in India.
We have an extraordinary range of culture, climate and creativity. But we have overlooked everything in such arrogance and ignorance that our museums are weak on content and depth. Much of India’s glorious past is lost because we didn’t preserve and document it for those who come after us.
We have one of the world’s finest justice systems that can go to extraordinary lengths to get it right. But we have so clogged our courts with disputes that it would take a century or more to dispense with the cases. It makes us look like a nation without justice.
We have a vibrant vigilance system to keep an eye on the executive and legislature – our CVC, CBI ECI and CAG are often magnificent and deliver in difficult circumstances. But our polity spends much energy and time in taming the monitors. It makes us look unreliable.
We have among the most revolutionary social empowerment laws on earth. Our RTI, RTE, MNREGA and food security measures like the midday meal scheme are breathtaking in scope. But we ruin them with ineptitude, selfishness and corruption. It makes the world laugh at us.
We have the biggest and busiest film industry on the planet, churning out movies in multiple languages year after year. But we embarrass ourselves with pathetic and regressive content, poor production values and resistance to new thought.
We had and have world-beaters in sport. But the Dhyan Chands have been forgotten while the Vishwanathan Anands do not influence the young as they ought to. Consequently, we come across as sports illiterates.
We were and still claim to be a fount of education and health secrets. We have yoga and ancient learning in science. We have the current IIMS, IITs, NID, and even the NSD. But we also have the largest pool of unemployable graduates in the world.
We won freedom from the British by the most extraordinary struggle in human history – led by ahimsa and Satyagraha. But we have imprisoned ourselves with deceit and prejudice. We can fly again, but we’ll need to free ourselves from crippling ways of life.
Here are 12 freedoms India could do with, as it marks its 67th Independence Day.
1. Freedom from excess
Somewhere around the 1990s, Indians lost their sense of moderation. The more, the madder it has since been. The real estate boom triggered latent greed; people are willing to lie, loot, and kill for a piece of land. Gadgets too have unleashed greed. Even when they don’t need any, people are buying new tools and piling on the e-waste.
The rush to own land or houses has fuelled monstrous corruption across the country. Nothing gets done unless you’re willing to pay bribes. The Aam Aadmi Party estimates that Indians pay Rs.629,675 crore in bribes every year. A people that live by excess die by it. We may need a big example to curb the greed.
For instance: Mukesh Ambani gives away his wealth to the nation
2. Freedom from stupor
There’s a mismatch between the levels of unhappiness and anger, and the physical effort needed to change things. Sloth seems to have hit the polity and the ordinary Indian equally. The lay man surrenders to the demands of everyday life while the polity is hit by a lack of ideas. The mainstream parties haven’t done anything original for a while.
The BJP and the Congress feed off the other’s mistakes, as do the Left and the Trinamool Congress, and so on. On paper, it appears like the only ones attempting to do something are Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan of the AAP. We need a major move to inject energy into the polity.
For instance: Prakash Karat never sits at a desk again
3. Freedom from empty-headedness
India has a vast pool of young talent, which is a driving force. India also has the maximum number of young with poor skills. Some of this may be because of inadequate role models at home and in schools and colleges. Most of it is because many youngsters don’t read.
Easier access to trends in other countries – made possible by the Internet – tends to create an illusion that we are a part of the modern world. It might have led to increased Idiocy and arrogance bred on commercial success, particularly among younger film personalities. There’s a refusal to be graceful, and people are vague at best. We’ll need a significant decision to encourage reading again.
For instance: Deepika Padukone learns Shakespeare and Premchand
4. Freedom from incompetence
Everything that goes wrong can’t be the fault of the other person or another nation. India has had the luxury of an economist [who’s also Spartan in personal life] at the head of the government for a decade. Surely things ought to be better on the economy front. Also, who you work with is a reflection of who you are.
Our prime minister has had undistinguished colleagues in his government for nearly 10 years. I can’t think of a single person in the Manmohan Singh ministries whom Jawaharlal Nehru might have inducted, although a couple of them may still evolve into greats. We deserve a turnaround.
For instance: Manmohan Singh swings into action in his last lap [like Chief Justices do in their last week]
5. Freedom from servility
Cursed are the servile for they allow evil to grow, goes an old saying. India has been let down by an array of politicians who might all have been better off with honest and upfront colleagues. The Congress party had probably the finest collection of people in the pre-Independence years. It enabled a truly golden period in our history. But for two generations now, flattery has been the most employed tool in political parties.
From what I know, AK Antony [defence minister] is the only current Indian politician who stood up and disagreed with his political employer – Indira Gandhi. Most of the current opposition seniors opposed Emergency [in 1975] but they almost never take on their own party leadership. It breeds mediocrity and creates a culture of sycophancy. We need an honest act to stem this.
For instance: Sonia Gandhi makes family accountable, especially son-in-law Robert Vadra
6. Freedom from self-worship
If it’s not flattery, it’s megalomania. The first megalomaniac in independent India’s politics was Indira Gandhi who created the concept of a high command. The Left parties and the RSS have stayed free of this – they have a system where one person can’t run amok. But most other parties worship the leader. For example, Karunanidhi, Jayalalithaa, Lalu Prasad, Mayawati and Mamata Banerjee prefer to be fawned on.
Narendra Modi has taken the I, me, myself model to the next level. He is the first BJP politician who encourages devotion to him in public. He sees himself above the BJP and the RSS and uses the Internet to cultivate hero worship. He seems to be uncomfortable among peers, some of whom may be his seniors. He likes everyone else to make way for him. We need rethink to change this.
For instance: Narendra Modi goes offline, disbands marketing network
7. Freedom from filth
If cleanliness is next to godliness, India must be a forsaken country. Such are the levels of trash in the country that union minister Jairam Ramesh was moved to desperation in 2010 when it was estimated that eight lakh people in India die a year because of unclean air and water. Such is the state of things that the Ganges, once the world’s most revered and clean rivers, is like liquid filth now.
Ramesh said: I think our cities have the dubious distinction of being the dirtiest cities in the world. There is no doubt about it. If there is a Nobel Prize for dirt and filth, India will win it hands down. It’s gotten worse since. It’s almost like Indians live in two worlds: their private world and the public spaces with junk in both. We’ll need a loud step to reverse this.
For instance: Baba Ramdev makes cleanliness his only goal
8. Freedom from overcrowding
In terms of land area [not including water], you can put three Indias in the US, almost four in China and Canada, and nearly six in Russia. In terms of population, the only ones in proximity with Indians are the Chinese. Immigration alone doesn’t account for the numbers in India. A reluctance to employ birth control measures also adds to it.
The consequence is that resources and services are under severe stress in India. A few months ago, we had lunch with a family from Hobart [Australia] who said they could walk on Hobart’s principal avenues for many minutes without encountering anyone. In India, we’re stepping on each other’s toes. Since there’s so much demand, the price of land and other resources is far more than it should be. We need a reversal.
For instance: Families choose one-child or no-child policy
9. Freedom from hideousness
It’s not that our architects and builders are totally ignorant of beauty and design. But the structures they come up with are mostly ugly and depressing. Entire colonies are eyesores and towns and cities seem to exist only for bare functional purposes. Government offices, barring those in buildings erected by the Mughals and the British, are cringe-worthy.
Our only claim to world-class beauty is the Taj Mahal, which is about 360 years old. Current residential structures too are so minimal in thought that you wouldn’t want to live in them. Markets, malls, schools, colleges, stadia, cinemas, offices – almost all venues of human interaction are poorly designed in India. We need an urgent rebirth to undo this.
For instance: The government hires Raj Rewal, Hafeez Contractor and Charles Correa to rebuild India
10. Freedom from sickliness
There’s a genetic factor at play but not all of the poor health of Indians is because of genes. Generally, Indians loathe anything that requires physical effort. Mental health is also an issue. Many homes employ help to do the chores which robs even those not interested in sport of physical labour. Also, Indian diet is heavy on carbs and light on protein. Fried potato, in various forms chiefly wafers, and nicotine are the most sold products in vends across India.
Many schools in towns don’t have space because they are in small buildings. Play and sport is therefore absent from the curriculum. The schools and colleges with open spaces and grounds also don’t think very highly of games and sports. Indians thus grow up with poor skills at sport. We then grasp at every international medal, however minor. We need something substantial to change this.
For instance: The state appoints Pullela Gopichand, PT Usha and a top mental health expert [like Dr NN Wig, for instance] to improve health standards
11. Freedom from poor education
Although we know better, the idea of education in India is still limited to learning the alphabets and being able to write and sign one’s name. Only a few extend their learning to the three Rs. Fewer still are those who are taught, and who imbibe, people and life skills. You don’t need to sort everything out in school or college but every child needs a scientific temperament and a great deal of curiosity.
Our teachers need to be taught so they can then pass it on to the students. It takes plenty of economic investment to support good education, which isn’t always available. Emphasis is shifting to tools like the Internet but India is too varied and complex to do away with teachers [Sam Pitroda likes to think India needs no teachers now because of Google]. We need common sense here.
For instance: Anu Aga, the Khan Academy and Vinod Raina are tasked to ensure every Indian receives all-round education
12. Freedom from injustice
No honest Indian wants to have anything to do with courts. Why then are they choked with pending cases? One part of it is because the crooked take every opportunity to file a case and delay punishment. Politicians, businessmen and big criminals tend to employ expensive lawyers for this. A second part of it is also because we don’t appoint as many judges as we need.
A third part of the problem is that India has the maximum number of laws on earth, many of them obsolete. It will take years of dedicated and skillful work to weed out the laws we don’t need. No government wants to attempt this although there was a feeble attempt once in New Delhi. Corruption is the fourth part of this mess. We need strict policy to change things here.
For instance: Lower courts have to decide cases in a year.
These are some of the freedoms that might truly free India. We tried to put together a simple manifesto for 2013 at the beginning of the year. Independence Day offers a special sense of occasion and gravitas. The examples of possible action are only indicative. Readers and decision-makers are free to improve on them.
The basic thing is that India has to move on. The status quo could destroy.
The pub kids of Gurgaon
India rises as global illegal drug hub
Why I stopped buying newspapers
The 5 villains of the Uttarakhand disaster
100 real life Indian blockbusters we’d love to read
If I were Rahul Gandhi now
Naxals and India: Cry for the dead, but do this too
Vijay Simha is an independent journalist and sobriety campaigner based out of New Delhi. His most recent journalism assignment was as executive editor with The Financial World, New Delhi, and tehelka.com.
He was a guest on Season 1 of the popular Indian TV show Satyamev Jayate, hosted by Aamir Khan.
Vijay blogs here and may be cont acted at firstname.lastname@example.org.