India Shining: Of nationalism and oblivion

Last Updated: Thu, Sep 21, 2017 11:31 hrs
Indian Congress Party supporters shout slogans during a protest against demonetisation at the Reserve Bank of India in Mumbai on January 18, 2017

On September 16, Senior economist and former Chief Economic Advisor Kaushik Basu put out this tweet : “Hyper nationalists in all countries share a common trait – a sense of inferiority about their own nation and the need to imitate others.”

Naturally, it found favour with the hated liberals, and riled the “nationalists”.

Even as the Reserve Bank of India’s annual report has exposed demonetisation for a failure, parts of the country have been overrun by floods, and most of the population is spending far more on essential items and luxury outings because of the much-hyped and hastily-implemented Goods and Services tax (GST) – which has conveniently skipped petroleum products alone, which would have left the state governments poorer and us richer – the “nationalists” nevertheless find reasons to celebrate.

Three of this government’s pet projects – the bullet train, the Indian rivers inter-link, and the idea of a cashless economy – have all been set in motion, despite warnings and criticism.

Perhaps in another triumph, the world is finally taking note of what is going on in India – the New York Times devoted no less than three opinion pieces to the murder of Gauri Lankesh; The Guardian covered the floods in Bombay and the North East in great detail. What greater validation for the “nationalists” that India is a force in the world than for foreign newspapers to fit the country into their editorial space?

And why must we worry about the small matter of decreasing economic growth, and increasing Below Poverty Line numbers when we can spend an estimated Rs. 11 lakh crore on linking rivers, a tenth of that on the bullet train, and force a billion people to go cashless overnight?

In the absence of an effective opposition, the government has been able to steamroll its ideas through to a populace which appears to be too resigned – or too slavish – to object.

In a recent conversation, a friend said demonetisation had been a watershed moment: if the horror of it, the “inconvenience” which resulted in hundreds of deaths, did not cause large-scale riots and force a retraction of the move, the government knew it was free to do whatever it wanted and get away with it.

It was free to change its reasons for withdrawing all Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 notes overnight – first it was to curtail black money; then, it was to move towards a cashless economy; then, it was to fight terrorism funding, then, it was.

And not just that, even after demonetisation has been exposed for a failure, it has a faithful troll army to heap personal abuse and issue threats to the makers of arguments which it is powerless to refute.

When there are worries about the state of the economy, the government has continued to push through projects as if entirely oblivious to the questions we are asking. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while inaugurating the Sardar Sarovar Dam, spoke of the great opposition to the dam as if it were a challenge he had personally overcome, and not a valid series of protests that he – and others before him – had ignored. Not the World Bank, though, which withdrew funding for the project after the initial agitation in the 1980s. But, hey, what does the World Bank know?

And now, the government is rushing to revive a project that was first mooted 35 years ago, and has repeatedly met roadblocks: the river-linking project which seeks to build a network of canals and reservoirs to connect 37 Himalayan and peninsular rivers.

This is being sold as a plan to kill three birds with one stone – generate hydroelectric power, irrigate drought-prone areas, and prevent flooding.

Unfortunately, it is not just metaphorical birds which will be killed. Environmentalists and ecologists have warned that perverting the course of so many ecosystems will kill millions of animals, birds, and fish – to say nothing of displacing half a million people from their homes, swallowing up parts of national parks, and permanently altering the soil of the floodplains.

It appears the project is based on a hunch rather than a series of in-depth studies, and predictably it has encountered objections from several states including Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, Odisha, Telangana and Karnataka.

The Centre, though, is patting itself on the back for what is globally the first project of this scale in its ilk – without wondering whether the cause for such a distinction is in fact dubious.

As for the bullet train, for which the government has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Japan, it will spend an estimated Rs. 1.1 lakh crore, excluding the repayment of interest on the loan from Japan. For all its Make in India slogan, the government is now obliged to source material exclusively from Japanese vendors in return for a 50-year loan of Rs. 88,000 crore at 0.1 percent interest. For those who aren’t mathematically inclined, 0.1 percent of that amount is Rs. 88 crore – not a mean sum.

With so many options for fast travel between Bombay and Ahmedabad already available, including low-cost airlines, is there a pressing need to spend $17 billion to reduce travel time between the cities from 7 hours to 2 hours? And how many people will be willing to pay the estimated Rs. 3000-5000 a ticket on a train when they could get there faster by flight for less money?

This government was brought to power largely by the silence of the man who will go down in history as the Silent Prime Minister among other things – Manmohan Singh. When we voted out silence, did we vote in oblivion?

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Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage.