Thursday, 13 August 2015

Five reflections on Independence Day

For the next week or so, I will be posting a series of five short articles, each of which asks a specific question in relation to India's independence. In sum, the articles ask one fundamental question which constitutes the compass for all the others: Is India really free?

The five articles are titled:

1. How to make every Indian fly
2. How to render democracy harmless
3. How to destroy an ancient culture
4. How to outgrow agriculture
5. How to conquer nature

The first of these is posted here for your considered reading.



How to make every Indian fly

The imperatives and dilemmas of aspirational India




“Impoverished India can become free, but it will be hard for any India made rich through immorality to regain its freedom.” 


- Mahatma Gandhi, Hind Swaraj (1909)



Aspirational India is enjoying a stunning boom under the leadership of a spectacular new government which has effectively promised sabka swaarth, sabka vikaas. 




However, stunning booms come with their own baggage of vexatious problems. My mother’s driver Ashok has run into one such this week. As a consequence, the smile has been wiped off the face of a man who normally lives up to his name, which refers to the one without sorrow. 

Ashok has two sons and two daughters and lives the aspirational “medium” class lifestyle in Ayanagar, on the border between Delhi and Haryana, very close to Gurgaon. Their family has two motorcycles (eldest son - now married and working at Spencer’s as a security guard - hopes to make the down payment on a sub-compact car in the foreseeable future), two bicycles, a TV set, four mobile phones, a fridge, and a boom-box (though as Ashish Kothari and I reported in Churning the Earth, they are not able to feed the kids daal at every meal for reasons not far to seek).

So what has stolen Ashok’s peaceful smile? His cute little daughter decided to get a cute little dog for a pet last year. Some months back, this beautiful creature was attacked by a neighbourhood stray, who tore into its flesh. The little one survived - though it had not been administered anti-rabies injections. 

Last week, the pet dog decided, in turn, to bite Ashok’s daughter. When Ashok tried to restrain it, it bit Ashok too. This is the story I heard when I saw Ashok bleeding from one hand and asked him for an explanation. He asked me for Rs.3000. “What for?” “The mad dog has to be put to sleep. That is how much it costs at the local hospital.” 

Amidst sadness in the family, the dog was laid to rest. The next step was for Ashok and his daughter to get shots. Five each. At Safdarjung the injections are free, but it could take up to a whole day to get to the head of the queue. Ashok asks for another few thousand from me - so that he can go to a private clinic and get the job done without having to stand in a day-long queue. (He won’t get leave from work to stand for five full days in queues to get the shots at a saarvajanik aspataal). 

As I write these lines, Ashok still has to get through three more shots. The smile is still missing.

I have noticed that in recent years, the smile is less often in evidence, for though the aspirational consumption of the family has shot up measurably, each one of the seven (including a daughter-in-law) members of the family is falling sick more often, often suffering from respiratory ailments in what is, with each passing day, less a world city, and more a corrosive cancer of a giant, crumbling metropolis - once you look past the boulevards of the diplomatic areas of the city.

There are many other medical issues which affect the family’s sense of well-being on a relentless basis, not to mention the nutritional deprivation resulting from expensive, and much more chemicalized, food.

If Ashok gets even with his family’s medical bills, there are other “aspirational” dilemmas staring him in the face. His elder daughter is jobless and unmarried at 23. In his gothra, he says, they are already very late. Another two years, and the daughter would be seen an “ineligible”. An aspirational imperative his daughter has laid down is that (even though the family is from Bihar) she is unwilling to marry a Bihari. Is it because she (self-)reflexively agrees with our PM that there is a “DNA issue” with Biharis? Or is it because this is in fact the essential meaning of developmental modernity, as the brilliant new film Masaan brings out with such force, that each one aims at marrying above their station in a collectively unwinnable scramble for upward social mobility?

Ashok sighs as he tells me that the daughter’s marriage (obviously to a man at least as educated as her - she has done college) would cost them at least 6-8 lacs within their gothra. Maybe, he feels, he should try his luck outside the community, here in Delhi itself. Maybe that will work out cheaper. He does not know the real answer. But his expression tells me he feels he has little reason to be optimistic on this score either. Dowry and weddings, like everything else, have become much more expensive.


A Bangalore detour

Some years back I took an Air Deccan flight from Delhi to Bangalore. On the way to Bangalore, I read (the now defunct Air Deccan’s CEO) Captain C.D.Gopinath’s editorial in the in-flight magazine in which he expressed his wish of enabling every Indian to fly. I assumed that he was being metaphorical. I discovered soon that he was being quite literal! (If you have some minutes, you can see one interview with him here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yUxkFnLqeGo)

My ecological mind very quickly did numbers in the head to label the Gopinath vision for India as ‘unsustainable’. Giving a talk at IIM-Bangalore I told students that they need not be environmental experts to see the absurdity of the view, by no means an exceptional one at an institution like theirs. Our task, I proposed, was to honestly reflect upon the rung on the ladder of consumption we found ourselves on and to step down a few, while at once evolving approaches and policies to bring those near the bottom of the ladder up a few. Needless to say, I did not make myself too popular with the students!




When I returned to Delhi Ashok picked me up from the airport. Uncannily, for the first time in years he asked me what it was like to fly in an aeroplane. I had sometimes thought to myself that this man had never been inside one, even as he had ferried people in our family hundreds of times to airports over the years. I answered his query with a counter-question. How did he imagine life above the clouds? He gave me a most dreamy description, complete with an account not only of the spas and saunas he had seen (from the outside) in five-star hotels, but even more vividly of the round earth as seen from the window of the aircraft. Hearing his account, I felt that for such dream-ing to survive, the corresponding dreams should not be fulfilled.

Interestingly, Ashok did not express any desire to ride in an aeroplane himself. It struck me that people like Gopinath, who want to make such people travel in planes, are far more adolescent in their views. The same cannot be said for Ashok’s children, whose desires and hopes are closer to those of the students at IIM-Bangalore and those divined for them by business leaders like Gopinath. 

The realisation has not begun to sink into this significantly large, young, and vocal minority in the country that there is what philosophers call a ‘fallacy of composition’ in their thinking when they advocate universal jet-travel (and by implication, holidays in Singapore or Paris), for every Indian cannot fly, and ride BMWs to airports, without bringing all traffic to a standstill and turning our cities into lethal gas chambers. Furthermore, there is the cultural flip side of aspiration that Ashok’s experience with their pet dog reveals. Here, so-called ‘modernity’, with its ceaseless marketing media blitz, is wreaking havoc on the lives and several sane traditions of human communities across the Sub-Continent, all in the name of putting an end to social backwardness, caste and the like, while promoting ridiculous forms of consumption. In the process, human freedom itself is being bartered away for a few dirty pennies.

No less a figure than the Father of the Nation himself has forewarned in writing, and many more times than once, that freedom is easier to ensure with a degree of poverty than with imitative consumption and an ‘excess’ of wealth. It will probably be a painful while before the nation catches up with the wisdom of its father.





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