As we celebrate our Republic Day, it’s time for some soul searching. How much progress have we made in the past six decades and how vibrant is our democracy? When we talk of our sixty-five years as a democracy what immediately flashes before our eyes is a market that seems to stretch across all our sensibilities, and technology in all its manifestations --- most evident in the big cities by way of flyovers and malls, with inner city railways close on the heels. On the other hand, there is the poverty, the unimaginable squalor and inhuman living conditions of slum dwellers that have migrated from villages for want of a basic livelihood. Poverty and illiteracy are linked to each other. More illiteracy means more unemployment
, which in turn, can encourage child labor. According to a national committee report 3.7 million people live below the poverty line in India which has over 35 per cent of the world’s total illiterate population. Meanwhile, about 40 million primary school-age children in India are not in school, according to a UNESCO report. Even when the country is fortunate enough to have a bumper crop, hungry households do not have the purchasing power to buy the food they need. With employment in rural India becoming scarce, there has been increasing migration to urban areas by desperate people in search of jobs, giving rise to more slums and more urban problems, with health issues being high on the list. According to data from a National Family Health Survey
in 2005-6, only 45 per cent of households in the country had access to adequate sanitation. Allocation for health this fiscal year was a mere 2.7 million rupees. Health is an indispensable gauge for defining a person's sense of wellbeing. In India, despite the existence of a wide network of hospitals, private expenditure dominates the financing of health care. The effects are bound to be regressive. Despite having had independence for more than half a century, progress in development has been minimal as the accumulation of money and the politics of vested interests dominate thinking, subduing all other considerations of ethics, the environment and sustainability. Most of our development is in cities, especially the big ones, increasing urban populations to unsustainable levels, while places elsewhere languish without infrastructure. Even as ‘mobocracy’ redefines democracy, we have the prospect of the Lokpal (ombudsman) Bill, perceived by some as threatening the very notions of democracy. Is it really, though? If every politician, bureaucrat and government official is seen as unashamedly corrupt, if nation-building has become a dispensable dream, then where is redemption to be found, or even sought? While the Lokpal Bill may not be the answer to corruption, there is dire need for honesty within our system for democracy to survive. Is parliament superior to the very people who elect it to power, or can it suppress the will of the people in the garb of procedural red tape? To be law abiding in name and spirit is now a thing of the past in India. While the educated will not unite to wage a consolidated battle for implementation of the law, mobs backed by land mafia, gain ground by the sheer power of their numbers. The very process of law and policy making is now based on the whims and fancies of an uninformed, ignorant public, bringing money power and vote-bank politics to a new high. The government itself makes rules to break them. Had its bid to impose censorship on social networking content on the internet been accepted, it would only be a matter of time before the government itself would be seen relenting in the cases of influential offenders with sufficient clout. Foreign retail investment was proposed by the government, basically to curtail price rises, and get a fairer deal for farmers/producers and consumers. Examples of this policy that were quoted were those of Singapore and Thailand, among others, where such investments have proved successful [to an extent]. The bill was defeated in parliament thanks to the opposition and the Trinamul Congress. They contended that it would cause large scale unemployment in the small business sector and also profiteering by foreign investors. With our girth and clout we are not comparable to the countries cited as examples. Why can we not achieve on our own what foreign investment can? Is it not here a question of honesty and sincerity of purpose? The prime challenges faced by the country after sixty-five years of being an independent democratic nation are the need to root out corruption, make education more genuine and available, curtailing population growth, better medical care, and alleviation of poverty. All these are achievable with honesty of purpose, which makes character building the biggest challenge before us today. Aruna Bhowmick is a freelance journalist and urban planning activist based in New Delhi.