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REFLECTIONS ON 50 YEARS OF INDIAN INDEPENDENCE

Updated: August 24, 1997 05:00 PM GMT
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Archbishop Alan de Lastic of Delhi is vice president of the Catholic Bishops´ Conference of India and a member of the National Integration Council, a federal advisory body headed by the prime minister.

The Aug. 15 issue of ASIA FOCUS carried a commentary by Archbishop de Lastic commemorating the 50th anniversary of Indian independence on that day.

Fifty years ago, we began with hope. We looked forward to the development of the people of India. We fixed justice for all as our target and chose planned development as the tool to achieve it.

We have achieved much. We have remained a democratic state, while many countries, including some of our neighbors, have gone through periods of intervention by their armed forces.

India remains united despite discontent in many regions. Though it has many religions and fundamentalism has at times threatened its unity, India has retained its secular fabric and given all the hope of living in peace.

From a completely un-industrialized country at independence, we are among the most industrialized countries of the world. We have improved our transport infrastructure and communications systems.

Much progress has been made in education. From a literacy rate of less than 15 percent at independence, literacy now exceeds 50 percent, despite a much bigger population.

Also improved are health care and nutrition. Infant mortality, though high at 120 deaths for every 1,000 births, has been halved from 250 at independence. Life expectancy, too, has risen substantially. We have not reached self-sufficiency in food production, but now export rice.

Some 235 million people -- more than 25 percent of our population -- are middle class, a group that was only 10 percent of a much smaller populace at independence.

We have achieved much, but our failures, too, are many. We have built an industrial infrastructure without a social infrastructure.

According to some studies, 90 percent of dalit (low-caste) and tribal families live below the poverty line. Millions, again mostly dalits and tribals, are bonded laborers.

We have built schools, but failed to ensure universal primary education. A class- and caste-linked education provides upward mobility to the high and middle castes, but denies even future promotion to tribals and dalits.

The proportion of funds allocated to education in the five-year plans has declined over the years, and the worst affected is primary education. Among an estimated 45 million child laborers, some 85 percent are dalits and tribals.

Health care is also class-, caste- and gender-specific. Child mortality is around 15 in the urban middle class, but among girls, it is more than double the national average of 120 deaths for every 1,000 births.

While ensuring environmental control of disease and increasing production of food grains, we have failed to improve the nutritional status of the poor, particularly women.

Although India has a buffer stock of 22 million tons of cereals, more than a third of its population -- mostly dalits and tribals -- go to bed hungry, because they have no purchasing power.

On the legal front, more than 300,000 prisoners under trial languish in jail because of unnecessary court delays and their inability to get bail.

We have displaced more than 30 million people in the name of national development. More than 60 percent of them are dalits and tribals. Only 25 percent have been resettled, since we have no national rehabilitation policy.

We have denuded forests to provide subsidized raw materials to industry, reducing our tree cover to around 13 percent from around 22 percent at independence.

Population increase is seen particularly among the poor. Denied any hope of improvement, the poor have no motivation to limit families. Poverty leads to high fertility and infant mortality as women suffer from low literacy and high malnutrition.

We declare ourselves a secular state, but discriminate against citizens on the basis of religion. Statistics from several states show that most of those arrested under anti-terrorist laws are from minority communities and other deprived groups.

Another discrimination is the denial of statutory privileges to dalit Christians because of their religion.

India and Pakistan were born under the trauma of the partition and the transfer of population and massacres. Half a century later, the two countries still waste resources on arms that should be used for development and poverty alleviation.

How can some hope be brought into this dismal situation? We should use the next half century of freedom to focus on those we ignored during the past 50 years.

We should oppose child labor, planning to ensure by the year 2000 that every child below 14 is in school. This will also help create jobs for adults.

We should fix a target date to ensure that no Indian goes to bed hungry.

Similarly, we should set a date to immunize every child -- even in remote villages -- and bring free and good health care to all.

These steps will reduce our population, as seen in our neighbor Sri Lanka.

Within India too, states such as Kerala and Goa have shown that population growth can be controlled by concentrating on health care and education.

We need a new approach to our natural and mineral resource utilization, stressing investment in developing non-conventional energy and alternative technologies.

Our focus in the next decade must be on forest regeneration by our communities. This will result in employment and income generation among the rural poor and growth of our natural wealth.

Technologies for desalinization of sea water, solar technology and recycling can provide alternatives to the transfer of natural resources from villages to cities.

We need a new policy to rehabilitate people displaced by development since the first five-year plan.

We need to find ways to solve our problems with our neighbors bilaterally and put on the back burner problems such as Kashmir that cannot be easily solved.

We should encourage regional economic cooperation and create confidence among people by liberalizing visas.

This is possible if we revive in the country a culture of equity, justice for the poor, sustainable development and respect for women -- values found in all religions in the country. Reviving them can thus be the best tool for national integration.

END

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