Friday, August 17, 2007

India @ 60: Pleasures and pains of growing up in free India

Independent India, as we know it today, was born at the stroke of the midnight hour on 15th August 1947. While its twin had delivered itself a full 24 hours earlier and been christened “Pakistan”, India laboured through the evening and became free only as its first PM designate Nehru delivered the now famous “Tryst with destiny” speech to whoever came to listen to him.

Like other births that occur all over the world, India’s birth was no less tumultuous; it was fraught with danger and the promise of problems galore.

These promises came horribly true as the subcontinent was ripped apart by rioting mobs. The ripping apart was a bloody affair, with millions of lives lost in a mindless, inter-religious, inter-factional war that threatened to destroy the fledgling nations that had been just formed.

The baby was crying, yes, but its very existence stood in danger of being extinguished.

I wasn’t even born then, but from what I have read, heard and seen in various media, India in its infancy was caught between the desire to shout about its freedom from the rooftops and to be seen to be an ably administered country without its firangi rulers. It had world class leaders, of that there is not a shred of doubt. Its people were mostly patriotic, but poverty, the yoke of colonial rule and the bloodshed of the freedom struggle, and later, the pangs of partition, had robbed their enthusiasm to do something positive for the nation.

In this era of despondency arose towering figures - righteous politicians, educationists, financial wizards, industrialists, inventors, scientists, doctors, engineers, artists … and so many others from various walks of life … men and women for whom there was nothing other than the clarion call to do something for fellow-Indians. They worked day and night to make India into a country that would command admiration and respect from all the nations of the world.

From a tiny beginning, the roots of which were sown during the years prior to independence, India shrugged off the yoke of colonialism and began to create a modern, thriving nation. There were innumerable bumps on the road, the biggest being those of a lack of infrastructure, illiteracy and a culture steeped in dogma and superstition. Presence of regressive practices like discrimination against women, delaying projects on account of the absence of a “shubh mahurat”, the “licence raj” and administrative inertia acted as major hindrances to development. Adding to the woes was corruption: it stopped entrepreneurs, inventors, discoverers, scientists, engineers, and almost all other flag-bearers from breaking fresh ground and initiating new activities.

It is therefore with pride that I must say that over the painful, agonising decades, our country did, in fact, start to show progress. In a decade or so of the start of the Five Year Plans, the agricultural revolution that occurred brought employment, prosperity and smiles to the lips of millions of impoverished farmers. Over the ensuing years, there was a gradual but perceptible decline in the infant and under-five mortality rates, a rise in life expectancy, a rise in literacy and a secular increase in industrial output and infrastructural input.

I was born in 1960. It was a year in which the country achieved its teenage as independent India. The child had grown into an adolescent. It had begun to flex its intellectual, military and financial muscles. The ebullience of Jawahar’s “Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai” was turning into a nightmare for India as China continued to, on the one hand, shake hands with us while on the other, mount an aggressive assault upon our country’s sovereignty.

The Indo-China War ran our pride into the ground, but also taught a few invaluable lessons to our political leaders and to the general populace too. Distrust and realpolitik replaced blind faith and gay abandon when it came to dealing with Machiavellian nations. Who else to head the list but our own bud, Pakistan?

It was in the 1950’s that the Indian behemoth began to make a mark on the world with its Nehru-inspired Non-Aligned Movement. However, it was in the ‘60’s that the movement gathered steam, with its meetings in Belgrade, Cairo, and towards the end of the decade, in Lusaka. While Neil Armstrong was setting foot on the moon, India galloped ahead of the agricultural brigade and laid down the foundations of industrial progress. Steel, Aluminium, Coal, Petroleum and petroleum-processing and many other core infrastructural industries took off. I was but a child then, but I remember doing “social studies” projects in school. We used to cut out pictures of milk-bottles, butter packets, detergents, toothpastes, brushes, bath-soaps, socks, shoes, and other fast-moving consumer goods to stick them in our books. I remember thinking how wonderful that our country was making such lovely things to use, eat and wear! At that time, my mind probably did not know that over 50% of the goods produced in India were made by multi-national companies.

Thus passed the sixth decade of the 20th century. By then, India became a young, grown-up nation. Besting Pakistan in the ’65 war, India went on to crush it once again in ’72, and Indira Gandhi and Field Marshal General Sam Maneckshaw delivered a new baby to the international comity of nations: the fledgling Bangla Desh.

My own teenage years were spent schooling and, if I may coin the word, “colleging” through junior-college, and then the medical college that I graduated out of, a qualified doctor. Through the ‘70’s, while I immersed myself in education, I observed our country go through the jubilation of winning a war, of it bringing out the nationalization of 14 banks (other than the State Bank of India and its 7 subsidiaries, which were nationalized in 1955), of it ushering in the milk-revolution and of it growing out of the influence of the Soviet Union and beginning to play its non-aligned role more and more vigorously. Nehru had been replaced by the indomitable tour-de-force, his daughter and Indian par-excellence, Shrimati Indira Gandhi.

It seemed that India’s saviour would be no big-banged hero on a white steed, nor even the angry young man Amitabh Bachchan, who was making his mark in the film industry, but an ordinary-looking middle-aged, straight-backed woman in a white sari – with zardozi borders. Mrs. Gandhi became the common man’s favourite. She hobnobbed with world leaders and sat down with slum-dwellers with the same degree of comfort and displayed √©lan and style with both. She administered India as well or as bad as the other predecessors, but it was in the area of foreign policy that she came into her own. Her poise and handling of foreign policy affairs made her the cynosure of many eyes. My memories of Indira are as fresh as the dew that settles on the hybrid roses that adorn my apartment terrace flower pots. She was so elegant, so charming and so – ah – manly in her dealings with the political honchos who lay scattered all around her. Many tried to pull her down, but ultimately, it was her own “heroic” decision to impose a state of Emergency that brought about her own downfall.

The ‘70’s drew to a close. I finished my graduation in the early ‘80’s and began my post-graduation in the field of Pediatrics around the time US space shuttle Columbia blasted off successfully into space. It was also around this time that a small-time business trader by the name of Dhirubhai Ambani, assisted by his two sons Mukesh and Anil, became the darling of the Indian bourses as they went about systematically increasing the wealth of shareholders, even bending a few rules of the market on the way.

Then Kapil Dev and his devils created cricketing history with the victory at the World Cup. The “Prudential Cup” was ours, and cricket became the sports worshipped and followed by the most number of Indians. While all this was happening, the world was getting transformed into a new economy driven by that most marvelous of all inventions of the 20th Century – the computer. As computer applications began to increase, someone discovered a way to connect computing devices all over the world through a nebulous, unseen technology, initially known as the “Web”. This amazing technology literally promised to allow consumers and manufacturers to virtually reach out to each other and be at each others’ doorsteps, as it were. How was India to be left behind?

Indian intellectuals seized the opportunity with both hands and a mind and a heart, to boot. Narayan Murthy, along with some of his IIT cronies, set up a small venture called as Infosys Technologies; this company was to conquer new milestones every year till it became almost impossible to ignore Indian computer wizards. Many others, such as Azim Premji, Shiv Nadar and so on jumped early on to the bandwagon, and today, have made India into a computing superpower.

I began to access the computer only from the late ‘90’s, but I had begun to appreciate its vast potential more or less from the mid-eighties. After finishing my post-graduation, I stayed on at the teaching hospital for a few more years. During these years, I began to participate in social activities and to interact with some of the more prominent NGO’s working with children, such as Akanksha, CRY and so on. My activities were purely honorary, and included my working with both sick and well children. I used my medical expertise to improve the lot of poor and often orphaned children, a challenge that I began to enjoy thoroughly.

As the country stepped into the nineties, people began the countdown to the golden jubilee of its year of Independence. Sportsmen and sportswomen were also making an impact on the world stage. Almost single-handedly, Vishwanathan Anand was making history with his skills at both traditional as well as quick-format chess; P.T.Usha had already set the field on fire with her attempt at an Olympic medal almost a decade earlier. Now, it was the turn of the cricketing greats to bring India back to the center stage. Batsmen, bowlers, fielders, they were all getting better, more aggressive and more skilled at the game, especially its shorter, limited-overs version that was becoming more and more popular by the day.
In the seventies, it had been Sunil Gavaskar, now it was another Mumbaikar, Sachin Tendulkar, whose star began to rise. Soon, he would overtake most cricketing legends – both from India and abroad – as he continued to create more and more runs and so, records. There were great achievers in other sports as well: who can forget Prakash Padukone and his Masters Championship? Or Michael Ferreira with his amazing game of billiards? Or Vijay Amritraj and Ramesh Krishnan, the tennis champions?

India continued its progress in every field, be it science, technology, medicine, industrial production, the strength of the rupee, its exports, its commerce and trade, its entertainment industry, its sports and arts, and so on and so forth.

However, the negatives also began to climb. Wildlife conservation was getting a major setback as progress-hungry India had no time or money to afford conservation and environmental protection. Large dams, hydro-electric stations, newer cities, land reclamation by destruction of mangroves around major coastal cities like Mumbai and Kolkata, the wanton hunting of tigers and the destruction of forests for creation of human settlements and Greenfield setting up of plants for the manufacture of old economy items such as metals, power, transport and oil kept on degrading the environment.

Corruption in administration and politics also began to climb higher and higher. It seemed that it was impossible to get anything done by the administrative worker without first giving them a bribe. Buttering up the seniors and sycophancy was seen not only in industry and commerce, but also in the fields of education, arts, entertainment, police, the armed forces, social organisations, politics, sports and what have you. This moral degradation continues even today. This had nullified the effects of academic excellence, individual endeavour, hard work, genuine need and even skill and talent. Our people must shake off the burden of corruption and sycophancy if they are to realise the fruit of their own hard work and talent.

Population explosion is the other major problem faced by our country. It was always there, but it is only in the last two decades that its impact has been faced by everyone. India’s resources are just not matching up to the ever-increasing requirements of the people. Thus, while poverty is gradually being reduced, the rising population worries the country’s policy makers, especially with respect to the major metropolitan areas of India, viz. Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai, as also level two cities like Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune, Vadodra and others.

As we turn 60, I would like to pay a tribute to our freedom fighters. It is because of their untiring efforts, led by such greats as the Mahatma, Nehru, Bhagat Singh and Bose that we are a free country today. I would also like to salute the common man, who has no religion and no caste, no attachments to any political ideology, no wish to crush enterprise, talent or hard work, no desire other than to live and let live peacefully and no ambition other than to live a full live with his/her near and dear ones. Finally, I would like to dedicate this writing to the spirit of the thinking mind that is Indian. It is because we think and sow that others reap the fruit of our thoughts.

Jai Hind.

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