Nation Other News 02 Jul 2019 Swachh Bharat, Socia ...

Swachh Bharat, Social Health

Published Jul 2, 2019, 6:19 am IST
Updated Jul 2, 2019, 6:19 am IST
A society that short-changes social justice is of mental ill-health and, hence, also of mental un-hygiene.
St. Stephen's experienced an unprecedented intellectual vitality after it threw open its doors for the least and the lost. The sole explanation for the unprecedented effervescence in excellence in the college was the infusion of social justice. (Picture courtesy: St Stephen’s College website)
 St. Stephen's experienced an unprecedented intellectual vitality after it threw open its doors for the least and the lost. The sole explanation for the unprecedented effervescence in excellence in the college was the infusion of social justice. (Picture courtesy: St Stephen’s College website)

It is rarely recognised that social justice has been the key to the all-round development of Kerala. Religious reform, and radical left political movements, in Kerala were pegged on social justice. The liberation and empowerment of the oppressed and disenfranchised has been the essence of the social justice that reformers like Narayana Guru pioneered. Nothing else explains the uniform development of the state where the urban-rural divide is largely notional. This is unique to Kerala.

Injustice is social un-hygiene. It breeds social illnesses. According to Dr. Dainius Puras, the UN special rapporteur on health, endemic inequality and discrimination - the symptoms of social injustice - are the main causes of mental illnesses (see the DC interview, 30.6.2019). If so, upholding social justice is basic to attaining social health. Regrettably, the social conscience of India has been inured for long to the macabre faces of social injustice. As a result, we have come to take them for granted.  


Here is an example. Can social justice and pursuit of excellence in education -  especially higher education -  coexist? Will not commitment to social justice undermine excellence? All through my career as an educator and administrator in higher education, I encountered this prejudice in its diverse virulent forms. I was damned as a destroyer of educational excellence when, as principal of St. Stephen's College, I decided to uphold social justice in higher education. I opened the doors of the college -  till then the bastion of elite privilege -  to the 'least and the lost', who would not have found a foothold in the institution despite being meritorious. The sieve of 'interview' used to be wielded against these socially lacklustre candidates to exclude them from the ambit of admissions.


What was the outcome of my allegedly subversive experiment? St. Stephen's experienced an unprecedented intellectual vitality. The college was not among the top five institutions of its kind in India in 2007. By 2012, it became the best in India 'for all courses taught in it'. The sole explanation for this unprecedented effervescence in excellence was the infusion of social justice. A long-entrenched myth got demonetised in the process.

I make a mention of this if only to dispel the miasma of centuries-old prejudices, general and particular, enveloping the ideal of social justice. For me, this was not a question of proving a point, but of empowering the mighty potential of India. Consider cricket, for an example. If this game, like higher education today, had remained confined, as it used to be, to the socio-economic elite, we would have come nowhere near the present level of 'excellence'. We would have neither a Kapil Dev, nor a Tendulkar, nor a Dhoni, nor a Virat Kohli, nor any of our leading players today. Addressing the demands of social justice is, hence, not merely a matter of averting social ill-health, as argued by Dr. Puras; but of fulfilling our potentially glorious national destiny.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi was spot on in highlighting the connection between hygiene and health; or, swachh and swasthya. Sadly, he stopped short then of reckoning the implications in full. Now is the time, hence, to connect cleanliness with health via social justice as well. A society that short-changes social justice is a society, as Dr. Puras correctly argues, of mental ill-health and, hence, also of mental un-hygiene. It mocks the putative commitment to Swachh Bharat and Swasthya Bharat.  

No view on social health and social justice in India can afford to dodge the political question. Communalism is the foremost stumbling-block in the path of social justice. Communal politics and commitment to Swachh Bharat, therefore, cannot go hand-in-hand. A bold and uncompromising commitment to social justice should be the bottom-line of the Swachh Bharat agenda.


Besides the political question, there is, in relation to social ill-health, the question of the current model of development. Ever since Emile Durkheim's classic study titled Suicide (1897), the nexus between development of a crass, materialistic kind and the rise of despair and suicide as social pandemics has been widely recognised; but mostly in theory. Given the global domination of the present paradigm of development, no meaningful attempt is made to follow up on its implications and to minimise its socially sinister consequences. In point of fact, it is the irreconcilability between this model of development -its creed - greed is god -  and social justice that expresses itself in the dogma, among many others, that commitment to social justice imperils excellence in education.


This model of material development also produces palliatives for the aches and pains, depressions and inner torments it generates: anti-depressant drugs, the entertainment industry and even pseudo-religious means for inducing transient spells of escapist euphoria. But it has no means for counteracting the epidemic of the 'dwindling stature of man' and the 'deadness' it breeds in individuals.

Erich Fromm, in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973), narrates the instance of a school girl in the US slitting her left wrist. She was rushed to the hospital. When recovered, the psychiatrist asked her why she took such an extreme step. "At least by seeing my blood flow," she replied in a dead-pan tone, "I wanted to feel that I am alive". That, admittedly, is an extreme case; but it is the extreme of a social reality which is bounded at one end by boredom and, at the other, by depression.


Even as more and more young people descend into hells of existential emptiness, and people groups and religious communities hit the dead-end, via communal polarisation, beyond which are only undefinable zones of fear and arbitrary terror, as ways of life and social mores are abandoned to the human-sacrifice-demanding gods of development, we should expect the emergence of unprecedented extents of social deracination and individual bewilderment. The pity is that there is neither an attempt to ride the juggernaut of progress with circumspection nor an inclination to put in place mechanisms for coping with the human devastation it is sure to leave in its wake. We are not unlike that Quixotically ebullient and journalistically irrestible foreign minister of Saddam Hussein -  the irrepressible Tariq Aziz -  who, even as the American forces were knocking at the door of his press conference venue, kept affirming the inevitable victory of Saddam's army and issuing threats of death and damnation to the enemy.   


(The writer is former principal of St Stephens’s College, New Delhi)