Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | To celebrate the republic, focus on humble Indians

Around 230 million Indians were pushed into poverty during the last 12 months

Watching the spectacular 73rd Republic Day parade in New Delhi last week, few would have guessed that 1.3 billion Indians are in the grip of a life and death struggle with a disease for which there is still no certain cure. The only specific reference to this dark cloud looming above us was a brief snatch of conversation when Mirror Now’s Srinjoy Chowdhury asked the parade commander, Lt. Gen. Vijay Kumar Mishra, about the hazards of organising such an event in the midst of a health crisis. Yet, everything depends on the pandemic. Covid-19 can erase India’s past achievements and blight the future.

If the celebrations took little notice of the peril, it did obliquely acknowledge another controversy that may be heading towards a confrontation after 75 years of Independence. The ideological tussle over the nature of the Indian State, reflected in several Constituent Assembly debates, found expression in the Republic Day tableaus featuring Sri Aurobindo, the sage of Pondicherry, and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Possibly both proclaimed a yearning for a majoritarian response to Islamist Pakistan although this must remain a matter of conjecture since neither man ever specifically addressed the subject. However, the decision to drop the hymn, “Abide with Me”, whose haunting strains always brought the Beating Retreat ceremony to a moving end, hinted at a nationalism that has no time for the universalism of our liberal heritage.

The parade rightly paid tribute to individual achievers. The heroism of a policeman like Babu Ram who lost his life to the Kashmir terrorists or the literally high-flying Shivangi Singh, the first woman pilot in a Rafale, were among the undeniable attractions of an event that recorded national achievements and inspired pride in a sense of nationhood. But resounding boasts of India’s “military might” were hardly appropriate given the hardships that forced a fugitive family of Indian refugees to freeze to death on the Canadian-US border at around the same time last week: 13 million Indians seek a livelihood abroad while 110,000 of them discarded Indian nationality in September alone. Nor was harking back to brief triumphs in the 1965 and 1971 wars very diplomatic when the continuing threat of aggression along our northern border keeps alive the humiliating memories of 1962. As for gloating over the awesome display of Rafales, Gnats, MiGs and Jaguars, it recalled a British writer’s dismissal of the old Soviet Union as Upper Volta with missiles. Any government can buy weapons from Western merchants of death if it can rustle up the cash by depriving citizens of genuine welfare.

An honest depiction of what the government dubbed as “Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav” should have preferred realism to bombast. In his formal address preceding the celebrations, President Ram Nath Kovind spoke of the government’s “unmatched resolve” in battling the Covid-19 pandemic. Surely, at least one of the 25 tableaus that rumbled along Rajpath on January 26 in the wake of the stirring march past could have been devoted to this topic of crucial importance to our national survival? It could have explained what Covid-19 is all about, how it came to our shores, the two so-called Indian variants, and the labours of the doctors and nurses whom Prime Minister Narendra Modi had lauded last year as the “reincarnations of God”.

Apart from the journalist’s question to Lt. Gen. Mishra, the pandemic that threatens to drive us into extinction was admitted only circumstantially -- by the absence of any foreign VIP as the guest of honour, smaller crowds, more space between chairs, and only a sprinkling of the masks that are essential if infection is not to run riot. The President’s face was very properly covered throughout the ceremonies, but if the Prime Minister or home minister wore masks, this writer, square-eyed from being glued to the TV screen, failed to spot them. South Korean businessmen shaved their heads in protest against the closures and social distancing that Seoul imposed as the Omicron variant spread -- their Indian equivalents need do nothing as drastic because regulations and restrictions here are mainly for the poor and unimportant.

It will be years before the Covid-19 pandemic’s full toll can be measured. Around 230 million Indians were pushed into poverty during the last 12 months; those who were already grovelling below the poverty line now find themselves in even worse straits. Manufacturing lost 9.8 million jobs, while unemployment soared to 7.91 per cent in 2021 from 6.3 per cent in 2018-2019 and 4.7 per cent in 2017-18. Clearly, this further impoverishment began even before Covid-19 struck. Only a plethora of government schemes that amount to thinly camouflaged charity (the dole under various fancy names) and also buys votes managed to avoid too much visible evidence of destitution.

With an estimated 600 million internal migrants (according to Kerala’s Centre for Development Studies), there is no way of localising problems of poverty or health, especially since internal migration, which is born of poverty, is constantly increasing. It was 309 million in 2001 and 450 million according to the 2011 census. The rise also coincides with mounting political intolerance -- a trend that may not be unlinked to the quest for a majoritarian identity -- so that people from one part of the country are less and less welcome to live and earn a living in other areas. In one sense, India is splitting at its ethnic, linguistic and religious seams.

Officially, Covid-19 is said to have killed nearly 500,000 Indians, the world’s third highest count. Given the abysmal state of health services in the interior, this is probably a gross underestimate. New Delhi preens itself on bettering the WHO’s recommendation of one doctor per 1,000 people with a 1:834 ratio. If the number of doctors has gone up miraculously since the ratio was 1:1,456, it is likely to be confined to affluent urban areas or reflect Anglo-American immigration restrictions. As for nurses, not only is 1.7 per 1,000 well below the recommendation by WHO of 3:1,000, but the quality of nursing can be shameful.

At the same time, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute says India spends the most after the United States and China on its military. The defence budget of $71.1 billion (against America’s $732 billion and China’s $261 billion) seems modest and may well be necessary but our rulers may find there is little left to defend unless they expend more thought, care and money on the welfare of humble Indians instead of squandering funds on grandiose projects to glorify a mythical India.

Next Story