Friday, 21 April 2006

Middle class angst


Tuesday, April 18, 2006 21.45 IST

When Salman Khan was jailed in the black buck killing case, it was seen as a demonstration that the rich cannot get away with crimes. There were an equal number of people who felt that he went to jail only because he was rich. It's an endless, inconclusive debate.

Those who lit candles in Delhi to protest the acquittal of Jessica Lal's murderers and in Lucknow to protest the lack of action on Meher Bhargava's murder and those who sent angry SMSs from across the country felt vindicated in a way (never mind that their vigil didn't influence the Salman case verdict).

The two vigils have won a lot of kudos. They are seen as a sign that the middle class is shaking off its apathy and taking a stand, saying they will not take injustice any more. For a Delhi whose overarching philosophy is sannu ki (what's it to me), this was certainly a change. But let's take a good, hard, dispassionate look at those protests. Was the outrage anything more than skin deep? A cynical question, yes, but one that needs to be asked.

The protests were about the rich and the influential getting away with serious crimes. The system, everyone said, was to blame. What a clear distancing of oneself from the system and the actions of the rich.

But isn't the system made up of individuals? And is the middle class less prone than the rich to use money to escape penalties? Can all those who agonised about money power and influence legitimately claim that they have never paid a bribe to avoid a challan for jumping a red light? Why is a Rs 100 bribe more acceptable than a Rs 1 lakh one? Can they say they never used the network of friends, relatives and classmates to tweak the system for one's own selfish benefit at someone else's cost?

What's worrying is how quick the middle class is to point fingers at people, without stopping to think what they would have done if placed in the same situation.

Take the case of the anger against Shayan Munshi for retracting his initial statement in the Jessica Lal case. Without condoning what he did, let's look at it in a more detached manner. He was just another middle class boy trying to get a break into a career. Could he really have afforded to keep appearing for police questioning and court hearings? He may not have been bribed or threatened (maybe he was), but he may have just decided that building his career must be his priority.

Is that any different from how each one of us would have behaved had we been in his place? Why, many of us won't even stop to help an accident victim for fear of 'getting involved'.

Over 20 years back, a former colleague's brother-in-law died of electrocution because he stepped on a naked wire jutting out from an electricity pole. The next day the photographer of a newspaper took a photograph of the wire, which was published.

During the court hearing, there was a request for the original photograph. The photographer refused to give it because he didn't want to make repeated visits to the court. Fortunately the case against the then Delhi Electricity Supply Undertaking didn't fall through, but what if that photograph had been the only clinching evidence?

Let's not kid ourselves. There is a Shayan Munshi in each of us.

How many of those who lit candles in Delhi and Lucknow intervened when they saw a wrong being done, instead of just turning their faces away? How many of us would intercede when we see a lout harassing a woman in a bus or train? Are we even prepared to go for the social boycott of a criminal? The man who raped and murdered Priyadarshini Mattoo in Delhi and got away scot-free is now a lawyer who's not exactly wanting for business. Jessica's murderer was running a hip and happening pub in Chanidgarh. Were the clients of both these gentlemen completely unaware of their backgrounds? These are hard questions the middle class will have to answer.

Salman got convicted because of the dogged perseverance by a group of people. The urban middle class, mired in its energy-sapping daily grind, doesn't have the bandwidth for that kind of persistence or any form of active citizenship. It's so much easier to light candles and send outraged SMSs. That's a quick salve for our collective guilty conscience.

Perhaps this is an extremely pessimistic view of things. Perhaps those gestures are the first, faint stirrings of active citizenship among the middle class. But that's not enough. Middle class angst has to go beyond that.

For the system to change, we have to change our individual behaviour. There's no getting away from it.

The numbers game


Monday, March 27, 2006 21:45 IST

So, India's much-feared population boom is actually turning out to be a boon, not a bane. A report by Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC), The World in 2050, says that India can be the world's fastest-growing large economy between now and 2050, thanks mainly to its demographic profile.

Understandably, those opposing any form of population control are rejoicing. They have been making this point for long, taking strength from American economist Julian Simon's famous "population is the ultimate resource" theory. "The most important economic effect of population size and growth is the contribution of additional people to our stock of useful knowledge," Simon argued.

But merely gloating over the fact that India is going to have the world's youngest population isn't enough. Are we doing enough to nurture and capitalise on that dividend? The answer may just be not enough. Consider some facts.

Over 66 per cent of children in the 0-6 age group are undernourished, the District Level Rapid Household Survey, 2002-05 shows. Over 90 per cent of pre-school children are anaemic. The incidence of anaemia in pregnant women is also 90 per cent. This is hardly the foundation of a productive workforce. The chances of an unhealthy child growing up into a healthy and fit adult are somewhat dim. Not only will such a child not be able to make use of the opportunities that will available to it; it cannot contribute to the economy in any way. On the contrary, it may well be a burden on the economy. Take the case of tuberculosis, which affects 1.8 million people a year. It is estimated that three to four months of work is lost per patient. Mortality rates may have come down in India, but morbidity due to various illnesses is still high. There's little to indicate that out of the box solutions to the problem of public health are being experimented with.

Then there's the question of equipping the future generation with the right skills that the global marketplace needs. Here, too, the figures don't look good. Only 64 per cent of India's population is literate. And the literacy rate in the 15-24 age group is only 73 per cent. That's just not good enough. In any case, this is just basic literacy. Tapping global job opportunities will require far more than that.

There are still some eight million children out of school. Drop out rates are high and learning achievements low. Right now, primary education is on top of the agenda, but one needs to start planning for the stages that will follow. The Mid-term Appraisal of the Tenth Plan points out that if the SSA achieves the goal of universal enrolment in the primary stage, then secondary enrolment is likely to touch nearly 50 million by 2011. Our current secondary school system cannot cope with this load, either in terms of numbers or quality. But secondary education is one area where even a start has not been made.

The same is true of higher education. Currently, only about 6-7 per cent of the relevant age group goes into higher education. A well functioning developing country needs to hike that to 25 per cent. Our higher education system, still largely public funded just cannot cope with the load. But not enough is being done to encourage private participation in this area. Some measures have only resulted in the mushrooming of unscrupulous teaching shops.

What's more, the education system is still designed to get people into government service. That's not going to be the source of employment growth. There's been no significant progress on vocational courses in secondary and higher education. Vocational training in Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs) is just not in sync with the needs of the domestic market, let alone the global market. Inclusion of new trades into the curriculum takes so long that they get outdated within no time. Attempts to involve industry in setting the curriculum have been patchy at best.

If basic human development issues aren't addressed with urgency, the demographic dividend could well turn into a burden. But it's not enough to open more schools and hospitals or train more teachers and doctors and nurses. Piecemeal and business as usual approaches to issues won't work. Illnesses can be reduced with better sanitation and safe drinking water. Roads and proper transportation are needed to get children to school. India has to fire on all cylinders simultaneously.

One of the reasons India will be the fastest growing economy is that the Chinese economy will slow down because of the drag caused by its ageing population. But the Indian growth story cannot be left to depend on the slackening of others. Our inherent advantages have to be nurtured and promoted. Without losing any time.