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India 'moving away' from basic precepts of freedom movement: social justice, secularism

By Bharat Dogra*  

India achieved independence in 1947 and is now celebrating the completion of 75 years of its independence. In 1947 the life expectancy in India was a little less than 32 years. Now it is 69.6 years.
This would appear to be a big achievement, but if you compare this with a neighbouring country like Sri Lanka then one realizes that this achievement has fallen much short of the potential. Sri Lanka has achieved life expectancy of 77.22 years in the middle of all its other serious problems.
Around 1947 the infant mortality rate of India was around 146 per 1000 live births. It has now reduced to around 27. This is a significant improvement. However the much lower rate in Sri Lanka -- just 6 -- shows that India’s achievement has been much below the potential.
The maternal mortality rate in India during the 1940s was around 2000 per 100,000 live births. It is around 100 now. However the Sri Lanka MMR rate of 36 shows how India remains much short of the potential.
At the time of independence India’s literacy rate was 18.33 per cent while female literacy rate was 8.66 per cent. Now the literacy rate is much higher at 74 per cent overall and 65 per cent for females, but it is still much less than the overall literacy rate of 92 per cent in Sri Lanka.
During the 200 years of British rule, India was ravaged with many devastating famines each one of which claimed over a hundred thousand lives. This trend peaked in the last decade of colonial rule when over 3 million people died in the Bengal Famine of the 1940s.
After independence India was able to avoid mass famine deaths, even though some countries compared to experience mass famine deaths. Although post-partition population has increased by nearly four times, India has been able to increase food security. India has a reasonably well-functioning public distribution system for supplying subsidized basic cereals (and sometimes other food) to nearly two-thirds of its population, those who need this.
During the pandemic even entirely free grain was supplied to millions. This year as the world food situation worsened, despite its wheat harvest being damaged at the last stage by a scorching heat wave, India was in a position to export food to some countries facing extreme shortage.
Despite all this, malnutrition and under-nutrition levels have remained exceptionally high in India. As this writer repeatedly found during several visits to remote villages, this could be very high particularly during the lean season months, during drought years and at the time of other disasters.
There has been a big debate about the extent to which poverty has declined in India. Certainly there is a big decline compared to pre-independence times, but in recent years there have also been setbacks. 
I would like to define poverty very simply as the inability to meet basic needs and/or being forced to take up tasks that pose serious hazards and violate human dignity. I would like to assert that going by this definition, poverty levels still remain intolerably high in India. One reason is the very precarious condition of several sections such as the rural landless who number about 35% of the total households in the country.
The poor and deteriorating performance of the efforts to reduce inequalities is a major reason why poverty has remained at high levels (although this is disputed by official discourse). According to the World Inequality Report 2022, the bottom 50 per cent of the population in India has only 6 per cent of the wealth while the top 1 per cent has 33 per cent of the wealth.
The bottom 50 per cent of the population has only 13 per cent of the income while the top 1 per cent has 22 per cent of the income. This report has also pointed out that inequality levels have recorded such a big increase in recent times that these are now close to the inequality levels of colonial times.
In terms of democratic norms India had a moderately good record toll 2014 ( leaving aside the brief time of the emergency ), but after this there has been a significant decline under the NDA/BJP regime, as seen in the growing curbs on freedom of expression, assaults on critical voices in media, the growing number of political prisoners ( not acknowledged officially), misuse of state agencies to intimidate and harass political opponents and amassing through election bonds of massive funds by the ruling party in a non-transparent way.
Deteriorating performance of efforts to reduce inequalities is a major reason why poverty has remained at a high level
Legislations such as the Right to Information which were seen as a big step forward for democracy and transparency have been repeatedly violated. Even in provinces or states where opposition parties manage to win elections, there has been an increasing tendency to use money as well intimidation to topple their government and install a BJP or pro-BJP regime.
Similarly India’s relatively better record of ensuring protection and equality to minorities has been increasingly marred since 2014 by increasing hostility towards Muslims in particular since 2014. They have been feeling less secure, have faced attacks, insults and humiliation and in addition their economic opportunities have been declining during the last eight years or so.
The rich fabric of unity in diversity and inter-faith harmony is being increasingly disturbed, and the groups responsible for this appear in many cases to have official patronage.
Environmental deterioration has been very rapid with the most number of polluted cities being now found in India and rapid worsening of soil and water conditions in vast rural areas. River pollution has been at high levels, and the lean season water flows often decline to alarmingly low levels. Many small rivers have almost dried up. The long coastal region faces many-sided threats.
There is a rush to provide water taps in all houses, but not adequate concern to save or enhance the water sources which will be needed to bring water to taps. There is a rush to declare that all houses have toilets, without ensuring how well these are used and maintained, or even these have been built properly. 
Many recent achievements are vastly exaggerated, and targets are declared to be achieved even though the ground situation is quite different.
During the last 8 years or so, India has been moving away from widely accepted or even essential precepts of the freedom movement including economic equality and social justice, secularism and inter-faith harmony, human rights and civil liberties. One sincerely hopes that essential corrective steps can be taken soon to strengthen India’s commitments to the core values of its freedom movement.
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*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now; recent books include 'When the Two Streams Met', ‘A Day in 2071’ and ‘Man over Machine'

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