Secession of the urban Indian

Amidst all the recent furore over “seditious” behaviour on one of India’s premier university campuses, my mind went to the steady secession of sections of Indian society from the larger populace around them. Now, secession is no laughing matter; any talk of it in the context of a region seeking to separate itself from the republic constitutes a serious crime. And yet, through its actions (or rather inaction), the Indian state itself has been guilty of creating a secessionist mindset in certain groups residing within its frontiers. Before I am hauled up before the guardians of law (one never knows in these hyper-excitable times), let me expand on my theme to set all apprehensions at rest.

I still remember a childhood when those of us living in cities like Delhi, Bombay and Madras received, and enjoyed, the benefits of public services. Electricity came from the local power undertaking and water from the local water board. Those living in Bombay and Madras were fortunate to enjoy good public transport (local train and bus) facilities. We Delhiwallahs were not so lucky; a six kilometre journey from school to home could take anywhere up to two hours, earning the Delhi Transport Undertaking (DTU) the sobriquet Don’t Trust Us. Public health facilities were extensively used: the Central Government Health Scheme (CGHS) for minor illnesses and (in Delhi) public hospitals like Safdarjung and Willingdon (later christened Ram Manohar Lohia) for major ones. The doctors were reputed and trusted by their patients, the nursing staff was dedicated and competent and many of our friends went there for minor and major surgeries. While I don’t even remember seeing a uniformed policeman in our government colony, the friendly Gurkha watchman on his nightly vigil made us feel secure. The seeds of secession were already then being sown in primary and secondary education, though not in higher education: many of us went to private (euphemistically termed public) and missionary schools (with parental confidence in municipal and government schools at a fairly low level) but subsequently to publicly funded universities.

The last quarter of the twentieth century marked the watershed for the transition to a dual society. As the pressure of population grew, with large migrations to urban areas, shortfalls in public services and the unwillingness of better-off sections of the citizenry to live with these infrastructural deficiencies led to the Great Secession. The success of the Indian diaspora and their affluence created envy in their humble country cousins, who had to look forward to the casually tossed out gift on the annual pilgrimage home of the non-resident Indian. 1991 was the first window of opportunity for the great Indian middle class. Easier and cheaper imports, the opening up of the consumer sector to private investment and the information technology boom saw an explosion in the availability of hitherto forbidden fruit, which the Indian consumer was only too eager to acquire and consume. Money is the medium for the transfer of goods and services from the hitherto totally public domain to private enclaves of wealth and prosperity. As living standards improve for a growing middle class with aspirations to the “good life”, it would be instructive to examine how this stratification has worked in different sectors of services and how it has had its impact not just on the wealthier classes but also on the common woman/man living in urban settings in India.

Electric power supply has always been the country’s Achilles heel. Rural areas, especially in the more backward northern and eastern regions of the country, have long been inured to the absence of electricity. But urban areas, inhabited by industries and by the relatively wealthier segments of society, would not accept such a scenario. Industries went in for diesel generator sets and, where possible, captive power generation. Households followed suit very soon; as disposable incomes went up, generator sets made their appearance in private residences and housing societies. Even after the initiation of power sector reforms in the early 2000s, the scenario is yet to change, with problems persisting in all the three sectors of electricity generation, transmission and distribution. A nuclear deal was concluded, but power from nuclear plants still seems a distant dream. Oh, of course, there has been a lot of talk but, as yet, only limited progress on the renewable energy front, the inspiring example of countries like Germany notwithstanding. Bengaluru, India’s IT capital, sees its citizens stoically settling down to power cuts of three to five hours daily, while its energy policy makers scramble for excuses like low water supply positions in reservoirs.

Drinking water supply poses a major issue everywhere, and not just in years of scanty rainfall. Politicians and bureaucrats have failed to anticipate the demand for this crucial, life-giving resource, not just in rapidly growing urban centres, but also in rural areas, where water supply is fast depleting. There are a variety of reasons for this critical situation, best summed up as “the triumph of private greed over public need.” What is glaringly evident is the absence of any long-term planning for urban water management. No efforts have been made to recycle wastewater for use for non-drinking purposes, nor is there any coherent policy in place to desalinate seawater, on the lines of countries like Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States. The only ones laughing all the way to the bank are the bottled water companies, which are the major drinking water supply source to populations in cities like Chennai and Bengaluru. With a steadily worsening groundwater scenario, water tankers are the order of the day in every metropolitan area. The urban poor have to make do with the trickle that comes from their public taps or fight for access to the tankers that service their areas.

The steady deterioration of public health services has, over the years, put an enormous financial burden on the aam aurat/aadmi. Money is again the feature that distinguishes the quality of services for the rich and the poor. Corporate, multi-specialty hospitals with state of the art technology are available to those who can pay, while the poor flock to already overloaded public hospitals. The average citizen has come to distrust the medical attention she can expect to get in public health institutions, forcing her to get into debt to meet the costs of private medical care. A moribund public health care system functions (??) under the benign gaze of governments (both central and state) and a controversial Medical Council of India.

Public transport, almost the only commuting option a couple of generations ago, is probably the most striking example of the widening chasm between the rich and the poor. City transport systems have come under immense strain, even as private car registration figures shoot up. Mumbai’s famed local trains are groaning under the sheer weight of numbers and even the Mumbai bus system (BEST) is not quite what it used to be. Indian city roads have, of course, proved to be somewhat of a social leveler — the potholes on the roads are no respecter of private or public transport modes and congested thoroughfares allow for no distinctions in time spent on travel, regardless of whether you are in a BMW or on a city bus. The Delhi Metro has been the only bright spot in an otherwise abysmal tale of stalled public rail transport and Bus Rapid Transit systems in nearly all Indian cities.

Most unfortunate has been the privatisation of security systems as inadequate police forces battle with multiple responsibilities in the diverse areas of criminal investigation, law and order maintenance and VIP security. It is bad enough when housing becomes segregated (although the coexistence of prosperity and squalor serve as reminders that “no man is an island”). It is worse when these residential islands also shut off the rest of humanity (including visitors’ vehicles) and seek protection behind high walls and iron gates. As the perception of individual insecurity grows, those who are well-off but not fortunate enough to be provided taxpayer-funded security go in for their private armies of security guards. The aam aurat is left to manage on her own against antisocial elements, with no beat patrolling by constables in even crowded localities.

The final act in this secession drama is the scramble for job opportunities overseas. The earlier flight to the Gulf at least saw many of the migrants return home to better living standards in states like Kerala. The subsequent exodus to the West, especially the United Kingdom and the United States, and other areas in South-East Asia and Australia, has been rather more one-way traffic. While there is the feeling in expatriates of a homeland lost, there is also the realistic recognition that India still cannot offer the same opportunities for innovative thinking and risk taking that many other countries both to the east and west of us offer. If you don’t believe me, ask a budding research scholar in any university or an entrepreneur starting a new venture. It should occasion no surprise that India’s only Nobel award in the basic sciences came during British rule (C. V. Raman, 1930). Indians have since won Nobel awards in the basic sciences, but their research has been conducted in foreign institutions.

Ultimately, the issue boils down to the pursuit of excellence. Islands of excellence in the country still float in a sea of mediocrity, a consequence of unimaginative education systems, blatant patronage based on ethnic and other considerations and an acceptance of sloppy, disinterested performance. Perhaps we should heed the prescient words of John Gardner, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare in the Lyndon Johnson administration “The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water”.