IT could be because I arrived in Mumbai from Thailand the night before Independence Day that I am in a less than festive mood about our nation’s 66th birthday. Or it could be just that the Prime Minister made the most tedious, lackluster speech that I have ever heard from the ramparts of the Red Fort. Whatever the reason I must confess at the outset that more than a small tinge of gloom coloured my mood on August 15 this year.
First, let me explain what Thailand has to do with this bleak feeling. I have been visiting Thailand regularly since the late seventies and every time I go there I see such visible signs of change that I find myself involuntarily making comparisons with the slowness of change in our own fair and wondrous land. I have written before in this column about how far ahead of us Thailand, and most of Southeast Asia, is in terms of infrastructure but it is not just in these areas that there have been changes that put us to shame. There have been dramatic changes by social and economic measures even if politically our democratic traditions are stronger and more deep rooted. Of our democracy we can be truly proud but in terms of how the quality of life has improved for the average Indian there is almost nothing to be proud of.
In ten days in Thailand I wandered on beaches and drove through villages and small towns and to my Indian eyes the thing that impressed me most was that nowhere did I see the filth and degradation that have become the leitmotif of life in India. I landed in Mumbai just before sunset on August 14 and from the moment I left the airport became acutely aware of how dirty our commercial capital looked in the fading light of the day. I speak here not just of the slums and the pools of stagnant water that you pass on your way into the city but of the general decay and squalor that you see even in what are supposedly posh parts of the city.
ON the morning of August 15 I walked down Marine Drive, the city’s most exalted promenade, refurbished at huge cost not long ago, and found myself disgusted by its stained and decaying asphalt. Local citizens were celebrating Independence Day by organising a free breakfast for the needy and disadvantaged who queued patiently. This would have been a fine gesture if the organisers had thought of providing garbage bins for the little white plastic cups and plates in which breakfast was served. Within minutes the road was littered with debris from the feast. When I saw someone throwing yet another cup into the street I reminded him that it was Independence Day and then noticed that there was not a single garbage bin on the promenade. Where have they gone?
As I hurried home to catch the Prime Minister’s speech on television I noticed young girls, some with small babies on their hips, selling Indian flags. I recognised some of them as belonging to a large tribe of pavement dwellers who live in car parks and hidden nooks behind the fine buildings on Marine Drive. I know some of them personally and whenever I have asked why they do not try to find accommodation in a slum, at least in the rainy season, they tell me it is because slumlords expect a down payment that goes into lakhs of rupees before renting out a windowless hovel. The monthly rent for such a hovel is more than Rs 2,000 a month which is more than the average homeless person in Mumbai can pay even though they earn about Rs 100 a day doing odd jobs. Technically, by the standards of the Planning Commission, they are not even poor.
It was with thoughts of this kind in my mind that I sat down to listen to the Prime Minister list the ‘achievements’ of his government. He began with platitudes that I have heard so often in similar speeches on August 15 that I realised immediately that his speech had been written by bureaucrats who had probably looked up older speeches by other prime ministers to come up with this year’s address. Listen to this. “We would achieve independence in the true sense only when we are able to banish poverty, illiteracy, hunger and backwardness from our country. This would be possible only when we learn from our failures and build on our successes.”
THIS year the Prime Minister’s speech was so bereft of new ideas or a new vision that I noticed that Sonia Gandhi, who sat in the audience next to Mrs. Manmohan Singh, looked bored and uncomfortable. She fidgeted nervously as he spoke and at times looked as if she could not wait for the Prime Minister to stop droning on like an automaton on autopilot. Who can blame her if she were bored? As for me I listened carefully, as us hacks have to, then I downloaded the speech and read it through twice to see if there was some inspirational sentence that I may have missed. I did not find it.
This leads us to the inevitable question: is the red fort routine relevant any more? When I covered my first Independence Day address as a junior reporter in 1975 I remember that the roads around the Red Fort were filled with ordinary people who had come to listen to the Prime Minister. Security was not a problem in those days so us hacks could sit right under the Prime Minister’s nose. That year Mrs. Gandhi looked nervous and a little scared because Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family had been massacred in Dhaka that morning and she herself was not very popular because of the Emergency. There was a sense of history about the occasion that I still remember.
Today the Red Fort address is no more than yet another act of tokenism. The Prime Minister is no longer speaking directly to the people because security makes it impossible for the people to be present. His audience consists mostly of his own officials so why not just address the nation on television as the President does? Indian taxpayers would be spared the money wasted on security arrangements and if the speech was as boring as it was this time we can just switch channels.