What does it mean to be independent?

Have been thinking of this given that Independent India will be turning 60 in a week’s time on August 15th. So what does it mean to us? As Indians. As a nation. As a rising economic power in the world. In an increasingly global economy. And culture. What have we done right? And what, has gone horribly wrong? And what are the lessons learnt?

Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children would be 60 years old in a week. Serves as an apt metaphor to talk about the state of the nation. And us as a people.

So much has changed. And true to India’s paradoxical nature, so much is still exactly the same. Indeed so many things are so much worse.

A green revolution means enough food grains to feed a population of a billion people. Yet, according to experts, approximately 30% of food grains rot during the distribution process due to lack of storage facilities. We have great doctors and superlative medical technology and yet most people cannot afford it.

We are increasingly moving from being an IT delivery powerhouse to a hub for product software development, biotechnology, scientific research, pharmaceutical innovation and yet, our power infrastructure, our transportation infrastructure, our ports and airports are firmly ensconced in the lower echelons of Third World standards. We often lack potable water, even in our big cities. Things are changing yes, but not changing fast enough to overcome 50 years of utter neglect.

We are educating more – but increasingly, educating more poorly. We are building malls and yet, we cannot seem to find a housing solution for millions of immigrants from rural areas into our cities. We have more cars and motorcycles and scooters today than was imaginable even 5 years ago – and yet there is very limited environmental and collective social awareness in the country – top-down.

We are the world’s largest representative democracy – perhaps the world’s largest affirmative action program in action, in the words of Shashi Tharoor – and yet, our politics, our society and our moral ethos are scarred by caste loyalties – We still debate caste- ism in the most politically exploitative ways – without any long term imperatives and solutions. We have increasingly dishonest politicians, lower level of political discourse and debate, fractious political parties with small term agendas and everything else that comes with it. Our judiciary, though relatively free, is far from effective. Our courts are overloaded. Nothing moves. Our police force is often dishonest, brutal and lacks transparency. All too often, it brutalizes the weak – the poor, the disenfranchised and women. All too often, it works in cohorts with our RichPrivilegedDishonest. All too often. Or worse, with local politicians. Like, all too sadly, in Gujrat, during the riots, post Godhra.

And yet, a son of a rickshaw puller can make the IAS cadre if he is bright enough. And yet, there are people who work to improve the lives of people in villages, in cities and indeed in jails. We have Election Commissioners who do absolutely incredible work to pull off the biggest, most complex elections in the history of the human race without any major glitches. We have people who build a subway before time and under budget. We have a very non-political armed forces. We have institutions that still hold. We have world class companies who have increasingly well-defined social agendas and world-class reputations. Confident enough to go on acquisition sprees. Atleast in our metropolitan areas – women’s rights is not an argument anymore. We have an intelligentsia which, though stuck, in the isolated urban context – is thriving. Our film industry, arts and crafts are thriving – and increasingly getting more international exposure and recognition – leading to gradual, though sometimes uneven, fiscal benefits to everyone involved. As a percentage of the population, more people read newspapers in India than any other country of the world. Even though our illiteracy rates hover around 50%. The rate of growth of the newspaper industry growth is the highest in the world. From Bloomberg’s website:

Three of the 10 best performers are in India, where the economic growth rate is triple that of the U.S. Deccan Chronicle Holdings Ltd. has surged 81 percent, HT Media Ltd. has rallied 66 percent and Jagran Prakashan Ltd. is up 56 percent. Two others are in China, the world’s fastest-growing major economy.

But, most of all, we have a people who can vote out a Hindu majority party in a country that is 84% Hindu in a religiously charged time. A time when most “educated pundits” would predict otherwise. We have a people who can share a country with their country-men who are so diverse religiously, ethnically, culturally, linguistically – and still live in relative peace – we still dont have asinine debates on TV about how only “one language” can define a country. We have a people who can let millions of refugees from Bangladesh and scour their meager resources and not have a riot.

And hence, 60 years after Independence we have hope. Because of nothing greater than our people. Our diversity. Our tolerance. And a hunger for success that comes from years upon years of being stuck in a place with no ostensible future.

But finally, we are coming our own. We are getting where we always should have been – in the elite group of modern and enlightened nations with open societies, freedom of thought, diversity, justice and economic opportunity.

Happy Independence Day everyone, when it finally dawns on August 15th!

Postscript: I re-read the post. Almost came across as if India as a success started with the liberalization in the 90’s. Couldn’t have mis-communicated more. In my mind, a lot of the factors that came together to allow India the head start when we actually started opening up were created in the socialist era. Not so much in the Indira, but the Nehru. Our educational institutions. Our laws. Our fundamental apolitical military force. Our more efficient PSUs. Yes, there were many things that were not right. But many things were.

My father was in Border Roads, an Engineer. He spent his youth in very very remote regions building roads in some of the most hostile terrains in the world – roads that now connect our vast and diverse country. Leh (highest motorable road in the world), Nagaland, Mizoram, Rajasthan, Sikkim. And that happened way before the liberalization.