The other day, I went to a movie. As usual, we stood up for the national anthem. For some reason – perhaps because there was no video accompanying the singing – I found myself concentrating on the words of Jana Gana Mana.
An anthem is supposed to express the love a citizen feels for the nation. Our anthem is a hymn. It addresses a higher force – whatever force controls the destinies of nations – and seeks blessings for a victory. It also describes what ‘Bharat’ implies. It hints at languages, at diversity. It speaks of mountains and rivers. When we sing this hymn, we are really praying to protect all this, and the people who live on this land.
Later, I spotted a girl, a teenager at the traffic signal. It’s a bit nippy in the evenings, and I start to wonder if she has warm clothes, where she lives, and what her daily sales targets look like. In her wake, a little boy appears. Shorts and a torn shirt, barefoot in the winter, waving an Indian flag.
There’s no getting away from the sight this week – tiny, cheap, China-manufactured flags in the hands of little children at traffic signals. Perhaps they were made in India after all. But how much would the worker get paid for making a cheap plastic flag?
And the kids – even if we ignore the child labour aspect, how do we ignore the fact that they are possibly homeless and almost certainly don’t have health insurance? If they are sick, they will go to hospitals where it will be impossible to get a bed. And if they cannot find the money to eat, how will they buy medicines?
For too many of us (readers of English newspapers), patriotism remains confined to the national anthem; flags; cricket matches; taking offence if somebody says India is a dark, desperate place.
But that’s just what it is for the majority. There’s a 2012 report by the Working Group on Human Rights in India and the UN. It reminds us that 77% of us live on less than Rs 20 a day. Although the average growth rate was 8.2%, the decline in poverty levels was only 0.8%. Which means that more and more people find themselves pushed to the margins.
At least 92% of our workforce is unorganized. Which means that they cannot effectively demand a share of India’s growth in the form of better working conditions or social security. Most workers lose jobs easily, are hired only occasionally, and have no pension or provident fund or health insurance.
Besides, where we have grown, the growth has been costly. The Indians who paid the price were the most vulnerable. The report estimates the number of people displaced since 1947 by ‘development’ projects at 60-65 million. 40% of them were tribals and another 40% dalits and the rural poor.
Not that our cities are glowing with health. 60% of Mumbai and 50% of Delhi still lives in slums or “informal settlements”. India’s urban slum population is over 158 million, most of whom don’t have access to safe water or sanitation.
And slums will continue to grow, because the farming sector is facing such a crisis. Official figures for farmer suicides are available for 2010 – that was 15,964 in the year, or one every 43 minutes.
This, then, is our republic – ranked 134 out of a list of 187 on the UN human development index. And while I’m glad that we’re a sovereign nation, we’d better start thinking real hard about how to make political democracy translate into human democracy. Buying flags at traffic signals won’t cut it.
Annie Zaidi writes poetry, stories, essays, scripts (and in a dark, distant past, recipes she never actually tried)