The winter session of the Parliament of India began today and I watched and heard Prime Minister Narendra Modi spinning dreams for the future of India. “There are 800 million youth in India. We must think to provide them employment, to change the future of the country,” he said at one point during his speech. I was completely foxed by what he was saying, because memories of people I have met over the past year during my field-trips to research stories on the situation of TB in India, came flooding back to me. I have met over a hundred people from several states of India who completely believe the picture he is envisioning for India. Meet some of them here.
Nowadays when Tarsil Orao (50) wakes up in his little hut in a village near Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh, he does not reach out for a customary morning cup of tea. The cost of tea leaves, sugar, milk and fuel is more than his household can absorb on the meagre income he earns as a casual agriculture labourer. Come lunchtime, there is but one dish on the menu - cooked white rice. Vegetables and lentils are out of the household too. Now it is rice once a day, every day and twice only on days that the subsidised rice they get is still available. Children and adults alike eat the same.
Devsi and Dulairin’s house has two rope cots, some clothes hanging on a rope strung across the courtyard, some tattered baskets and odds and ends. But barring a chulha with some cold ash in it, there is nothing else that relates to food in the house. No utensils, no spice jars, and no tins of stored grains are visible anywhere. The story by now is repetitive. Food is not a given in their house, but something that they eat when available. They have three children who are assured of at least a mid-meal every day in school, but for the rest, it is much like a game of chance.
I also thought of the young boy who has just graduated from college, who works with me. On his first day of work, I had to begin by teaching him to address an envelope to send out a courier. He has dreams of becoming a computer professional. I had to teach him how to switch on the computer and open a basic MS Word file despite the fact that he takes computer classes.
Then what was Mr Modi speaking about? What was he basing his expectations on? What had he based his dreams and vision for India on? He has coined some powerful slogans, Make in India and Swacchh Bharat being just two of them. What are the tools he has in hand to make these possible? Does he have the requisite talent? Does he have an educated populace beyond the urban few who are anyway not going to wait for his largesse? They have the means to make it anyway. Or is he just out of touch with reality and only flexing his oratorical muscle? That’s not in question anyway. We all know he is a speaker par excellence.
Mr Modi would need to do much more to make his lofty ambitions a reality. Why for instance did he not speak of the dismal state of public health in this country? Does he not know that we have the highest burden of TB in the world? TB is not just a disease. It is a social malaise and actually takes root from poor living conditions, lack of adequate nutrition, and poor access to health facilities and deprivation of the worst kinds. This means we do not have the basics in place. Does he not know that the largest number deaths among children below the age of five occur in India from avoidable conditions such as diarrohea? That we have the highest numbers of malnourished children? Malnourishment is ailing adults as well but no one is talking about that. Why is it that a boy who has just graduated from college is still ‘uneducated’ in the real sense?
I have a few theories, simplistic though they may sound. In India, anything with the tag of public – be it public health, or public education has failed miserably. And this is the system that the majority of India’s population relies on or has to fall back on as anything with the tag of private – be it health or education is beyond their reach. Was he trying to give us the message that they did not matter? If yes, what human capital is he left with? I have often heard bombastic claims that our demographic dividend is our biggest wealth. Well, let me say it now. Our population, as it is now, is our greatest drag because the system has failed them. It has failed to recognise and address their needs. They form the larger part of India and unless they are an integral part of the development agenda, our dreams for India can never come to fruition. Yes, I do recognise that a small section might benefit from Mr Modi’s plans, but the larger numbers, of whom Devsi and Dularin are a part will continue to go to bed hungry. They will never reap the benefits of Make in India or Swacch Bharat. These will remain slogans – catchy but unreal.