Thursday, 7 June 2012

Signs of the times

These were the roadside homilies of my youth.  Shots of our then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi promoting family planning.  I knew what the inverted red triangle meant long before I knew the basics of reproduction.

Still today I hear the echoes of these signs.  Why do we have problems in our country?  Too many people.  If only the ________ (name your un-favorite ethic or religious group) did not breed like flies, we would have so much more to go around.

How totally wrong can we be.  We may have many more people today - but the wealth that our country has generated is enormous.  The gap between the haves and have-seems seems larger than ever.  But what we do have is a young generation who is itching to do something.  A generation who wants to be employed.  Who have stratospheric aspirations thanks to seeing so much more than we could ever imagine in our 'socialist' (Indira) days of growing up.  And it isn't only ads on TV.  They are seeing costly electronic baubles in peoples hands.  Seeing their neighbours installing plasma TVs.   Seeing white SUVs with LED highlighted headlights growl slowly round the corner.

Someone called my Dad while I was in Mussoorie.  I could hear Dad's part of the conversation and guessed most of it.  He told me that the person had called cold.  He was a total stranger to Dad, but had asked him over the phone for a job.  "Please get me a job, Uncle." As if Dad stored jobs were in a cupboard which he could pull out and give to his caller.

But the vast majority are not calling up uncles on the phone and asking for jobs.  They are working.  Somehow.  Someplace.   Some in almost destitution.  Some moving up in life. They may not be happy.  They may grumble and may even be texting someone about what opportunities are elsewhere.  But other than the utterly destitute, most of our vast teeming masses are at work.

What we need is not less people, but more opportunities.  Places where they can learn and be trained rather than just pass the time and be promoted up to the next standard without being able to functionally read and write.  Above all, we need a categorical clearing out of the Augean stables of corruption that dogs every part of our nation.  Last year's Anna Hazare led anti-corruption movement tapped into some of this - but seems to be sputtering out from a combination of naivete and silliness by the self-styled leaders.

In the meantime, I wonder if we are ripe again for another Indira-style strong-man (or woman) who can belt out a one-line mantra like on the sign from the early 1980s.  It could be the old 'population as the source of all our problems' for example - or some other scapegoat could be found.  As long as there is a modicum of progress (see Gujarat and Mr. Modi as an example) most will be happy to fall in line.  Though our nation has so many complexities to it - we all crave simple solutions - especially ones where others have to suffer and we can go to the head of the queue.

The next chapter is still being written.  I wonder what street sign or advertisement would capture the spirit of the India that we inhabit today?

picture credit: Sterling Swan from 1981 or 1982

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