Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Common Man and the Common Wealth

January 26, 1950 saw India become a Republic. Everybody rejoiced, the people of Bharat, free from the British tutelage, could decide their own future.
But what was this ‘Republic’ about?
Etymologically ‘republic’ comes from the Latin res publica, meaning ‘what belongs to the public’; in other words, the nation and its wealth belong to the people.
Wikipedia says that ‘in republics such as the United States and France, the executive is legitimated both by a constitution and by popular suffrage,” adding that ‘republicanism’ refers to an ideology based on ‘civic virtue’.
In 1950, India acquired a Constitution and people were requested to select a government of their choice.
Sixty years later, though the government has recurrently put forward the aam aadmi (the common man), where does the poor man stand today? Where have those ‘civic virtues’ gone?
The mere fact that the rulers mention the ‘common man’ demonstrates that something went wrong along the way. If rulers have to speak of ‘common men’, does this not signify that there are ‘uncommon men’ or people above the ordinary lot? 
The British had the notion of a ‘commoner’, someone who is neither the Sovereign nor a peer. Members of the House of Commons were commoners, while members of the House of Lords were peers. After the new Constitution came into force, India acquired its own Lok Sabha (Assembly of the People) and its Rajya Sabha (Assembly of the States).
Unfortunately ‘the people’ were soon forgotten. One small indication: the bureaucracy under the British Raj was called the Indian Civil Service. Though Nehru in his Discovery of India said that the service was "neither Indian, nor civil, nor a service", at least it carried the word ‘civil’. Soon after Independence, it became the Indian Administrative Service, an institution whose job was only to serve the administration and the government. The ‘civil servants’ became ‘government servants’. It may seem a mere detail, but it is truly symptomatic of what has happened during the past 60 years.
It was probably the beginning of the schism between the rulers (mostly politicians, bureaucrats, but also industrialists) and the ruled (the ‘common man’).
Because of the ever-growing gap between the ‘common’ and the uncommon’ (also known as VIP), the government had to devise new schemes such as the National Rural Employment Guaranteed Scheme, the National Food Security Act or the Bharat Nirman Yojana to ‘help’ the aam aadmi.
But in actual fact, while the rich continue to expand their wealth, these schemes serve mostly to keep poor people poor. Has not a former Prime Minister famously stated that 90% of the monies allotted never reached the targeted communities?
But there is another issue which greatly bothers me: the ‘common wealth’ of the people. I believe that this will determine if India can one day reach superpower status. Let me explain.
On the occasion of the New Year, a friend sent me an e-card. It said: “Save the Birds — they make our planet livable and happy”. I wrote back asking him “What about the rivers, the mountains or the earth?”.
These are the ‘common wealth’ of the nation. It was what the res publica was supposed to cherish and protect for the ‘common good’ of the nation.
Unfortunately, it has not been the case.

Common River
Let us take the rivers. Last week, a group of US green activists went to Agra to inspect the Yamuna behind the Taj Mahal; most belonged to river cleaning foundations in the US. One of them, Ginny Harris of the Alice Ferguson Foundation involved in the preservation of the Potomac river exclaimed: "Oh my god, you call this a river!" A number of NGOs and local activists were present. Harris later told a news agency: "Our major concern is trash. Agra activists and students of several schools have agreed to pick up trash from the Yamuna river bed at several ghats in the city on March 22."
When asked: "Can the river Yamuna be saved?", the US scientist said: "Why not? Emerging cleanup technologies promise a lot of hope for the future. For now, don't let the water body be used as a sewage canal."
The question could be asked: who uses India’s holy rivers as sewage outlets?
You cannot blame the ‘common man’. In most of the cases, it is greedy industrialists who do not care for the nation’s ‘common wealth’. They usually act in connivance with ‘government servants’ who are always quick to find ways to benefit from the situation.
Nobody can pretend that the Ganga is in a pristinely healthy state, not even Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh who recently affirmed that the river can still be saved. He even announced that by 2020 the polluted Ganga would be clean. One can only applaud when Jairam Ramesh says: "The Union government is confident of getting the holy Ganga river cleaned by 2020. Rs 15,000 crore will be spent for this purpose under the river development fund". Delhi plans to save the river by making it nirmal (clean) and aviral (free flowing): "We will not only ensure 'aviral dhara' (continuous flow of the river stream), as being demanded by several NGOs, but also ensure nirmal dhara (clean and pollution free flow).”
But why should the taxpayers (the common men) pay for cleaning the Ganga, they have already paid several times in the past and the polluters have continued to pollute. The polluters should be booked and made to pay.
Ordinary men and women should be entitled to live in a clean environment.

Common Mountains
It is said that the Himalayas have been revered by the people of the sub-continent since the Vedic times; it has probably been so since man exists. Poets, rishis, rajas or common folks have praised the majestic beauty of the highest mountains in the world. Unfortunately, our children will probably not be able to experience the splendor of the eternal snows in the future.
Today, the Himalayan glaciers are melting fast. It is enough to walk from Gangotri to Gaumuk the source of the Holy Ganga, to understand the tragedy. The livelihood patterns for millions of people are bound to change. Ten of millions will have to migrate or adapt.
Last October, on the occasion of a two-day conclave of the five Chief Ministers of the Himalayan States of Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Jammu & Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a call for saving the Himalayan ecology. He announced that the Union Government was planning to set up an institute on glaciology. It is good but a bit late.
Andreas Schild, director the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development based in Kathmandu, while speaking about the Himalayan eco-systems, stated that “sustainability of eco system services in the mountains will require new instruments and out of the box thinking in order to reduce vulnerability.” Can the government think out-of-the box? This is another question. In this particular case, the common man can’t do much, as the issue is truely global.
Early this month, during an international workshop on climate change held in Srinagar, it was announced that the Kolahoi glacier, the largest in Kashmir, has melted by one square mile in the last three decades. The same thing has happened in Sikkim where glaciers like the Zemu, Thongsong and Talung have irreversibly shrunk over the past 50 years. Shall we witness the tragedy silently?

Common Soil
Many seers have stated that the soil of Bharat, like the rivers, is different. Both had a quality that could not be found anywhere else in the world. It might have been true a few decades ago, but it is unfortunately no more a fact.
The sacred soil of India is polluted. Early January, scientists attached to the Punjab Agriculture University identified the reasons behind the rapid spread of cancer in the Punjab. Their verdict is clear: arsenic in water is the main cause for abnormal cell growth in human body.
The Vice-Chancellor, Dr MS Kang stated: “Lab findings have shown that arsenic is probably one of the culprits enhancing cancer in the region.” The University has analyzed 168 ground water samples over a period of 36 months. The sampling originating from different parts of North India contained unacceptably high quantity of arsenic.
The Tribune commented: “Pesticides and heavy metals have entered the food chain through irrigation with untreated wastewater that could lead to an increased number of people suffering from cancer, bone deformities and gastrointestinal disorders.”
For years, the Government spoke of its green revolution as a miracle India should be proud of, but this type of miracle unfortunately has serious side effects.
India Today studied the case of Rajasthan where groundwater drawing is far superior to the replenishment: “In 140 of the state's 237 blocks, the water table has been tagged as ‘overexploited’, in another 50 blocks it is ‘critical’ and in 14 more blocks ‘semi- critical’.”
The study also found the presence of saline, fluoride, chloride, iron and nitrate in the water; all this far exceeds the World Health Organization's permissible limits. The pollutants are said to affect the teeth, heart, bones, arteries and liver.
Though the state government had introduced the Rajasthan Regulation and Control of the Development and Management of Ground Water Bill in 2006, the Bill has been shelved by the next Government which had probably more ‘urgent’ problems to tackle.
The list could continue. Where does this lead us, the common men?
Ultimately, only a joint action by the rulers and the ruled can help remedy the situation. But tremendous will and great efforts will be required.
Sixty years after the res publica was proclaimed, one can only note that the ‘common wealth’ has been dilapidated. The ‘common man’ is certainly not the only the culprit, though at the end he is always the sufferer.

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