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Seven sutras: the PM's biggest failures

Seven sutras: the PM's biggest failures

Author: Tavleen Singh
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: August 18, 2008
URL: http://www.indianexpress.com/story/349709.html

As always I woke early on Independence Day to hear the Prime Minister speak. I listened carefully as he reiterated that the priorities of his government in the past four years, its 'seven sutras', had been agriculture, water, education, healthcare, employment, urban renewal and infrastructure. I wondered if he noticed that this could be a list of his biggest failures. If his government had succeeded in making 'common minimum' improvements in the areas he listed, India would not look as bad as it does when cruel people compare us to China. What more proof of difference is needed than the fit of national hysteria when we won our first gold medal at the Olympics while China makes no fuss about winning the most gold medals at the games. Personally, I found the hysterics over Abhinav Bindra's medal deeply shaming. Why do we behave in this appalling way? Because we remain a Third World third-rate country and the main reason is the failure of successive Indian governments to deliver on the Prime Minister's seven sutras.

The day before his speech I drove down the national highway that goes from Mumbai to Goa. I suggest that the Prime Minister or one of his trusted aides drive down one of our national highways as a reality check on the seven sutras. The 'national highway' to Panjim was so bad that there were moments when my car seemed to be climbing in and out of shallow craters. These were mega-mega holes, hence my hesitation to use the word pothole. This was a small problem compared to the jam of articulated lorries that I got stuck in for more than an hour. The lorries were the only 21st century thing on this highway and they were forced to move like bullock carts because the road was so hopelessly inadequate.

The hideous urban slums and villages I passed bore powerful testimony to the failure of 'urban renewal' and the Prime Minister's 'new deal to rural India'. These changes have not happened at all. If they had, Mumbai's outer suburbs would not look like hovels swimming in a sea of garbage and our filthy villages would not look like settlements that should be prohibited for human habitation. Clean water Prime Minister? What are you talking about? When did you last spend a night in a village? Check with Rahul-baba who may have learned from his poverty safari that even the poorest of the poor buy bottled water in our urban slums because of the failure of Government to deliver this most fundamental human need.

The key to change in the view of your ever humble columnist is compulsory primary education and common, minimum standards of public healthcare. Unless we achieve drastic changes in these two areas we can forget about India ever catching up with the rest of the world. Education and healthcare are state subjects, but if the PM had created a task force to provide us with new effective models of primary education and primary healthcare, there is no reason why state governments would refuse to accept them.

The Prime Minister's old friend, Amartya Sen, put it more eloquently than I can when he said in a recent lecture in Delhi that malnutrition and the absence of healthcare and education for the poor were 'momentous manifestations of severe injustice' in India. The situation is so bad that in the week of Independence Day a Mumbai newspaper carried heartbreaking pictures of starving children in a city suburb. Their father was quoted as saying that he could only afford to feed them on a day that he earned at least Rs 50. This happened no more than four times a week.

What is the point of our economy growing at 9 per cent annually for four years, as the Prime Minister proudly said in his speech, if we cannot deal with our basic problems? The Prime Minister is an economist so he should be able to explain why his government has done just as badly as those that went before. The only favour he did us in his speech was that by mentioning his seven sutras he reminded us of the things he did not manage to do. In his last few months as Prime Minister if he could just set in motion the process of making primary education compulsory he will be remembered with gratitude by future generations of Indians. Unless every Indian child is forced to go to school for at least long enough to learn how to read and write the future looks grim. Compulsory primary education shifts the responsibility onto the state. It will be forced to build those schools and with them will come playing fields without which there can be no gold medals.

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