Monday, July 17, 2006
Crisis of civil society
Globalisation and economic growth has actually contributed to new attitudes of disregard for the poor. India faces a vacuum in civil society ownership of concerns such as poverty, social inclusion, social justice, peace & tolerance, and good governance.
The current situation in the country is quite telling. Thus, for example, there was a crisis regarding a major dam project, because those who have been ousted from their traditional lands have not yet been adequately compensated and rehabilitated. Demanding urgent attention to their resettlement is seen as heretical and destructive. Elite schools in the metropolitan centres rejected proposals for including measures to open their doors to the urban poor. The mass media and the middle class reacted strongly against a proposal for increasing reservation of seats for historically underprivileged and disempowered groups in elite technical education institutes. The private corporate sector strongly negated proposals for job reservations, while never seriously considering the issue of affirmative action in favour of historically disenfranchised communities, for advancing what are simply national goals of distributive justice.
And yet this crisis was occurring even as stock markets sizzle and indices boom to ever higher levels. The fact is that India, as a society defined and socialised by historically entrenched social inequities, is yet to assert itself as a democracy of free and equal co-citizens. Or assume the responsibilities for advancing that goal. On the contrary, disparities and perceived injustices continue to breed violent conflict and polarisation. Against this backdrop of the social exclusion accompanying economic growth, there has been a spurt of extremist violence against the state in some of the most backward areas of the country. The Prime Minister has also described the Naxalite (i.e. Maoist extremist) threat as the most serious threat ever to India’s national security.
But there are some signs of hope. Business groups and leaders have begun to speak of the responsibility to the population that is not industrialised and is living in rural areas. They say in a country like India with a large disadvantaged population, one cannot create great wealth without making an effort to spread the wealth. The Prime Minister of India, who is also a senior public economist and had been the architect of India’s economic reforms, has urged civil servants to ensure that growth is equitable, inclusive and not unduly harsh. It may be recalled that through the 2004 national election verdict, people had angrily rejected the previous govt’s “India Shining” publicity campaign, which touted the new prosperous India, when things like farmer suicides were afflicting the countryside.
(From a collaborative research proposal on upgrading slum-based manufacturing in Calcutta.)
Painting: Harmony in Blue and Silver, by James McNeil Whistler