India: Land of the free?

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The concept of freedom works for the few who take it much too literally, writes TIM BLIGHT

So it’s that time of the year again when we ask the eternal question: can 1.2 billion people be trusted with lots of explosives? I love Diwali, not just for the festivities and tradition, but for what it represents. Which other nation would have so much gunpowder detonated in the space of a week, and still be intact at the end of it? Moreover, which functioning nation would actually allow its citizens access to so much low-grade explosive material? An American ambassador to India, John Kenneth Galbraith, famously once described India as a ‘functioning anarchy’, and if you strip the word ‘anarchy’ of its stigmatic connotations, then that’s probably about right. Large swathes of the country operate with little or no interference from the central government, and often those areas aren’t tribal backwaters. Many Indian citizens appear to do whatever they want – from reversing up motorways to take a missed exit to ignoring whatever law exists to maximize monetary profit; from taking justice into their own hands to the aforementioned annual party of fireworks. In some respects, it could be said that Indians are the freest people in the world.

But how free is free? Freedom from restrictive laws is just one face of a multi-sided issue. Aamir Khan’s issues-based show Satyamev Jayate interviewed a number of people who don’t have the freedom to access basic rights, nor the freedom to fight for them. Caste informally restricts millions from accessing dignified employment, gender roles informally deny both women and men from the freedom of choosing their lifestyle, and a lack of civic works combined with disability restrict many from accessing government services such as clinics (which sometimes feature steps at their entries). Economic freedom is often a less obvious, although no less malignant shortcoming of the weak Indian state. As Manmohan Singh, Mamata Banerjee and sundry go to war over the impact of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in retail, everyone seems to be missing the point. The Left worry that FDI will do small business out of employment, while the Right say that the street vendors are doing better than ever, despite the reforms of the 1990s. Regardless of who is correct regarding FDI, have either side done much to lift the poor out of poverty? Has West Bengal’s socialism turned Banerjee’s home state into a bastion of equality? And has the past 20 years of liberal economics in Delhi helped get beggars off street corners nationwide?

The contrast is particularly glaring in the big cities, particularly in the north. The recently opened, state-of-the-art Yamuna Expressway from Greater Noida to Agra passes countless impoverished villages. The road is largely empty, thanks to the up to $10 price tag at the tollbooths. Nevertheless, the road is being touted as an example for other motorway projects to follow: Delhi to Lucknow, Ahmedabad to Vadodara, Chennai to Bengaluru. But who is benefiting from all of this? While driving along the Yamuna Expressway, I felt childlike in my freedom – speeding along, elevated above the surrounding plains, sights like the Buddh International Formula One circuit passing me by. And then I noticed the road was lined by barbed wire fences. Apart from the obvious comment to be made about safety (can you imagine the consequences of crashing into a barbed wire fence?), who was the barbed wire was intended for, I wondered. Is it there to keep out roaming cows, nilgais and other animals? Or is it to discourage local villagers from trying to cross the road? Either way, the symbolism is clear – on one side of the fence is the flawless new tarmac, hosting those who can afford her tolls, the ‘civilised’. On the other side stands the wild, animals and people who live near them, who can’t afford the expressway tolls, much less a car to drive. The ‘uncivilised’ are literally as well as metaphorically held back by three seemingly endless lengths of barbed wire; the scene was something akin to that of a prison. Meanwhile, earlier this year, the Asian Development Bank reported that India’s middle class could equal the current national population of 1.2 billion by 2032. The question is, what will the overall population be by 2032, and in what condition will they be living?

Diwali in some ways is a leveller, a chance for those less fortunate to at least try to celebrate. Young street children stand mesmerised by fireworks, older children join in, and their parents watch as they smile and laugh. Others are in a more giving mood, and charities register a bump in donations during each November. Of course, this is no solution, but at least they can forget for a while the freedom that they live without. For a short time, India’s anarchic freedom extends to just a few more of the population. I wish you all a very blessed and free Diwali, Eid, Navratri, Guru Nanak Jayanti or whatever else you may be celebrating this month.

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