Defining the possible

Published : Jan 14, 2005 00:00 IST

Examples in India are aplenty of persons who have made a positive difference to the lives of millions of people. Further progress is possible only by getting rid of nay-sayers in the government.

AMIDST the furore caused by a number of media `events' - Smriti Irani's statement about Narendra Modi and her retraction a day later, the photograph of two film stars kissing each other, the transmission on the Internet of a sexually explicit video of two schoolchildren - there was a story that appeared in a newspaper that does not seem to have got anywhere near the same kind of attention. Not surprising, since it is not a sensational story; merely of something that has happened in an obscure school in a village called Dilkanthi in the district of South Dinajpur in West Bengal.

What has happened is that the mid-day meal served to children in the village primary school has changed from the standard khichri every day to khichri just twice a week, with rice, dal and vegetables three times a week, and rice with egg curry once a week. This change in the menu has resulted in the attendance of children shooting up, and there have even been, it has been reported, some cases of children being taken out of a privately run English-medium-school and admitted to the government primary school.

The variety in the menu has been made - and this is what has attracted the surprised, and no doubt admiring, attention of schools and villagers in the neighbourhood - by using whatever money the government gives for this scheme. And what the government gives is just Re.1 a child a day, apart from a modest amount of rice. It is something that will certainly astonish all schools in the country, I should think, wherever the mid-day meal scheme is being implemented, where what the children get is what they used to get in the Dilkanthi primary school till recently, khichri (or its equivalent) day after day. The headmaster of the school, Rabindranath Kaviraj, was asked how he did it. He said, very simply: "If one tries, a good deal is possible."

This is the key. Not just to what the children of Dilkanthi primary school get to eat every day but to very many things in the country. India was traditionally seen as a country of `starving millions' and for many around the world India meant a hungry India, desperate for food. With a population growth rate that was one of the highest in the world, the problem of feeding these millions would have been, and indeed was by many, written off as impossible. That was until Dr. M.S. Swaminthan and Norman Borlaug came into the picture and ushered in the Green Revolution. They must have faced cynicism and derision, but they persevered with their seemingly impossible task. I was a District Magistrate then, and saw for myself the initial wariness and even antagonism of farmers to the new seeds offered to them, and then, within years, saw those seeds being sold on the black market. That, paradoxically, was one of the most heartening things that happened; it meant the demand for the seeds had become widespread. It was a very tiny part of the astonishing feat of turning India into a country surplus in foodgrains by increasing the rate of production of foodgrains to levels above that of the United States.

NOT many years later there was the White Revolution, when Verghese Kurien succeeded in making milk freely available across the country, using a chain of cooperatives; Amul is now a household word, but what lies behind it is a feat that has rarely been equalled. Now Amul has moved from milk to milk products of all kinds - butter, cheese and other items that are freely available. Add to this the arrival of India as one of the countries that have the capability to launch satellites into orbit, satellites as large as those being launched by the U.S., France and other countries, and you get an idea of what I am trying to make clear in this essay; the plain fact that the word `possible' is one that needs constant re-definition.

Put these against those gentlemen in the Airports Authority of India who are reported to have said that the facilities in Delhi, where fog plays havoc with aircraft movement, it will take four years to provide instrument landing facilities that make landing in very heavy fog possible. There is an advanced system in place, which makes it possible for aircraft to land when the visibility is around 200 metres, but the fog often brings visibility down to as low as 50 metres. If we leave aside the mysterious reason for their not providing right at the outset, the advanced version of what they have put in after years of paperwork and bottlenecks, we now have their smug declaration that it will take "at least" four years to upgrade a system made operational just a few years ago - two, if I am not mistaken - and, worse still, one of the gentlemen in this institution seems to have said to the media that, in fact, the upgradation can never be done because of the buildings around the airport.

And this particular problem has another, sleazy side to it. We know that private airlines are as nice as they are to passengers because they make money out of them; but they are not as nice when their schedules become chaotic because of bad visibility in Delhi airport. It seems that they have worked out that training pilots on the instrument landing system, and equipping their aircraft with the instrumentation required, is more expensive than they think it is worth. They reason that passengers can hang around for four or five hours whenever there is fog, because delayed flights cost less. And what about the misery caused to passengers? Well, that is when they show their true colours, like the wolf dressed as the grandmother in Little Red Riding Hood.

Oh Grandma, what big teeth you have!All the better to eat you with, my dear.

At least Indian Airlines is not as callous; it has trained a number of its pilots to use the Category IIIA Instrument Landing System in Delhi airport, and its flights are among the first to leave and arrive in foggy conditions, thanks to this.

But this again, is a part of the malaise that affects a large number of bureaucrats, policymakers, the heads of some corporate houses and even experts in the field of environment, health, education and virtually every field of government activity. It cannot be done - it is impossible - we can do nothing. You will find this in numerous minutes, reports, notes and statements. A negative mindset, which is as pernicious as it is craven and short sighted. They forget the Swaminathans and Kuriens who are still here as role models; all they can see are problems before which they fall and offer their obeisance.

If Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is serious about bringing in good governance as a cornerstone of his government's way forward, as I think he certainly is, then he should identify these nay-sayers, no matter how well thought of they are by their peers or their superiors, and devise a way of getting rid of them. This is a primary requirement if good governance is to become a reality. And, simultaneously, an effort needs to be made to identify those who have ideas, imagination, and the belief that problems are there to be solved. This lot may make mistakes; in fact they will, often. But they will learn from those mistakes, and go on to find solutions. That is the other key to this issue. The continuous drive to find solutions. Only a certain kind of person will do that. There are many such in the government; the task the Prime Minister and his colleagues have is to find them.

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