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An example of the possible

Published : Jun 17, 2005 00:00 IST

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Singapore by night. Being the closest geographically to India, the city-state becomes a far more significant and intrusive example than any other.-

Singapore by night. Being the closest geographically to India, the city-state becomes a far more significant and intrusive example than any other.-

The economic and social miracle of the city-state of Singapore should start a process of introspection among Indian planners.

THE big jet raced down the runway and then we left Changi airport, climbing higher and higher, as the aircraft turned towards India. Singapore became a memory, but the memories stayed, vivid and importunate, as we came closer and closer home. Perhaps, because the crew reminded me so much of the city - they were part of the very professional, very courteous and helpful personnel on all Singapore Airlines aircraft - or because I was only too conscious of what lay in store when we landed, I do not know. Contrasts often help in such things.

There was, overlying the memories, a feeling of melancholy which came from the knowledge that many of the people who lived in, and belonged to, that sparklingly clean, beautiful and vibrant city, were no different from us. They were originally of Indian origin, and the majority community, though Chinese, were Asian enough in essentials to be less alien to us than, say, the original inhabitants of Europe.

So what made them so very different from us when it came to developing Singapore into the city it is - clean, orderly and beautiful - and what makes our cities so grimy, wildly disorderly, dirty and definitely not user-friendly? After all, the people are from the same ethnic background, or backgrounds that are not very alien to us. But, they worked an economic and social miracle in that city, and their counterparts here did not, or could not.

It will not do to shelter behind our cultural richness and our heritage, and declare that we have a great heritage and that counts for more than gross material progress. The Singaporeans of Indian origin share in that cultural heritage, and the majority community, the Chinese, can claim a cultural heritage as rich and as old as ours. And, since when did culture supplant improvements in standards of living, in truly effective, meaningful education and health care?

Nor will it do to congratulate ourselves on our much-vaunted democracy. It has led, more often than not, to the grossest abuse of established systems and values. If there is one single factor that has brought about the widespread compromise with quality in administration at all levels, and made corruption almost universal, it has been the abuse of power that had been made possible by what we call democracy.

Systems of governance apart, what is of concern to people is an improvement in living standards and amenities like water, power, a reliable means of transport, a good educational system that provides real education to all children and college students, health facilities that are easily available, and are clean and actually cure people or help them recover from illness and injury. This is what all State governments profess as their aim, what the Central government is now planning to provide through its Bharat Nirman programme; it has been done in Singapore already, and they have a social security system that we can only dream of.

THE reasons behind the success of that city-state and our years of ineffective efforts at achieving a small part of that kind of development need not detain us here. There are certainly a host of reasons and there are many scholars who will have analysed them and studied them in all their variety and complexity. What is really material here is the fact that such development is possible. Singapore is not a figment of anyone's imagination. It is there. So is the squalor of our cities and the poverty in our rural areas.

It is an example, finally, of the possible, as many others in Asia. This being the closest, geographically, to India, becomes a far more significant and intrusive example than any other. And it ought to serve, as no other example, to start a process of introspection in this country, among those who rule us, to try and find out where we are going wrong, and what it is that we need to do to set us moving on the path that the little city-state has taken many years before us.

That process must be clinical and free from ideological and emotional baggage; and it must not be confined to one or two aspects of the system of governance and the country's socio-economic activity. The basic assumptions must be widened and made visionary; that is what Lee Kuan Yew did for Singapore. He may not be the ideal leader for many in this country but he has achieved, built and shown results, something our talkative leaders have not. True, he used some draconian measures, and made living in Singapore an exercise in discipline that affronted many. But, the economic growth and the wealth that it brought to all, or to practically all, its citizens have made them shrug those restraints off. And goodness knows we can do with some restraints; if freedom means the freedom not to implement programmes or implement them badly, to make our cities urban disaster areas, then it is not freedom but licence, which is what we have allowed it to generate into.

How many Five Year Plans have been laboriously drafted and then approved in a slow bureaucratic dance, and how many have never made any difference to the poverty and deprivation in the country; the rural poor continue to be impoverished, and the urban areas have slums that reduce human living to a dreadful ordeal. And yet, we do not lack people of intelligence and discernment in the planning structures, and in the administration. Something is obviously wrong somewhere and that is what needs to be identified.

What, finally, do we want the country to become? That question needs a well-thought out, rational, and above all, a visionary answer. Achievement is a tangible thing, and must be so. If it ends up as a dry totting up of indices of growth and achievement it can be of little use; those figures and statistics may satisfy the planners and bureaucrats but do not translate into visible signs of improvement on the ground.

That is what the Prime Minister, in particular, must be careful about; there are too many eager officials in the Planning Commission and the Ministries who will talk convincingly of achievements when there is nothing to show for it. Being a scholar must not be a disadvantage for him, because as the leader he must have the clearest idea of what the vision of a developed India means, and see it in real terms on the ground. A vision, and a means of translating it into visible terms - in the field of education, health, transport, agriculture, industry and everything else; that is what he, and his colleagues must have, but he above all. A plan, the sort of plan that is put together by the Planning Commission, is not a vision - but a vision can be a plan. And if we are to change the country that is what the rulers must understand.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jun 17, 2005.)

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