A wake-up call

Print edition : February 05, 2000

President K.R. Narayanan's address to the nation on the eve of Republic Day makes a profound impact.

THIS year's Republic Day marked the golden jubilee of the Indian republic. As always it was an occasion infused with symbolic importance. In the backdrop of the Kargil War and the hijack at Kandahar, the day seemed to have assumed further significance.

Introducing an element of introspection into his customary address to the nation on the eve of Republic Day, President K.R. Narayanan assessed the strengths and weaknesses of the republic. While hailing its achievements, he cautioned that justice - socia l, economic and political - remained an unrealised dream for millions of people. He said: "The benefits of our economic growth are yet to reach them. We have one of the world's largest reservoirs of technical personnel, but also the world's largest numbe r of illiterates; the world's largest middle class, but also the largest number of people below the poverty line and the largest number of children suffering from malnutrition. Our giant factories rise from out of squalor; our satellites shoot up from th e midst of the hovels of the poor. Not surprisingly, there is sullen resentment among the masses against their condition, erupting often in violent forms in several parts of the country."

Narayanan warned against the evils of unregulated liberalisation and the excessive focus on advertisement-driven consumerism, which he claimed unleashed frustrations and tensions in society. He said: "The unabashed, vulgar indulgence in conspicuous consu mption by the noveau-riche has left the underclass seething in frustration. One half of our society guzzles aerated beverages while the other has to make do with palmfuls of muddied water. Our three-way fast-lane of liberalisation, privatisation and glob alisation must provide safe pedestrian crossings for the unempowered India also so that it too can move towards 'equality of status and opportunity'. 'Beware of the fury of the patient man,' says the old adage. One could say 'beware of the fury of the pa tient and long-suffering people.'"

Referring to the debate on development versus ecology, and evidently hinting at the Narmada dam controversy, the President said that the nation cannot and ought not to halt movement in the trajectories of modern progress. He hoped that more factories wou ld rise, more satellites soar into the sky, and more dams built to prevent floods, generate electricity and irrigate dry lands. He, however, clarified: "But that should not cause ecological and environmental devastation and the uprooting of human settlem ents, especially of tribals and the poor. Ways and methods can be found for countering the harmful impact of modern technology on the lives of the common people... While the government must be held responsible for environmental and human consequences of mega projects, the responsibility for environmental protection cannot, however, lie with the government alone. It must also be borne by civil society." He suggested that governmental efforts in increase water supply be supplemented by a people's movement to capture and conserve rain water.

The President dwelt at length on the status of women and Dalits. The status of women was the greatest national drawback and the condition of Dalits the greatest national shame, he said.

"Fifty years after our Constitution, the plain truth is that the female half of Indian population continues to be regarded as it was in the 18th and 19th centuries," he said.

Justifying the demand for reserving seats in Parliament and State legislatures for women, he said that it had become a compelling necessity to counter discrimination against women in society. Subtly hitting back against the people who hesitate to give th e Dalits their due share in the political, social and judicial order, he hinted that there were signs that "our privileged classes are getting tired of the affirmative action provided by constitutional provisions."

He cautioned: "On this golden jubilee I would like to say that let us not get tired of what we have provided for our weaker sections, for otherwise, as Dr. Ambedkar pointed out, the edifice of our democracy would be like a palace built on dung heap." He said that although the policy of reservation in educational institutions and public services flowed from the Constitution, it remained unfulfilled because of narrow interpretations of these special provisions by the bureaucracy and the administrative mac hinery.

The President observed that some kind of a counter-revolution was taking place in the social realm. "It is forgotten that these benefits have been provided not by way of charity, but as human rights and as social justice to a section of society who const itute a big chunk of our population, and who actually contribute to our agriculture, industry and services as landless labourers, factory and municipal workers," he said.

The President's address, a departure from the conventional speeches made by his predecessors, made a profound impact for his candid analysis of the social system and for his call for an introspection on where the nation went wrong and the need to take co rrective steps.

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