Naysayers are wrong, India does have success stories – The Indian Express

As we celebrate the 75th year of our independence, the majority of the argumentative Indians of my generation — individuals born within a decade or so of 1947 — and social class will aver that India has not met the ask of its first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru who at the stroke of midnight, August 14, 1947, asked whether as India awakes to “life and freedom“ and steps out from the “old to the new… Indians would be brave enough and wise enough to grasp the opportunity and accept the challenges of the future”.
Two years later on November 25, 1949, the architect of our Constitution, B R Ambedkar expanded on the challenge. In a speech to the Constituent Assembly, he said: “… political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy… in politics, we have equality (but) in social and economic life we have inequality. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment.”
It is difficult to counter the argument of my demographic and social peers. They have facts to back their position. India still faces deep economic and social fissures. Its political democracy is not in harmonious alignment with social democracy.
Notwithstanding, I have felt for long that this narrative is imbalanced and looks at the past 75 years through an overly narrow lens. I come from Udaipur where volunteerism and civic service have developed deep roots and witnessed the positive impact that public-spirited individuals and organisations have made in bridging social and economic disparities. My concern has been that those conversational narratives that focus disproportionately on explaining the reasons why India has failed to resolve the Ambedkar contradiction and insufficiently on celebrating and learning from successful interventions in the social space perpetuate negativism and the belief that India will forever fall short of its potential. This imbalance should be corrected.
It was with these reflections in mind that I proposed that the Centre for Social and Economic Progress (CSEP) support a project to pull together select stories of impactful interventions at the grassroots over the past seven decades. The authors would be the protagonists of these interventions. They would be requested to structure their contribution around these questions: What was the reason for their success? What learnings can be derived from their experience? How might these be applied as India embarks on the next 75 years of its political and social journey?
CSEP was supportive and a book published by Harper Collins titled Anchoring Change: 75 years of grassroots interventions that made a difference, edited by myself, Neelima Khetan and Jayapadma RV will be on the stands later this month.
The editors faced a challenge in selecting the authors. For, their research uncovered multiple successful interventions. The publisher had imposed a word limit and that meant that only 24 authors could be invited to contribute. The book would, therefore, barely touch the richness of the variegated efforts that had been made over the past several decades to shift the needle of social progress. So, to best cover this caveat the editors excluded social “movements” and several well-known but oft-written-about successful organisations. For the rest, they based their selection on the criteria of time (the coverage should span seven decades); geography (it should straddle different states of India) and multiplicity of domains (poverty, women’s empowerment, water, income generation, health, etc).
A read through the 24 chapters throws up a clear, albeit intuitively obvious, message. There is no single silver bullet response to the complexities of India’s social challenges. Each issue has to be tackled through tailored, localised responses. There is, however, a thread that binds these interventions. A thread that transcends geography, time and connects seamlessly because it is woven by the commonality of the objectives of each intervention.
All the authors agreed that the poor are not passive and without a “voice” and that to achieve sustainable change, social interventions must place the beneficiary at the centre of the programme. The interventions must be consultative and participatory and all stakeholders — the development agent, government and beneficiary — must be engaged in determining the nature and extent of the resources, skills and institutions required to help the latter take charge of their own lives. The “dignity” of giving and taking is central to social change.
Leadership is important but of a particular nature: People who lead through values, beliefs and conviction; who have the “ hard patience” to stay the course and the humility to search for learnings from the “poorest”. The book marks out the exceptional individuals who, through sheer dint of intellectual vitality and physical effort, moved the social needle. What is striking is the transformational role played by women. Examples abound of women who have successfully overcome traditional hurdles to effect change. A developmental model that does not give women a central position would be sub-optimal.
In Citizenship and Social Class, published in 1950, the year the Indian Constitution was formalised, T H Marshall wrote “Citizenship (is) the conferment of equal rights to everybody in the State”. He did not mean that everybody was equal or that everybody would reach the same level of achievement. He meant everybody should have equal access. It (is) upon this “foundation of equality (of access) that the structure of inequality (should) be built”.
By this definition, a vast number of Indians have yet to be conferred the rights of citizenship. To this extent, the dreams of our founding fathers have yet to be realised. But to suggest that these dreams are unattainable, as might be the conclusion drawn from listening to conversations in the homes of people like me, would be too severe an indictment. This book confirms that every entity of our society — government, business, NGO and individuals — has in some small way successfully delivered to the people the conditions for citizenship. The argumentative Indian should draw inspiration from such markers of hope and achievement.
The writer is chairman and distinguished fellow, Centre for Social and Economic Progress
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