This is India’s moment to seize opportunities and deftly navigate crises along the way, and beyond its G-20 presidency.
That India has fault lines is no secret. That it is deeply polarised today is no secret either. It is also no secret that India will displace China as the world’s most populated country very soon. Which means that quite apart from the ongoing cultural and religious turmoil in parts of the country, there is the humongous economic challenge of providing sustenance and livelihoods to a dominantly young population at a time of huge geo-political churn. The war in Ukraine shows no signs of petering out; the long shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic lingers. We have not had a census since 2011 so we don’t know the exact size of the country’s population but “people under the age of 25 account for more than 40 per cent of India’s population. In fact, there are so many Indians in this age group that roughly one-in-five people globally who are under the age of 25 live in India,” a recent report by the US-based Pew Research Centre noted. This is what experts call the “demographic dividend”, which translates potentially into a phenomenal opportunity given the ageing population in the developed world. But it also points to the hard reality of a staggeringly large number of young Indians looking for work.
This is India’s moment to seize opportunities and deftly navigate crises along the way, and beyond its G-20 presidency. This is also India’s truth ahead of the 2024 general election.
All this calls for a laser focus on action that lifts all boats in the country. Not just a few.
Where does a PIL demanding that the Supreme Court direct the home ministry to constitute a “renaming commission” fit into this scenario? The petition asked for a commission to rename historical places and cities in India now named after “foreign barbaric invaders”. It said: “The Cause of Action accrued on 29.1.2023, when Mughal Garden was renamed as Amrit Garden but government did nothing to rename the roads named after invaders like Babur Road, Humayun Road, Akbar Road, Jahangir Road, Shahjahan Road, Bahadur Shah Road, Sher Shah Road, Aurangzeb Road, Tughlak Road, Safdarjung Road, Najaf Khan Road, Jauhar Road, Lodhi Road, Chelmsford Road and Hailey Road, etc. It is necessary to state that the Cabinet ministers, parliamentarians, and the honourable judges, who are custodian of the Constitution of India and protector of fundamental rights, have bungalows on these roads.”
Is renaming Delhi’s Lodhi Road the need of the hour?
The answer came Monday when a bench of Justices K.M. Joseph and B.V. Nagarathna of the Supreme Court dismissed the petition filed by Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay, a lawyer. “You are selectively re-examining the past. India is now a secular country. Your finger is pointed at a certain barbaric community. Do you want to keep the country on boil?” Justice Joseph remarked, as reported in the Live Law portal. “Can we rewrite history and say they did not invade?” Justice Joseph added.
“Yes, foreign invaders have ruled us. We have been invaded several times, and history has played a role. What are you attempting to accomplish? Have we not got other problems in our country rather than wishing away for things which happened before?” Justice Nagarathna asked.
Renaming roads and cities doesn’t come cheap. But the “other problems” facing India and flagged by Justice Nagarathna is the nub of the matter.
“India's economic growth slowed further in the December quarter as pent-up demand eased and weakness in the manufacturing sector continued. Asia’s third largest economy recorded year-on-year growth of 4.4 per cent in October-December, down from 6.3 per cent in July-September,” Reuters reported this week, citing government data. But India’s chief economic adviser, V. Anantha Nageswaran, was optimistic at a press briefing. “We are likely to hit the seven per cent GDP growth target for the year,” he said.
India remains a bright spot in the global economy but these numbers would bring no cheer to desperate job-seekers. It is also no consolation to them that the luxury segment in the country is shining. The bull run in India’s luxury housing continues. “A surge in luxury residential properties is seen to be the reason behind Mumbai, the country’s largest and most expensive property market, setting a new record in property sales in February,” reported the ArabianBusiness.com. “Mumbai, Delhi National Capital Region and Hyderabad have led luxury homes sales in 2022 with approximately 50,100 units," it added.
What about the rest of India?
That 2023 will be an intensely politically-charged year is a foregone conclusion. Newspaper reports point to the Narendra Modi government gearing up for a multimedia blitz to promote its various flagship schemes, sledgehammer its achievements ahead of the Lok Sabha polls. This comes as no surprise. The Prime Minister is already in election mode. I have no quarrel with the government talking about the various welfare measures it has taken, but to be meaningful, a discussion about flagship schemes and their impact on the ground must go beyond the official narrative. It must include other voices. We need to have better implementation data.
Take the example of e-Sanjeevani, the much-talked about online government portal for tele-medicine. It was launched in November 2019 and was intended to provide medical doctors in primary health centres and rural hospitals access to specialised opinion from medical colleges and tertiary care hospitals, especially about complicated cases. It is hard to find flaws with the idea undergirding the scheme. But we need to also talk about what is happening in areas where there is poor network connectivity and when there is an Internet shutdown. India imposed the highest number of Internet shutdowns in the world in 2022, according to digital rights advocacy group Access Now.
Arguably, renaming cities or roads or states is not new. Nor unique to India. However, the key question in the Indian context today relates to the return on investment of energy and money in such dogged pursuits. In an already fractious country grappling with multiple challenges, do we wish to continuously stoke sectarian passions by dredging up the past on a 24/7 basis? Is that what a country which seeks to lead the Global South and the world wishes?
The past is a complicated place. We can't erase its imprint. We must have an honest discussion about it. But a “country cannot remain a prisoner of the past”, as the Supreme Court reminded us this week.
Renaming roads and cities will not facilitate a nuanced and critical discussion about the past. Nor will talk about ancient glory automatically lead to a glorious future. The daunting present needs our undivided attention.