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  Opinion   Columnists  26 Jan 2017  Let’s move towards a healthy, educated India

Let’s move towards a healthy, educated India

Patralekha Chatterjee focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at
Published : Jan 26, 2017, 5:56 am IST
Updated : Jan 26, 2017, 7:36 am IST

These are randomly picked data points and neither state is among the poorest and most backward in the country.

Supreme Court of India
 Supreme Court of India

Like many occasions brimming with patriotic fervour, Republic Day is part-cause and part-commerce — a nationalism boost with military parades, honours to those who make India proud, stirring speeches, flags sold at street corners and traffic lights, albeit by streetchildren.

But since the DeMo (demonetisation) Era is here, can Digi Money be far behind? Paytm’s Maha Bazaar (68th Republic Day Sale) invites you to the “68 hours savings ki parade” with “80 per cent discounts in top brands” from January 24 to 26. Tour operators list the top five countries we, Indian nationals, can visit without a visa and urge us not to sit at home this long weekend. There are many more.

There aren’t too many promoting some quiet time in reflection and asking some questions. So here’s my sales pitch.

As a citizen, I think of Republic Day as less about the speeches and the serenades to military power and more about the vision underlying India’s Constitution and the republic we can be, a reminder of the need for active citizenship and the fundamental right to equality of status and opportunity enshrined in our Constitution.

It’s heartening to see that even in these turmoil-ridden times, when it’s so easy to become sceptical, there are a few thinking along these lines, launching initiatives to sensitise youngsters in becoming active citizens. One example that came to my notice recently is Samvidhan LIVE — The Jagrik Project, which has brought together more than two dozen civil society organisations. This project has engaged young people in different parts of the country, helping them to understand the Constitution and its various articles. I like the idea of making the Constitution come alive to young people who make up the vast majority of Indians.

I hope the awareness leads them to ask questions.

One question that nags me — why is it that we hear more about some bits of the Constitution and not others? Why is there so much outrage when some articles of the Constitution appear to be under attack but almost total silence when other articles of the same document are ignored?

Take the Constitution and the cow. Ever since the cow entered the political discourse of independent India, we have heard references to the Constitution. One of the key sources for the validation of cow protection is Article 48, enshrined in the Directive Principles of State Policy. It reads: “The State shall endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.”

Cow protection enthusiasts hold up this provision to buttress their argument that the Constitution supports their view. Very well, but what about the other Directive Principles of State Policy? What about protection of humans, their health?

Article 47 of the Constitution reads: “The State shall regard the raising of the level of nutrition and the standard of living of its people and the improvement of public health as among its primary duties.”

According to the government’s own data (National Family Health Survey IV 2015-16), even in an affluent state like Haryana, children under five who are stunted comprise 34 per cent of those surveyed. Arguably, there has been some improvement. During NFHS III, conducted more than 10 years ago, the corresponding figure was 45.7 per cent. But clearly, the progress is not good enough.

Take another indicator from another state in the same survey. Only 43.9 per cent of mothers in Andhra Pradesh had full ante-natal care.

These are randomly picked data points and neither state is among the poorest and most backward in the country. But that’s where we are. Even the most vocal defender of the Indian State will have to concede that the State has largely failed to live up this Directive Principle in our Constitution. Why isn’t there any outrage about this, our own health?

Zoom to education.

The latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), that measures overall learning level among Indian school students, shows that here again India is progressing but very slowly and not uniformly. There are glaring disparities between states and even districts. One telling statistic: the ability to do division among Class 8 students is continuing to drop. This trend has been visible since 2010.

Increasingly, one hears the argument that the State cannot do everything and the emerging template would be of public-private partnerships, or PPP. But I am yet to see any comprehensive nationwide study by the government which can serve as evidence that the PPP as it is being implemented in India is the best way to build an educated and healthy citizenry.

A recent national seminar organised by Public Health Resource Network, Jan Swasthya Abhiyan and Oxfam India on “Evidence building on Public Private Partnerships in Healthcare” presented multiple case studies that conceded there were yawning data gaps and that outcomes were uncertain.

What have all these got to do with Republic Day or the Constitution? The short answer: they directly impact the constitutional vision of equality of opportunity. The huge disparities that stare us in our faces goes against the fundamental spirit of the Preamble to the Constitution. And that’s why it’s important to ask why the political class cherry picks bits from the Constitution.

As India gets into election mode, it is perhaps even more important to ask ourselves — why do we let politicians do such cherry picking? By keeping quiet we’re letting them do so. The alternative to keeping quiet is to risk being labelled as part of the chattering classes, inconsequential. But the issues are consequential, and who can predict what will happen once the chatter crosses a critical threshold.

India is young. Many more of us have to start thinking if this young India should be healthy and educated enough to give our country its rightful place in the world, and what should be done to reach these goals. Perhaps something to think about as we watch the tableaux go by.

Tags: republic day, demonetisation, indian constitution