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India & Social Progress Index

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India ranks 101th in the Social Progress Index among 133 countries, lower than even Nepal. Saeed Naqvi analyses the plight of the new world power 

School students engaged in cleaning of the Girgaon Chaupati, a day after Ganapati immersions in Mumbai on Sept 9, 2014. (Photo: Sandeep Mahankal/IANS)The embarrassing news that India ranks 101th in the Social Progress Index among 133 countries, lower than even Nepal, may well be the right occasion to narrow the focus on states which might be examined as milestones. This examination will have to be done by serious social scientists. An itinerant journalist can offer no more than a bird’s eye view.

In Human Index, Kerala remains the pioneer but its copy has been blotted in recent years on other counts including that of governance. States like Tamil Nadu rule themselves out because they fall short on the corruption criteria. Gujarat is in because the media gives it brownie points. Even so, final judgement must await thorough studies.

Exactly the opposite are the circumstances of the Aam Aadmi Party. The media has turned upon it. But if attendance at the India International Centre for Ashutosh’s book release is any indication the negative images of the past month may fade as a bad memory. In which case it will be worth the while to see what Delhi’s Human Development Index will look like some years from now.

One state, which has been ploughing its furrow diligently with some quite extraordinary results on the Human Development scale is one which no one discusses – Tripura. Is the state with a population of 40 lakhs, not in focus because it is small? Only Sikkim and Goa are smaller. Or is the media squeamish about applauding a state which for 32 of the past 37 years has been under Left Front rule?

Some of its records are amazing. Its 96 percent literacy makes it the country’s most literate state. Literacy rate in Gujarat is 83 percent.

Life expectancy of 71 years for men and 73 for women too is a record. In Gujarat, it is 64 and 66. Tripura’s Bengali population ruins the absence of gender bias among tribals. Even so, it is 961 as against 918 in Gujarat.

The great genius the leadership has demonstrated is in grasping an essential truth: like politics, good governance too is essentially the art of the possible. Instead of beating its breast and flailing its arm around, the regime picked up all the central and state schemes, put its head down, called in the officials, party cadres, involved the three tier Panchayati Raj system and gave a sense of real participation to the elected Autonomous District Councils which cover two thirds of the state and all the tribal areas of Tripura.

This is the key. The basic conflict in the state, one which exploded as the fiercest insurgency in the North East, was on the tribal-non tribal faultline.

Under the Maharajas, who figure in mythology, Tripura was overwhelmingly tribal. But after the creation of East Pakistan (later Bangladesh), Hindu Bengalis from contiguous territories that were once managed by the Maharaja, migrated to Tripura. The tribals, (a total of 19 tribes) became a minority in the state. The 70:30 ratio in favour of the tribals was exactly inverted. Today 70 percent of the population is Bengali.

The Congress, born for power, fell back on the simple divide and rule strategy, pocketing the Bengali vote bank. If ever there was a shortfall, there was always a tribe to be played against the other.

A great tribal, communist leader, Dashrath Deb had seen the future. He launched Jana Shiksha Abhiyan or campaign for education among tribals in 1945 forcing the Maharaja to recognize 500 primary schools, which mushroomed and today saturate the state – a school every kilometer.

It was from this wide base that the tribals gravitated towards communism while the Bengalis were turning towards the Congress. While the Congress was content with sectarian divine, a leader like Nripen Chakraborty accurately gauged the difficult social reality: without tribal support all Bengali agenda would be circumscribed. Likewise, tribals would not advance without Bengali help. The call went out: tribal-non tribal unity was the absolute imperative.

The idea flared up, across the state for two reasons. Tribals, who had taken to communism in the 40s and 50s, grasped the idea instantly. In driblets, Bengalis too came into the fold. So, while the Left slowly expanded its platform of unity, the Congress persisted with its Bengali focus, not without electoral gains. True, the Left Front has 50 seats in a House of 60, but the 36 percent of the opposition vote share must be largely credited to the Congress.

What keeps the electorate, indeed the population persistently in the Left’s thrall is the universally accepted incorruptibility of the leadership. Congress MLA Gopal Roy shook his head in agreement “personal incorruptibility cannot be denied”.

The first Left Front Chief Minister Nripen Chakraborty (1978 to 88) entered and left the official residence with same two tin trunks – full of clothes, books, and a shaving kit. Grocery purchases for the CM’s household were made on a ration card. Modern capitalism would probably consider him a pariah because he never had a bank account.

His disciple, Manik Sarkar, chief minister for 17 years without a break, is equally austere. He is known to have walked to the office on occasion. His wife, a school teacher, goes to work on a rickshaw.

Incredibly, the CM finds time to review all major central and state schemes. He had completed an implementation review of the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme when I met him in his spartan office, decorated with a Tagore photograph.

“We have already distributed 85 days worth of work out of the 100 for the year mandated under MNREGA” beams the CM. “Maharashtra is the next best and it has not yet completed 50 days.”

In efficient implementation of schemes, the state has no parallels. Clinics, schools, anganwadi, infant and mother care, electricity distribution and, above all, building roads, connecting the remotest areas. All of this has created an atmosphere for general tranquility. Director General of Police K. Nagaraj leaves you quite stunned. “There is very little crime in the State – negligible.” This is a miracle in a state where people were afraid to leave their homes three years ago because of the insurgency. “Perfect co-ordination between the police and the politician is the only explanation.”

Heaven knows what feedback Prime Minister Narendra Modi has on his Swacch Bharat or clean India mission, but if he were to send his officers to some of the more remote parts of Tripura, they would rub their eyes with wonder at what has been achieved in such a short period.

The road from Agartala winds around Longtarai hill range to Ambassa, about 80 km away. A measure of the administration’s reach is Kumardhan Para, at a forbidding height.
A few years ago, folks at the village walked 18 km to reach grocery stores in Ambassa. Today the Kumardhan peak has been conquered; a motorable road has been laid right upto the village centre. Little wonder Milind Ramteke, IAS, collector of Ambassa (Dhallai) and his Block Development Officer, Amitabh Chakma, are local heroes, village after village.

Implementation of the prime minister’s toilet scheme has not escaped supervision of the chief minister’s office. Kumardhan village was provided with pucca toilets along with small, underground water tanks. The peer pressure of the entire village on each other, visible cleanliness, has made the scheme a success in a short period.

The problems of Tripura, in a sense, begin now. The King of Bhutan floated the idea of Gross National Happiness. That, roughly, has been Tripura’s trajectory. But it is now on an efficient welfare plateau. What next? It has an inimitable school network. But very little by way of college and technical education. There are no openings for the educated youth. The state, surrounded on three sides by Bangladesh looks admiringly at Sheikh Haseena. India-Bangla friendship will give it access to Chittagong port, 70 km away.

The regime is not paranoid, but it is aware that the Church networks affect both college and post college job scene. A middle class so created is inherently anti “Left”, says a CPM leader. Moreover, further penetration of the Church would provide an opening to Hindutva forces to enter the scene with a sectarian agenda.