Is India Shining? Head boys/girls speak out

EducationWorld March 04 | Cover Story EducationWorld

Despite the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990) specifically stipulating that the views of children be given due weightage, their opinions on subjects of national importance are seldom solicited. EW compiled their views on the Rs.400 crore India Shining campaign. Summiya Yasmeen reports

It’s widely being hailed as the masterstroke which will sweep the major constituents of the ruling NDA (National Democratic Alliance) coalition — and particularly its largest party, the BJP — back into power in the general election scheduled for April. The ubiquitous multi-media India Shining advertisement campaign which sports the distinctive finger-prints of BJP master strategist Pramod Mahajan, has received widespread acclaim in the media as a trump card which will help the BJP break the electoral bank.

But then the media would acclaim — and find reasons to acclaim — this unprecedented media blitzkrieg. It is an estimated Rs.400 crore richer for it. Never mind the small detail that the nation’s legal (and illegal) taxpayers are paying for it.

The central theme of this massive Rs.400 crore media blitz is that all sectors of the Indian economy — agriculture, industry, services, education, roads, health etc — have recorded unprecedented growth and progress during the past five years that the NDA has ruled in New Delhi. In short the people of India have never had it so good, is the message.

Undeniably there’s some substance in the government’s campaign. Annual GDP growth has averaged 6 percent plus during the past five years and is nudging 8 percent this year; the country’s foreign exchange reserves have risen to the highest ever $106 billion; India is emerging as a force to reckon with in IT, steel and automotive ancillaries markets overseas; telecom density has risen from 20 to 40 million connections; and perhaps most strikingly (according to one India Shining campaign ad), against 11 km per year during the past 50 years, national highways are being constructed at the speed of 11 km per day. Shopping malls, multiplexes, five-star hotels, luxury spas and sleek automobiles apart from a dazzling array of luxury new products offer citizens a never-before plethora of goodies.

But considerations such as the taxpayer being made to foot the India Shining campaign apart, there is growing disquiet about the self-congratulatory, conspicuous consumption tone of the ad campaign and in particular about its fudging the issue of the NDA government’s (the BJP is widely regarded as a middle class traders’ party) poor rural development record.

Increasingly Mahajan & Co are discovering that the clever India Shining campaign is a two-edged sword. With liberal India’s formidable intellectuals beginning to question the premises of this glaringly expensive feel-good ad campaign, there is sudden fear within the BJP that it may blow up in its collective face.

“India is only shining for a small section of society, for the posh middle class strata and above. The incomes of these people have risen, while for the vast majority unemployment is growing. Many new private/ NRI funded hospitals have sprung up but conditions in public hospitals are abysmal. Government schools remain neglected while a growing number of luxury private schools offering foreign certification are sprouting across the country. There are new cars with a whole array of safety and luxury features, but public transport is still terrible. Most public services remain neglected and the majority of citizens don’t have access to basic amenities like clean and safe drinking water. Given these vast glaring inequities, how can one say India is shining?” asks Dipankar Gupta, professor of sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

Prof. Gupta’s observations are supported by the United Nations advocacy group U.N. Millennium Campaign which recently opined that shining India will be hard-pressed to meet any of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to which it is committed, by 2015. The goals include eradicating extreme poverty, achieving universal primary education, combating HIV/AIDS and reducing child mortality. 

“In India’s case, there are two nations. One is ‘India Shining’, which the government keeps harping about, but the other India is one where even basic human needs are not being met. While Indian officials have been touting last year’s 8 percent economic growth, during the same year 1.25 million children below the age of one died, around 50 million children were out of school and half of India’s children were malnourished,” says Salil Shetty, Millennium Campaign director and former chief executive of ActionAid, the well-known London-based non-government organisation. Shetty has been particularly critical of the Union government spending $800 billion per year (a 50 percent under-estimate) on defence, when $900 billion (Rs.40,000 crore) annually would ensure the achievement of the MDGs.

In particular the NDA government and the India Shining campaign gloss over the low priority given to education in a nation in which 500 million citizens are below 19 years of age. According to the Economic Survey (2004) statistics, for the first time in recent memory the aggregate national (centre plus states) outlay for education has dipped below the 3 percent of GDP threshold, plunging from 3.6 percent in 1996-97 to 2.8 percent of GDP in 2003-04.

Not surprisingly the NDA’s (actually BJP’s) solitary advertisement trumpeting its educational record — unlike other sectoral ads which bristle with numbers and statistics — is long on hype and conspicuously silent about numbers. “For India’s students these are brilliant times with rapidly rising literacy, more schools, new colleges, globally famous IITs and IIMs and a vast spectrum of IT, media, film and fashion institutes, life is radiant with new opportunities… Build your dreams, spread the enthusiasm and make India stronger and shine even better,” says the education component couched in generalities of the India Shining campaign.

Meanwhile the ground reality is that the Union HRD ministry’s ambitious Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) or Education For All (EFA) programme launched in 2003 following the passage by a unanimous voice vote in Parliament of the 86th amendment to the Constitution of India, which makes it compulsory for state governments to provide elementary education to all children between the ages of six-14, has proved a non-starter. According to the National Alliance for the Fundamental Right to Education (NAFRE), an umbrella organisation of 2,400 NGOs, of the Rs.9,800 crore committed by Parliament to SSA (to be matched by state governments), only Rs.1,500 crore has been allocated.

Consequently even positivists within the tribe which teaches the dismal science that is economics who believe that the contents of the glass half-full need to be appreciated and celebrated, tend to be lukewarm about the national rollout of the unprecedented India Shining advertising blitzkrieg. Comments Ashima Goyal, professor of economics at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Mumbai: “The Indian economy is recording consistently higher economic growth than in the past and this needs to be celebrated. But I do feel this campaign is unethical in its timing. The government is using it to derive electoral advantage which is not right. Apart from this I see nothing wrong with it. In fact after all these years of the country being run down, I feel that it’s good to praise ourselves.”

Yet even as pundits debate the merits and demerits — and timing — of the Rs.400 crore India Shining campaign, in the cacophony boosted by strident electoral campaigning for the general election scheduled for April, the voice of young India —the other half of this billion-strong country — has been drowned. Despite the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990) to which India is a signatory specifically stipulating that the views of children be “given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child” (Article 12 (1)), their opinions on subjects of national importance are seldom solicited. To ascertain the views of young India, EducationWorld correspondents across the country interviewed the head boys and head girls of independent and government schools to elicit their opinions about the India Shining campaign. These viewpoints are set out in the pages following.

Mixed response

Saurabh Kumar (16) is the class X head boy of Bombay Scottish School, a highly rated CISCE-affiliated school in Mumbai. Bombay Scottish was recently ranked No.1 in a survey of Mumbai schools conducted by Outlook magazine (December 16, 2002). Apart from academics, Saurabh excels in football and basketball and intends to study aeronautical engineering at an IIT.

Do you believe India is shining? How optimistic are you about the future?

The India Shining campaign is justified in some ways, in others I feel it isn’t. India is shining in many fields especially science and information technology, but things like the CAT exam paper scam, political interference in the fee structure of IIMs and the Telgi stamp paper racket involving top police professionals and politicians are a blot on the country’s progress. Political interference in the management of education institutions like the IIMs is wholly unjustified. I also feel that while agriculture is progressing, the farmers are not being given their due.

Rural neglect

Aishwarya Ramakrishnan (16) is the class X vice-captain of Bombay Scottish and wants to study business management.

Critics of the India Shining campaign say that rural India is totally neglected. What’s your comment?

Rural India is being neglected. I agree that we are doing well in many fields, especially sports, IT and science and to that extent I think this is really a good time to run the India Shining campaign. India is shining in many ways but the government should use these good times to improve the condition of rural India and farmers who have been, and are still neglected. Much more needs to be done for them. Unfortunately education has also been sadly neglected and this is an area which the government should urgently address.

We also need more politicians like Chandrababu Naidu. Under his leadership Andhra Pradesh has progressed rapidly, and we are really lucky in our president Dr. Abdul Kalam. We need more people like them. 

Money can be better spent

P.S. Thrivikraman (17) is a class XII student and head boy of the CBSE-affiliated P.S. Senior Secondary School, Mylapore, Chennai. A prolific debater, Thrivikraman has won many championships including the all-India Birla National Debate, the Bookfair Elocution Competition (Singapore) and the all-India Green Olympiad. He plans to join the armed forces.

Do you believe India is shining?

I do believe India is shining. But do we need to spend Rs.400 crore to get the message across? The money could have been used to set up more schools and hospitals or for laying roads in areas where people have not got the benefits of the India Shining campaign. However the future of India seems bright. Great progress has been made in different sectors of the economy, but it must reach everyone, especially people in villages who only get to see TV advertisements of shining India.

Critics of the India Shining campaign say that rural India is totally neglected. What’s your viewpoint?

Rural India is progressing but it will take time for progress to reach every section of the country. So the pace has to be speeded up. This is where constructive criticism of the opposition is useful. It keeps the government on its toes. To quote Max Mueller, “the heart of India is in its villages”. From Operation Flood to the Green Revolution, rural India has, is and will always be, a big part of India.

What do you think needs to be done to make India truly shine?

To make India truly shine we have to overcome our religious and caste differences, strive for the betterment of our one billion brothers and sisters, make our country 100 percent literate, cleanse our political system and restore public faith in democracy, help our neighbours in times of crisis, root out corruption and most of all be proud to be Indian. It wouldn’t hurt if we won the next cricket World Cup also! 

More needs to be done

Siddharth Shankar Shukla (19) is the class XII captain of S.V.S.Vidyalaya, a West Bengal government-aided school in Kolkata. A sports enthusiast, Siddharth has set his sights on pursuing a career in software development.

Do you believe India is shining?

Yes, I believe India is shining because the standard of living of the common man has definitely improved. What was considered a luxury for a select few merely five years ago can now be easily afforded by middle-class Indians. There is greater awareness among the people now, as well as greater connectivity and the future does appear brighter.

Critics of the India Shining campaign say that rural India is totally neglected and the progress is only in certain segments of urban India.

Yes, the expenditure to promote a shining India has been too much but to say that progress has been minimal is not true. The incentives given to the common man in the form of loans — educational, personal, home, etc — are plenty and suggest that the critics are over-exaggerating.

What do you think needs to be done to make India truly shine?

A lot more needs to be done. A large percentage of the population still lives below the poverty line. The taboos that still exist in society in the name of religion and tradition need to be done away with and this calls for a combined effort from citizens and the government.

Yes, India is Shining!

Nidhi Dokania (17) is the headgirl of Ashok Hall Girls’ High School, a CISCE affiliated school in Kolkata. A class XII student, Nidhi is an avid debater and has recently won the Best Speaker award in a UNDP-British Council Library sponsored debate.

Do you believe India is shining? How optimistic are you about the future?

Yes I do believe that India is shining. The facts and figures — GDP growth rate this year has been astronomical, the sensex is shooting and foreign investors are taking an interest in our economy — all this indicates India is shining. The number of people living in poverty has also declined, though marginally. I firmly believe that in ten-20 years from now, India will be one of the leading nations of the world.

Critics of the India Shining campaign say that rural India is totally neglected. What’s your comment?

No, I don’t agree with the critics because they are just anti-BJP politicians out to bad-mouth the party before the elections. It is undeniable that the quality of life everywhere — urban and rural — has improved during their term in office. Loans are easily available to farmers and students.

What needs to be done to make India truly shine?

To make India really shine, the sociological and ideological mindsets of people at the individual level have to change. Also corruption in public life needs to be curbed.

Waste of money

Neha Mathur (17) is a class XII student of the Government Girls Senior Secondary School, Delhi. In 2001 she won the Indira Gandhi Award for topping the class X board exams and has also won awards for debating in inter-school competitions.

Do you believe India is truly shining?

This ad campaign is a big waste of money. It would have been better if the money used on this campaign had been diverted to rural areas. In any case, I feel citizens are responsible for the progress India has made thus far, not government schemes.

At the same time, I think the government has brought about some positive changes. Reducing the fees in IIMs is a good step. So far, only the rich could afford to go to IIMs. Now, many more will be able to afford it.

Critics of the India Shining campaign say that rural India is totally neglected. What’s your comment?

Some progress has been made in rural areas, such as the installation of telephone lines and availability of mobile phones. But yes, basic inequalities are still there.

What needs to be done to make India truly shine?

We have a lot of resources and qualified people in India. But for India to shine, all citizens have to be encouraged to join together to take the country forward. Instead our politicians are dividing people.

Pay attention to environment and corruption

Dhanalakshmi(17) is the class XII head girl of Children’s Garden Higher Secondary School, a state-board affiliated school in Chennai. She has set her sights on medicine and wants to specialise in gynaecology.

Do you believe India is shining?

India is shining only in certain areas like industry and health, not on all fronts. We have very low literacy and lack the basic infrastructure essential for all-round progress. There is, however, hope for the future as India has made great headway in fields ranging from agriculture and dairy production to space research and communication.

Critics of the India Shining campaign say that rural India is totally neglected…

I look at the India Shining campaign as a mere advertisement that’s unrealistic and an election gimmick meant to influence voters. Farmers are shown to be smiling happily in these ad campaigns but in reality they have massive problems. So many of them commit suicide everyday because of drought, lack of credit, cheating by government servants etc. Most of the rural population is denied basic amenities like drinking water, clothing, shelter and education and live miserable lives below the poverty line. Proper roads and electricity are unheard of in some rural parts of India. India is shining only in certain parts of urban India.

What needs to be done to make India truly shine?

Plans for development have to be implemented. It’s not enough to write plans and forget about them. All people have to participate and prosper if India is to shine and progress. Right now India is only a ‘prostar’, which in astrophysics means a collection of inter-stellar matter. If we can root out corruption, make our environment pollution free and work to change ourselves, India can become a shining star. 

Government shouldn’t take all credit

Uday Raj Anand (17) is a class XII student and general secretary of the Student Executive of Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, among the most reputed CBSE-affiliated schools in Delhi. Uday is passionate about theatre and plans to pursue a degree in economics

Do you believe India is shining?

Yes, there have been some successes and achievements in India. We have a very dynamic education sector, there is a big rise in foreign exchange reserves, the telecom industry is booming, there is reduction of pollution in Delhi where roads have improved.

It isn’t fair to deny any credit to the government. The recent peace initiative with Pakistan has given Indians confidence and hope. However all the credit shouldn’t be given to government. There are a lot of private players who have contributed to India’s development. For example in the education sector, many private institutes have introduced interesting new programmes. Today a school-leaving student has so many more career options to choose from.

I believe the changes in India are the result of a long-term process, not just the result of one government’s efforts.

Critics of the India Shining campaign say that rural India is totally neglected…

There is general apathy towards rural India. Even the media tends to play up events only in urban India — like the IIM debate, the grading system in schools. But issues like the Naxalite movement and terrorism in Jharkhand are never highlighted, as these things don’t affect people living in cities.

Financial allocations for primary education in village schools haven’t really risen. Not enough is being done about the needs of rural India, although it’s true that the President’s efforts in Chhatisgarh have done a lot to improve the level of awareness in villages, as have NGOs.

What has to be done to make India shine?

Keep the fiscal deficit down, GDP up, foreign exchange reserves high, and hope for a good monsoon. Infrastructure investment in the rural sector — both agricultural and social — has to be increased constantly for growth and to keep India shining. All the taxpayers’ contributions shouldn’t be grabbed by the cities.

We need to maintain a focus on values. So many NRIs keep coming back to India because of our value system. Sardar Patel School follows a curriculum focussed around Indian values and ideals — these things are important to India. Some of the policies of the present NDA government contradict these values and this is damaging efforts to maintain sustainable progress, growth, and development.

Huge rural-urban divide

Sandeep S. (15) is the class X head boy of St. Joseph’s Indian High School, a well-reputed state board affiliated school in Bangalore. A swimming enthusiast, Sandeep wants to pursue a career as a research scientist.

Do you believe India is shining? How optimistic are you about the future?

No I don’t believe India is really shining. The taxpayer’s money used for advertising India’s so-called achievements could have been better utilised in building schools and hospitals in rural areas. Everyday there are reports of financial scandals in the newspapers. Corruption in public life has become so common that these scandals have stopped to surprise us. But India does have a good future because it’s abundant in natural and human resources. We just have to learn to use both of them effectively and efficiently.

Critics of the India Shining campaign say that rural India is totally neglected. What’s your comment?

I agree that rural India has been totally neglected. There is a huge rural-urban divide. Whereas in urban India there are new shopping complexes, expensive hotels and pubs coming up everyday, in rural India people don’t have even clean drinking water and electricity. If they don’t have a supportive infrastructure, how can we expect them to become productive members of society?

It’s true progress is only in certain corners of India. You just have to walk down any of Bangalore’s roads to see beggars, many of them children. These children who should be in school are begging on the streets. This is certainly not India shining.

What needs to be done to make India truly shine?

The government must give top priority to education and rural development. There’s an urgent need for a national campaign against corruption. President Dr. Abdul Kalam should head this campaign.

No change in living conditions

Raghvendra S. (16) is the class X head boy of Jain Vidya Niketan School, a primary-cum-secondary school which offers English and Kannada medium education at an annual fee of Re.1 to 1,800 students bussed in from 93 villages in Kanakpura district (40 km from Bangalore). Raghavendra studies in the English medium stream.

Do you believe India is shining? How optimistic are you about the future?

India may be shining for 25 percent of the population which lives in the cities, but not for us who live in villages. Sure, our country has a good future, but it can only become a powerful country and shine if there is development in the villages.

Critics of the India Shining campaign say that rural India is totally neglected…

The critics are right. There hasn’t been much change in living conditions in rural India. The roads are bad, there is no drinking water, power supply is erratic, water for irrigation is insufficient, and the public transportation system is very unreliable. For us far away from the cities, we can only observe the progress from a distance; we don’t enjoy the fruits of that progress. Those joys are only for city children, not for us. I wonder how many years it will take for us to enjoy the progress of the cities in our own villages?

What needs to be done to make India truly shine?

India can really shine if there is progress in the rural areas where 70 percent of Indians live. We depend on agriculture for our livelihood. Unless there is development in the agricultural sector and farmers’ welfare becomes the No.1 priority of the government, there is no future for the majority of our people.

With Gaver Chatterjee (Mumbai); Meenakshi Venkat (Delhi); Hemalatha Raghupathi (Chennai) & Sujoy Gupta (Kolkata)

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