Wednesday, December 17, 2008


I was lucky, and elated, to have been selected to undergo the Staff College course in the US in 1989. I was a 37 years young cocky fighter pilot who had his own perception of India, my country. This perception was built over time through schooling in English medium schools/ convents and having lived in urban surroundings most of the time (even when I was based in small villages, our camps had most facilities like a town). I reached Montgomery, Alabama and was pleasantly surprised to be a part of about 55o students doing this purely academic course (we do have academic courses in the military too), of which about 80 officers were from 55 different nationalities. I was the only Indian officer in this batch of 1990.

Our interactions were generally quite free and frank, considering the nature of the course. During the course of these interactions one theme always emerged and that was, 'India is a poor country'. I would get very hurt and would invariably put up a defence that India was not poor. I could speak English better than most others, I could think logically, I flew the Jaguar aircraft and could talk anyone out of fighter tactics etc. etc. I felt that I was their equal in every which way and yet they continued with their derogatory questions about poverty in India. I had never experienced poverty and was never really concerned about how poor India was. I got what I wanted in India, and was pretty comfortable with my perception of India.

One day when I could not take it any longer, I decided to start reading up on India with an aim of negating my tormentors. The more I read the more I realised how right they were and how wrong was my perception of India. These 10 months in the US staff college, with its very well equipped library, gave me an opportunity to try and understand my own country. The more I read, the more I realised that I was living in my own dream world; the more I read the more I became fascinated, and proud of India, even though I now realised that how backward we were economically. My perceptions of India started to change. I realised that urban areas in India were an aberration in the rural landscape of India. I started to read about our freedom struggle and how and why Gandhiji gave us the khadi dress - a dress used more as a fashion statement these days by our political class.

Why were we poor? I believe, the short answer is, we missed the Industrial revolution while under British rule. We continued to be an agrarian society plagued by disease, malnutrition and the rulers did not have any resources (that were of course ours in the first place) to waste on us. Gandhiji's Dandi march to make a pinch of salt was such a big issue with the British. Imagine we could not even make salt - a basic food item for the poor. We finally achieved independence. We chose socialism and non alignment as our core values following it up with nationalisation of assets. All this was based on our past experiences. We can complain about the political system but the system has not failed us. It has helped us to be self sufficient, grow, and also helped a diverse, plural nation like India stay as one nation-state, despite the pulls and pressures.

We are all very impatient with our progress and want India to reach its destined position in the comity of nations. Well, it is happening - 300 million strong middle class (approximately the size of our population at independence), and growing, will help us reach there. Once we have a majority middle class things would happen much faster, and more to the liking of the urban population. I have seen food shortages and the green revolution; I have seen milk shortages and the white revolution in my lifetime. I have seen India leap frogging from the agricultural era to the information era. We are now building our industrial base that will help provide employment to our rural brethren. Imagine we still have 72.2% of our population living in rural settings, as per the 2001 census. We have 34.3% (1990-2005) of our population surviving on less than $1.00 a day - this is an amount most of us donot even think about - I have paid many times this amount for one meal, at times. We have 28.6% living below the poverty line - defined by minimum calories and bare minimum medical aid for survival - not even roti, kapda aur makaan. Are we still poor?? Yes we are still poor (even though we are the 12th country in this world to cross a Trillion dollar economy mark) but are getting out of poverty much faster since 1991.

We have many challenges in the form of corruption, caste/ religion based politics, criminals in politics, poverty, etc. Who is corrupt. Not the poor. It is the haves who take, and give bribes. We want more - 'thoda hai thode aur ki zaroorat hai' attitude. We are willing to bribe our way to short circuit any system. We are responsible for the present impasse, and ONLY WE have the power to change this state of affairs by changing ourselves, individually and collectively.

As a start, let us be proud of who we are as a people. Let us start by getting to know our country. I have always felt enamoured by the material progress of the West but have been absolutely spellbound by the SOUL of India. Our nation is not perfect but WE have the power to make it one. Are we ready to do our part on this journey to achieve greatness where the pain of any fellow human being feels like one's own - specially the pain of people less fortunate than us. I never used to notice them earlier but with age I have realised that India can only truly prosper when no one is destined to lead a wretched life. How can we help change destinies? Once we reach there, we would be a participatory democracy in the true sense, as desired and thought of by our founding fathers.


Renu said...

great post ! I admire your thoughts,we must do whatever we can to make our country better , istead of complaining all the time and doing nothing for other's sake and looking after self interests only.
You have been tagged:), come and pick it up from my blog.

Joseph Pulikotil said...

Hi JPJ :)

Very interesting and erudite post!

First of all let me congrarulate you for being the only Indian student at Montgomery,Alabama.It is a great achievement and to be cherished forever.

Ofcourse,we have made tremendous strides since independence and especially after 1990.

We are one of the few handful nuclear states,our people are doing great jobs in foreign countries, our ladies have won the coveted titles like Miss world and Miss Universe,Visvanathan Anand is the king of chess,Arunthathi Roy won the Booker Prize writing a story set in Indian (Kerala )settings, Sashi Tharoor served in UN with distinction,we have sent an unmanned flight to the moon,Indira Nooyi ia heading a US multinational giant, our IT companies are doing a fine job, Tata's and Mittal's are acquiring foreign companies and the list of our achievements after independence is endless. In fact we have left Britain far behind in many respects.

We can teach English to the British :) :) :)

However, it must be said to the credit of the British for unifying us, giving us a good administrative system, good armed forces,good network of railways and post and telegraph, system, excellent tea gardens,abolish SATI, give good education to the founders of our Nation and so on.

Our democracy has helped the educated Indians. It has not helped the poor.The stark reality is that the the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. There are starvation deaths, suicide by farmers, millions of Indians are struggling to get a square meal a day. No one speaks about these unfortunate people.

With little help from the State and rich Indians who shamelessly flaunt their wealth these poor Indian can lead a better life. We are judging the progress of India by this privileged class and not by the vast majority who have no proper dwelling places, who don't get clean drinking water, who don't have access to education and medical facilities and who don't get jobs to keep their body and soul together.

Who cares? I want to amass wealth. Let others suffer. This reminds me of General Patton who said:NO ONE WINS A WAR BY KILLING HIMSELF.WARS ARE WON BY KILLING THE OTHER POOR BASTARDS. This is the guiding motto of many rich Indians, politicians, public servants etc. Unless these avaricious people realise the harm they are doing to the poor, our country will remain where the British left us.

Have a wonderful day :)

Quirky Indian said...

"It is the haves who take, and give bribes."

That is broadly is the rich (relatively speaking, which also includes the middle-class) and the educated who bribe, encourage corruption and generally disregard all social and civic is this lot of 300 million which needs to change its attitude before anything happens.


Quirky Indian

Indian Home Maker said...

Brilliantly written post. And very inspiring too.
The middle class does set the tone when it comes to bribing and corruption!
We need such motivation all the time instead of what our media churns out, positive talk but also with a mirror to show us how blind we sometimes are.

J P Joshi said...

Renu: Thank you for your comment. We are not perfect BUT we are not bad too. We need to be aware of what India is all about - I started to discover that only when I was 37 and thousands of miles away from India. India means different things to different people and that is probably what India is all about and also one of the biggest attractions of India - it cannot be stereotyped.

J P Joshi said...

JP: Thank you for your considered comment. I do agree that we benefited from our experience under the British (as a bye product); though they did everything out of self interest, and not with the intention of making India self reliant. They did help in uniting us as a nation - against them - thanks to their policies.

I agree that the rich and poor divide is growing. However, we need to generate wealth to distribute wealth. This is happening, at a fast pace for the last decade or so, BUT we still have a long way to go. Rs. 70000 crore farm loan waiver; NREGS; Jawahar Rozgar Yojna are all steps in this direction BUT pilferage does not let the benefits reach the actual recepients. How can we ensure that these benefits reach the deserving???

I do concede that we have problems which need to be tackled by US but disagree that 'our country will remain where the British left us'. Our country is way ahead of where the British left us but we have grown over 3 times in population since independence. In a democratic setup the only way to stop this growth is through education - we have not done too well on this account. Kerala is probably the only state that has done well on this account and their birth records reflects that.

All of us Indians are concerned, but we should not let our concern lead us to despondency. We need to get constructively engaged in any which way to help in the nation building process - through our thoughts, words and deeds.

J P Joshi said...

Quirky Indian: Thanks and agree with you 100%. Change has got to start with oneself. Let us resolve to not do the things that we donot wish to see being done. Like Gandhiji said, 'Be the change you want to see'.

J P Joshi said...

IHM: Thank you for your comment. I do believe that middle class has always been, and will always be, the harbinger for change. India is like the story of the 'Elephant and four blind men'. Each one perceives it differently, based on one's experiences. Our diversity is our biggest strength and we should not let it become our biggest weakness. How??

J P Joshi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ajit said...

brilliant post....
we still have miles to go but we must also not forget that we have come miles from where we were...

inspiring post

J P Joshi said...

Ajit: Thank you. Yes, we still have miles to go... and also we can be justifiably proud of our achievements thus far, given our past limitations and compulsions.

L. Venkata Subramaniam said...

I can understand what you mean when you say you got hurt with people calling India a poor country.

You are very right. When one seriously thinks about it most of our country is still poor. Even in the cities, we just have to go a few hundred meters from our comfortable homes to find poor people who cant even think of three full meals a day.

But yes we do have a very large (millions, the size of many other countries) class of educated well to do people and it is this class that feels offended. But I think that only goes to show the disconnect between the poor and the rich in our country. As you rightly said most of us dont know our country very well.

Sometimes I wonder if we could have had a more broadbased development after independence compared to what we have today.

J P Joshi said...

Thank you for your very considered comment. Yes, with hind sight, I do believe we could have had a more broad based growth, like I saw in N. America. Every village has the same infrastructural facilities like any town in terms of schools, power, telephone, television, road connectivity, etc. This could have helped us develop our villages and helped stem the migration of labour to slums in cities. But I believe, we did not have the resources. We wanted to remain non-aligned and no one was willing to fund our development.

We are now at that stage but are now beset with problems of land acquisition for SEZs. These have the potential of decongesting our cities by providing all necessary infrastructure at one place for living and working, like any town and also would help in providing employment to the rural population close by.

L. Venkata Subramaniam said...

By broadbased I meant that the GDP remains at the levels it is today, but the middle class is smaller and the poor arent so poor. So basically you and I may not be so well to do as we are but it also means that the poor wont be so.

I think we can do that now going forward. I would be happy if you shared your opinion
on this

Usha Pisharody said...

This is another brilliant and thought provoking post. Indeed, there are times, when one wonders why we are perceived as we are.

But those perceptions are slowly changing aren't they?

And finally, it is up to us really. Each of us who calls himself/herself an Indian to say that with pride, and work positively forward.

A Happy new year to the nation too, and to you and your family!

J P Joshi said...

L. Venkata Subramaniam: You are so right. My brother's a Ph.D. in finance. I had asked him the same question. He opined that this is already happening through the 'trickle down' effect. He says that each one of us with surplus income is already providing employment, directly or indirectlly, to a large number of illiterate people, like, milk man, car cleaner, dhobi, newspaper chap, domestic help, driver, etc. Most well to do are investing in properties - in turn giving employment to unskilled labour. Spending on infrastructural projects is up - roads, overbridges, airports, etc. In Chennai, most labor and security guards are from interior Orissa villages. Similarly in Chandigarh, I noticed most labour is from Bihar. Of course, this is leading to increased slums in cities. The only alternative is new towns and SEZs. Hopefully things will change in a decade or so of this kind of growth. God willing.

Usha Pisharody: Thank you for your comment. Yes, the perceptions are surely changing but we still have a long way to go. Happy New Year to you too.

Reflections said...

Superb informative....could not help but read it twice!! It is so complete in itself that I have nothing much to add.....except I wonder sometimes, if the population of India could be controlled at some level....maybe it could make more of a difference.
Just my 2 pence worth:-P.

J P Joshi said...

Reflections: Thank you for your comment. You have made a very valid observation. Population control would most definitely help us at our stage of development.

I do believe education is the key to population control in any democracy. Kerala stands out as an example on this account. Maybe more states need to follow Kerala's example and achieve better population control through education.