Column: India in 2013: stemming the rot

Written by Nirvikar Singh | Updated: Jan 17 2013, 08:40am hrs
The year just ended was a difficult one for Indianot dismal, but close to it. The last two weeks of the year, triggered by an act of savage inhumanity, exposed many of the countrys weaknesses in a stark manner. Can the country learn the right lessons from what has happened

The most obvious fault that has been exposed by recent events is Indias dreadful treatment of women. As many have already written, rape is just the tip of the iceberg that represents the full scope of the problem. We have known for some time, have seen it documented, have read numerous stories, about the indignities suffered by Indias women and girls. But it took one exceptionally brutal and visible act to shake up at least a significant portion of Indian society, which took to the streets.

Perhaps this process will follow the course of events we saw in Eastern Europe, where long-suppressed fear and resentment of repressive regimes boiled over into the streets and led to astonishingly rapid change. Of course there are other examples, including Indias anti-corruption movement, where little has improved as a result of public outrage. In the current crisis, what is needed is a comprehensive examination of legislation that affects women: not just the laws and legal processes surrounding the crime of rape, but also education, marriage, inheritance and other aspects of womens lives. Let us see if 2013 brings some real progress.

One reason to be pessimistic is the kinds of institutional responses we have seen to the crime and its aftermath. Government officials, whether civil servants or politicians, have displayed a remarkable degree of indifference, even callousness, towards the victims, their families, and most of all towards those who channelled their angst at a symbolic violation of their collective dignity and humanity into protests at the gates of power. But those in power have sought to silence those seeking justice and truth. Unfortunately, the nature of the official responses is typical of governance in India, where incompetence and malfeasance are routinely covered up or excused. The problem of government failure to deliver public goods and services is pervasive in India, and affects almost all its citizens, not just the 50% who are female. In this case, the failure to prevent such a public crime, and the incompetent response to the victims need, were two shocking instances of this general problem.

The year 2012 was earlier marked by multiple reminders of government failure, and it remains to be seen if Indias citizens can instigate positive change in 2013, whether through the ballot box, the media, or direct action.

The predicaments of Indias women vis--vis the country men, its citizens in relation to its rulers, its dalits vis--vis its privileged castes, or indeed, its minorities with respect to its majority, are all symptoms of inequalities of power that deny the fundamental equality of human beings. What happened in Delhi in December provided multiple instances of these inequities, and the violence that they breed. Indias political elites are used to distancing themselves from the violence to which their own way of life contributesif this terrible incident had happened in the home village of one of the victims or perpetrators, it might have received a brief mention in the media and been quickly forgotten. It would have been about themthe other Indiaand not about us. The core of this savage attack was that it involved different shades of them, but happened in front of us. But the eliteswhether by birth or position, those who are not among themfound that the boundary between them and us is no longer accepted, no longer neatly drawn. India in 2013 will have to confront its many inequalities and inequities directly, not keep suppressing them. This includes not just a government that does not protect its citizens, but the citizens that do not care for each other as human beings, leaving them bleeding in the street.

One kind of reaction to recent events, and the social and economic changes that underlie them, is to blame those changes, and stop or even reverse them. One (male) Indian politician has come out and said that women should stay at home and only men should work. Other commentators seem to be nostalgic for the days before economic reform and globalisation, when traditional values made each village a place of peace and harmony. This nostalgia is nonsense. Inequality and brutality have always been present in Indian society, just less visible. On the whole, the Indian elites have not been willing to invest enough in overcoming these flaws, allowing the pursuit of power and wealth to take precedence over the common good. Or they have set themselves up as guardians of that common good, perpetuating inequities of power and wealth in the process. India needs to confront its weaknesses. We need to realise, though, that these weaknesses are not the result of economic reform and globalisation, but predate them. The processes of change have helped expose these weaknesses, and there is no excuse for their persistence.

The professor of economics, University of California, Santa Cruz