Is it possible to dream beyond ourselves? Here, we have a problem – one of sheer abundance (unlike most other problems in our life, which stem from a feeling of scarcity – of money, comfort, tickets, admissions, jobs etc). There are a multitude of issues that beg our attention. I must not forget, however, that it is now passé to talk about issues such as poverty, starving children, illiteracy and unemployment. It is also rather unfashionable to get bothered by corruption and electoral malpractice. It is too late even to say that this is a state of hopelessness. For even that would imply that some of us wish to hope; or are even bothered to imagine what we could possibly hope for. It is not that. It is simply that one is just not bothered any more – such is the inertia of the present lifestyles.
We learnt from a very early age that the entire system around us is ruthless and the only way to survive it is to beat it. The only way to beat it is to arm ourselves with the magic weapon called ‘merit’ – an equally ruthless instrument. Merit has no conscience. It doesn’t feel. It just wins – every round, at all costs. It is not difficult to imagine how Mr. Arjun Singh provoked a mass reaction from the same set of Gen X-ers. “The death of merit” was a poignant cry from masses of youth – reflecting the fear of death of their dreams.
I have a dream, the usual one. I pick up ‘best student’ awards, scholarships, gold medals et al. I was meritorious. It is now time to fulfill my dream. Circa 2020: The house on the fiftieth floor is there and the wife, too. Only, there are, by now, taller buildings all around mine, some of which are twice as tall. I have to pay through my nose for water, since the government has given up on even attempting to supply drinking water and it’s the same with electricity. Thankfully, they have now constructed so many flyovers and now, traveling is easier. However, both ends of all these flyovers have become roofs for hundreds of families huddled together, living, eating and sleeping. There is a non-descript over-populated government school right across the street from where my children study and that doesn’t help; on my 100-inch flat screen plasma television, I am subject to a continuous barrage of natural calamities, terrorism and advertisements; when I am on my morning walk, the stench of people defecating on the roadside is revolting; as my flight approaches the airport, I cannot see anything beyond the clouds of smoke that has enveloped my city; as my flight gets closer to landing, I can only see vast areas covered by shanties – people living in sub-human conditions in slums of the worst kind. The death of merit? No, I think, merit just committed suicide.
It is not too hard to imagine such a scenario. We almost do not have a choice anymore. I have seen, among most around me (and often, in myself), a near unwillingness to accept the problem. The divide between public and private was never as large. For every ill in the public system, we think we can find a ‘private’ alternative. There, lies the rub. For, the more we privatize, all we are actually doing is running away from the problem at hand. Engaging with public service delivery mechanisms, and not avoiding them, is the only way of dealing with the mess; and make no mistake, merit is indispensable in meeting this challenge. Of course, add honesty, commitment and sensitivity.
These are real issues, surrounding real people, which if not looked at, ultimately, will affect you and me. Amartya Sen writes that these days, we are much more intolerant of global inequalities than people were in the previous centuries. He also writes that we Indians have learnt to carry on with our lives as if nothing happened, in the face of all the surrounding poverty and squalor. These two statements bring out the essence of the problem – that of ‘thinking globally and shirking locally’.
We need to bring back the sensitivity. We have shown ourselves to be capable of remarkable achievements in our chosen fields. We have fantastic doctors, technicians, managers and entrepreneurs. All we need, is to make them dream; to make them restless again; to bring in the desperation to see a change, to be a part of the change, to be the change themselves. Somewhere along the way, in the race for fulfilling our existential needs, desire to be socially relevant was lost. Power came to be seen in purely financial terms and respect, in terms of position. Somewhere along the way, we stopped caring.
It is the bubble – while we remembered the childhood lesson that ‘charity begins at home’, we forgot that charity merely begins at home, it doesn’t necessarily end there. If all of us decided to act, there would be efficient use of scarce resources, rapidly shrinking inequalities between rural and urban areas, a functional service delivery mechanism, world-class infrastructure, a prudent and just administration, an effective legal system and may be, even, a capable and sincere political system. We don’t have to give up our lives for it. We don’t have to give up our luxuries for it. We only need to re-prioritize. In fact, we need to aim higher. The time to start, is now!
Will you have a dream tonight?