Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A ride to the moon

Last week, I was on my way to Champa, a small sized town in Chattisgarh. After I reached Raipur, my host told me that we would be staying over in Raipur for the night and then proceed in the morning. In the morning , I was presented two options ; either to travel via the highway via Bilaspur and face massive traffic jams or take unpaved roads through villages and have a relatively traffic free ride. The foot note was that the highway wasn’t great either – it was paved but in large chunks, there were potholes. There is no chance of them being repaired any time soon, while we were travelling, election dates in Chattisgarh were announced, the Model code of conduct kicked in and ensured that every thing and every one froze in its tracks.

The purpose of my visit was to examine a civil society initiative which has been working together with initiatives such and the government’s National Rural Health Mission, the World Bank funded Chattisgarh District Poverty Reduction Project and others to improve the quality of life in the area. Here we aren’t talking of quality life as in having access to credit cards, ATMs, broadband connections, mobile phone connectivity and all that. Champa and the district of Janjgir-Champa are known for deep-rooted social inequities and political realities which work towards extensive exploitation of tribal labor. Wage rates are low and differentiated between men and women. Even in agriculturally advanced areas, immigration keeps the wage rates depressed. Widespread incidence of bonded labor has been reported.

We were discussing all this stuff and the World Bank estimate that 80% of India’s 1.1 billion people live on less than $2 a day, meaning more than one-third of the world’s poor live here. One in three Indians lives on less than $1 a day, meaning they qualify as extremely poor. It was then that the news of our having launched the Chandrayyaan, India’s first unmanned space shuttle to the moon was launched to be greeted with hysteria and joy approaching the second round of nuclear explosions at Pokhran conducted by the NDA government. India Today’s Raj Chengappa compared the satellite to a comet and the sound of its rocket engines to the music of a Rock Band. The Times of India shrieked that Obama had stopped breathing in the middle of his campaign to take note and say that the launch was a wake up call for America and that from now on the US would have to sweat to retain its commanding leading the space arena. We read all that and then craned our necks out in to the star lit village night wondering if we would get a glimpse of the yaan as it swung by.

But this is not a matter of expending money on what one might say are India’s chronically deprived underbelly. Even as I write, the press is reporting about hoe the soldiers in Siachen are being issued old and even torn clothing because new one’s haven’t been procured and the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report to parliament reveals that most of India’s submarine fleet is at the moment incapacitated and in the event of a war today, the Indian Navy is unlikely to be able to afford any protection to the country’s shores. With serious slippages in the induction plan, the navy is left with an ageing fleet with more than 50 percent of submarines having completed 75 percent of their operational life and some already outliving their maximum service life.

Well, from the point of view of scientific advancement, it may be very well and good to send a mission to the moon – not just an unmanned vehicle but even a manned vehicle. But what ought to be a nation’s supreme priority? Would it not be to ensure that its citizens live well, eat well and that it is capable enough to defend its borders and look after is soldiers who are deployed on is frontiers? In many ways unfortunately, the way we make political decisions on national spending is often dictated by emotion as if exploding a few bombs or sending up a man on the moon would make us world power. But the real indicator of a world power is not in this external symbolism but in how wealthy and happy and secure its citizens are – and it is to that end that we should be spending our resources.

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