As the world’s largest free electorate prepares to vote in India’s 15th general election scheduled to roll out countrywide between April 16-May 13, a striking feature of the election rhetoric is the deafening silence of national and regional political parties on the most important issues confronting 21st century India which owes a deep duty of care to the world’s largest (450 million) child population: public health and education.
The pre-election public discourse in India is in sharp contrast with the recently concluded combative presidential election fought in the US, culminating in the election of Barack Obama as the 42nd — and first racial minority president of America — in which these issues were high on the debate and development agenda. In Britain too, education gets top political billing during general elections. In 2001 Labour Party leader and former prime minister Tony Blair famously remarked that the top three priorities of Labour were “education, education, education”, and swept the British election that year.
Against this backdrop of growing global awareness that development of a nation’s human capital is the vital precondition of national development, the indifference of India’s political class as a whole to public health and education reform is testimony to how out of touch they are with the aspirations of the people. In all of contemporary India’s 200 million households — as in America’s 80 million households — there is a deeply felt, even if unarticulated, need for quality public health services and education.
Despite this, the annual outlay (Centre plus states) for education has never crossed 4 percent of GDP even though the Kothari Commission recommended 6 percent way back in 1966. Worse, provision for public health services has never exceeded 1.2 pecent of GDP, forcing millions of children and youth, who are expected to deliver 21st century India’s ‘demographic dividend’, to live half lives.
But even as India’s much trumpeted demographic dividend shows signs of mutating into a demographic disaster, leaders and strategists of India’s major political parties seem unaware of the public yearning for a meaningful health and education infrastructure, which can aid and enable generation next to break out of the vicious cycle of ignorance and poverty. The country’s establishment continues to live in a Shining India bubble with politicians from the rural hinterland co-opted into government of the middle class, by the middle class and for the middle class. Consequently the onus of rewriting the national agenda and forcing the establishment in New Delhi and the state capitals to get its priorities right has devolved upon the Indian intelligentsia.
As election fever rises and the debate on national development priorities intensifies, it’s upto the teachers’ community in the country’s 1.24 million schools, 431 universities, 21,000 colleges and not least the media, to highlight the critical importance of education and healthcare. The blame for the shameful neglect of these urgent issues cannot be laid solely at the doors of politicians — the intelligentsia is also complicit. It’s still not too late for them to awake, arise and discharge their mandatory role within the social order.