Syeda Hameed brings a rare quality to the Indian bureaucracy - a humanity tinged with scholarship. Having worked on the selected writings of Maulana Azad, translated IsmatChughtai, been a lifelong activist and vocal proponent of gender justice, she is now serving a second term as Member, Planning Commission for the Government of India. The rigours of babudom have however neither dulled her enthusiasm for taking up the cause of social change nor blunted her pen from writing on issues that remain dear to her. Equally active among literary and activist circles as well as serving time at seminars, committees and boards of trustees, Syeda wears her many hats with ease.
Beautiful Country: Stories from Another Country(Harper Collins) is the outcome of her travels across the length and breadth of the country with a notebook and pen in hand and accompanied by Gunjan Veda, a young journalist and now a consultant with the Planning Commission. The disparities in age and experience makes these co-authors perfect foils as they face and then grapple to come to terms with all that they experience at first hand, much of which flies in the face of conventional wisdom or is in conflict with the official narrative of progress and development. What emerges from this encounter is absorbing reading; more importantly, it shows the 'other' India, one that does not make it to the pages of national dailies or in breaking news bulletins on prime time television; sadly, it doesnot even appear as a footnote in the development reports churned out by analysts and planners. Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, writing the Foreword, admits that these reports, though 'essentially anecdotal' and not festooned with statistics, are 'dangerously powerful reading'.
Why 'dangerous reading'? Why would reports on income generation schemes, literacy programmes, tribal policies, health and sanitation programmes, et al be 'dangerous'? After all, the absence of the human element in development planning has been pointed out by others, most notably the intrepid journalist Kusum Nair who set out on a trek through rural India in 1958 and published her journal notings as Blossoms in the Dust (possibly inspired by a popular Hindi film called DhoolkaPhool). Possibly, what makes Syeda and Gunjan's account 'dangerous' is because it comes from those within the system. Possibly also, because as Syeda herself points out:these reports prepared for the Planning Commission are in the nature of 'chashm deed gawahi' (eye witness accounts). She explains her testimony thus:
'My accounts centred on ordinary people, how they lived, what they felt, how they coped; they were not analysis of questionnaires. They did not involve data collection, sample surveys and random and control group samples. I used the existing data; but also my eyes, ears and heart, and asked many questions to understand and mentally process all that I witnessed.'
Government initiatives -- no matter how well intentioned such as NREGA which strives to end rural poverty through employment generation and the campaign to provide Education for All under the SarvaShikhshaAbhiyan -- are replete with examples of the slips between the cup and the lip, the gap between policy and implementation and the divide between the 'two Indias' - the developed and the not-developed. Lead poisoning in the carpet-weaving belt of Bhadohi, extinction of the Bo tribe of the Great Andamanese people, 15% infant mortality on the riverine islands of Bengal, plight of the weavers of Chanderi and the power loom workers of Malegaon, the sheer inability of the homeless to provide 'proof of address' and therefore avail Antyodaya Rations for those Below the Poverty Line (BPL) - all this and much more appear as larger-than-life cameos on the narratives woven into these reports. As the sub-title indicates, indeed there is another India and these stories are from another country.
1.P. Sainath, Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories from India's Poorest Districts, Penguin Books, New Delhi
2.AshisNandy, Talking India: AshisNandy in conversation with RaminJahanbegloo. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, New Delhi
3.Kusum Nair, Blossoms in the Dust, Praeger, New York
Beautiful Country: Stories from Another Country, SyedaHameed and Gunjan Veda, Harper Collins, 2012, Rs 399.