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Saturday, July 12, 2003

How often have we heard people glorifying the past and their own generation and lamenting the rotten conditions in the present and despairing that things can never improve.

Our despair at the current state of affairs shouldn’t make us overlook some of the remarkable achievements made in the past 50 years. The average life expectancy at birth has more than doubled (from 32 to 64); infant mortality is approximately halved; many diseases like diarrhea and typhoid which used to cause so many deaths, are routinely overcome with simple antibiotics. Many deadly infections are now prevented with ease.

Even in the last 20 years there has been remarkable progress on many fronts. We used to wait for months and years to get a simple telephone connection which is now available on demand; many consumer durables which had to be purchased in the grey market earlier are now manufactured in the country. Until not too long ago, one had to struggle to make a train reservation – thanks to computerization it takes only a few minutes now.

The liberalization of the economy, opening up of many sectors (which were earlier state controlled) to competition and the communication revolution have brought about a sea change in the life style of many people in a short time.

Hardly a generation ago, TV and refrigerator were considered luxury items. Today they are brought within the reach of the vast middle class. Thanks to the market forces, one can get a mobile phone for a down payment of just Rs 500, one of the lowest in the world.

True, we still face formidable problems. India is home to half the illiterates in the world, and an uncomfortably large number of people live in abject poverty. But, our concern for the country should neither allow us to overlook our substantial achievements nor lead to cynicism. There is no problem that is facing us that cannot be solved - excepting for unavoidable deaths and irreversible environmental degradation.

In the 19th century, many enlightened British got together and decided that public defecation should be a thing of the past. The result was the Great Sanitation Movement which transformed the nation in five years. Our state government has launched (once again) a welcome initiative to build 3.2 million household toilets over the next 18 months. This is a worthy goal, and deserves full support. But if we have to fulfill our potential as a nation, we require similar efforts in a number of spheres ranging from school education, health care, harnessing water resources, housing for the poor to critical infrastructure.

All this can be achieved with clarity of goals, sustained focus, diligence, institutional reform and national will.

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