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A Wish List for the New Year

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By Dr Satish C Aikant

I have stopped making New Year’s resolutions considering my poor track record of translating intentions into actual practice. Call it an infirmity of a weak mind but I am sure I am not an exceptionally fallible individual and share this weakness with many others of my ilk. I think Shakespeare’s pithy observation ‘Frailty, thy name is woman,’ should be extended to all humankind and need not be gender specific. Shakespeare, of course, had no reason to be politically correct and could easily get away with his selective nit-picking. He was living in a different age and time.

I have given up on fresh resolutions but not on a wish list for the New Year. Even though some of the wishes from the list may remain unfulfilled, one hopes that at least some will be met. A wish, unlike an individual’s resolution, is subject to factors external to oneself and, if the conditions are propitious enough, it may certainly see the light of day.

Let me begin on a promising note declaring that the foremost wish which I think is at present universally shared is already fulfilled. How we all wished that the year 2020, the year of searing memories, while a pandemic raged all over the world, would be over. Well, the nightmarish year is already behind us with no one to shed a tear on its departure. Let us now hope that the virus relents its fury so that we can regain control of our lives once again.

One wishes that, as the virus recedes, we can gradually unmask ourselves, step out of the virtual world and have more of physical interactions. Let the schools reopen fully so that the children, held captive to online classes for long hours, may come out in the open, learn, play, and laugh as before. Enough of the Zoom meetings. One may perhaps envisage a digital-borderless world where digital technology would provide successful digital alternatives. But, whereas the pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation in education in some ways, it has also exposed the gap between the digital haves and the digital have-nots in the education sector, underlining the fact that we are living in a world which is hugely unequal. Knowledge is indeed power but only to those who can have access to it.

Let the coming year be one of open rather than closed doors, letting in more fresh air and more light not just in a literal sense but more importantly suggesting openness to diverse ideas and views, opinions, voices and more compassionate understanding of each other. Let us celebrate our diversity in all its plenitude.

I wish that we emerge out of the extreme polarisation that our society has been subjected to. The communal divide in India has only grown over the past years. This is not new and the roots of this divide go back far back in the sub-continent’s history, but the BJP’s electoral victories in recent times have emboldened it to use Hindutva as an effective weapon to polarise the majority community against the marginal communities by adopting a series of policy measures which have only widened the divide. We have seen how in the early stages of the pandemic, the Tablighi Jamaat was held responsible for it, the target being the Muslims who were demonised as the super spreaders of the virus, even though the courts subsequently condemned such communal prejudice.

‘April is the cruellest month’ is a line from TS Eliot’s apocalyptic poem ‘The Waste Land.’ Well, the April of 2020 was cruel in a different sense when the unplanned lockdown dislocated many lives. The worst sufferers were the migrant workers who, thrown out of work and their dwellings, were forced to walk hundreds of miles in hunger and fatigue to reach the uncertain safety of their native places. The agony of the migrant workers trudging along with their families in tow and their meagre possessions on their heads was a horrendous replay of the 1947 partition mass exodus. This sudden lockdown was as unplanned as the announcement of demonetisation that impacted adversely the ordinary citizens and destroyed small businesses.

The recent years have seen a systemic erosion of our democratic institutions. Individuals who do not fall in line with the ideology of the ruling power are summarily dismissed as enemies of the state and branded anti-national, urban naxals or belonging to tukde-tukde gang. TV news channels no longer give us news and objective comments but spew hatred and prejudice and push through the narrative of the powers that be. They merely serve to amplify and reinforce the dominant political narrative rather uncritically.

There is a fear that social distancing seen as a strategic necessity of the hour for our survival may gradually get transformed into an accepted social mode of living collaterally accentuating the perception of ‘otherness’ as a kind of threat to our well-being. We might fear the ‘other’ as biological body as we might fear that our existential reality is haunted by the fear of getting sick, of loneliness, of mortality. I hope such perceptions will not hold sway in the coming year.

Let us wholeheartedly applaud the noble efforts of the frontline workers who have been leading the fight against the virus to make our lives safe and healthy. Those in health services deserve the honour, in particular. In a way, the pandemic also enabled ramping up of the health services in India by building more facilities, but it has also exposed how inadequate our medical infrastructure has been, especially in the rural areas and small towns where the basic health services are almost non-existent. The government needs to redress this imbalance. The states and local bodies need to be empowered. Health services should be made more accessible to the poor. It requires shifting gears away from an elitist approach to community-led approach. Let the governments invest generously in public health.

The virus has taught us quite a few lessons. It has brought home the realisation of how recklessly we have been treating nature and destroying our environment, exploiting forests and rives and plundering natural resources. Shall we fare any better now? I am not very sanguine on this front. It sounds all very nice to think about the pristine nature in all its glory without the humans invading its realm and exchange goody goody WhatsApp messages about our indebtedness to nature but soon enough our greed gets the better of us. As soon as we see an opportunity, we are back to contaminating rivers and felling trees for ‘development’ projects. We will hardly change our patterns of consumption. As a society, we have become more selfish and more materialistic. A lot of introspection is required to see how we perceive ourselves and our relationships with others and with the environment around us.

Let us value simplicity in life and not encumber our lives by superfluities. A bullet train should not get priority over meeting demands of the common man and making his life easier and healthier. Let there be rethinking on the ill-advised Central Vista project in Delhi in these times of raging pandemic, financial crisis, economic slump and job losses. In short, let us have our priorities right. It is time we appreciate that ‘Small is Beautiful’ and not go for something that is merely gigantic. Look at the power of the small – a microscopic organism has brought entire global activities to a grinding halt.

Yet another urgent issue is that of the farmers. I hope the government listens sympathetically to the farmers who have been agitating for more than a month and repeal the unjust farm laws which were rushed through parliament without much consultative process with the main stake holders. The laws ostensibly to liberalise and regulate the market to benefit the farmer will actually enslave them and will only cater to the corporate greed.

The New Education Policy which was announced in 2020 is a step in the right direction, despite a few problematic features in it. It is hoped that it will bring our education system out of the colonial and elitist bias. Hopefully, it will bring the issue of Indian languages into centrality giving them the importance they deserve. English as of now has become the language of power and not just a medium of education. But a change seems to be in the offing. It is time we focused on the use of the mother tongue or regional language as a medium of instruction in our schools and colleges.

In sum, I wish that we as a people once again welcome and celebrate diversity, care for our environment, value human rights and treat people from all walks of life with dignity and respect and grace. Above all I wish for the return of civility and calm, showing gratitude for the gift of life that has been given to us. Have a great New Year.

(The writer is former Professor and Head of the Department of English, HNB Garhwal University)