THE 'India at 50' exercise was flagged off on August 13, 1996, the day the Human Resource Development Ministry's Culture Department issued a resolution announcing the formation of a National Committee. But six months, three committees and many meetings later, the Indian Government's ambitious plans for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Independence are still foundering in the realms of conjecture. Shall we blame it on Freedom?
The freedom to rustle up top-heavy panels left, right and centre. The freedom to deliberate endlessly. The freedom to compulsively grope in the dark. The freedom to keep everybody guessing. The freedom to saunter aimlessly when the pressing need is to gallop with intent. The Government is doing all that and worse even as the rest of the world is going out of its way to commemorate 50 years of India's Independence.
Not that the Government isn't aware of the significance of the occasion. Says R.L. Sudhir, additional secretary, Human Resource Development (HRD) Ministry: "It is an important landmark in the history of our country. So the Government has decided to celebrate in a befitting manner." As the agenda papers issued by the Secretariat for Commemoration of 50th Anniversary of India's Independence to members of the National Committee elaborate: "Considering what it (the celebrations) would mean to the Indian masses, various functions should be structured in such a way that they are able to reach out and involve as many people as possible." Although the final structure of the Independence show is not yet clear, the tentative plans seem quite impressive. At least on paper. A budget of Rs 51 crore has been earmarked for the occasion. Add to that the funds that will be used by various state governments and ministries to celebrate the anniversary, and the final figure could run into hundreds of crores. Hence the need to keep a close watch on how the money is spent. "Expenditure should result in the creation of permanent assets and not be confined to functions of an ephemeral nature," the agenda papers have spelt out.
Nothing wrong with the idea. It is the execution of the plans that has been exasperatingly tardy so far. "That's the way the Government functions. Six months into the 50th year of our independence, we are yet to concretise the shape that the celebrations ought to take," confesses a senior ministry official. The secretariat that has been set up at Vigyan Bhawan to handle all matters related to the celebrations is still in the process of being staffed. Many government departments are yet to submit their proposals though the last date was November 14, 1996. The Implementation Committee's first meeting on November 6, when the broad parameters were laid down, was held in the absence of its chairman, HRD Minister S.R. Bommai.
The Government may have woken up late, but it has left no stone unturned inconstituting special committees for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of India's Independence. On October 14, 1996, it named the members of the 210-strong National Committee headed by the Prime Minister and manned by Culture Secretary Balmiki Prasad Singh as member-secretary and eminent persons drawn from various walks of life. Earlier, on August 13, 1996, the Government had set up the 31-member Implementation Committee headed by the HRD minister. A Cabinet committee chaired by the Union minister for home affairs was also put in place. To service the three panels, a secretariat was set up at Vigyan Bhawan with Sudhir, a Haryana cadre IAS officer, at the helm.
The Government, however, is still far from getting its act together. For a March 1 meeting of an advisory group under the chairmanship of L.C. Jain, who is also a member of the National Committee, the participants hadn't received the agenda until a couple of days before the confabulations. Given the ways of governance inIndia, that's not surprising at all. "It is not the programmes, but our basic approach and treatment that should be discussed. That is what I am going to raise at the meeting. The celebrations should show how much we cherish our hard-won freedom," Jain told Outlook.
THE way the National Museum, New Delhi, dealt with the public during the just-concluded Padshahnama exhibition, is symptomatic of the Government's cavalier attitude towards the public. Although the exhibition of the priceless Mughal prints from the Royal Library, Windsor Castle, was to run only for a month, the museum authorities chose to keep the people out on as many as seven days—on two of them because of VIP visits. So much for the involvement of the people in India's celebration of freedom.
Eminent Calcutta-based poet Subhash Mukhopadhyay, who could not attend the National Committee's first meeting on December 14 after breaking his leg, is still not aware of what transpired there. "I was initially very enthusiastic and brimming with ideas when they invited me for the meeting. But since they haven't sent me the minutes, I have begun to lose interest in the whole Government-sponsored exercise," says the poet.
Mumbai-based filmmaker Shyam Benegal, another National Committee member, is in a similar situation. "I haven't attended a single meeting," he says. "So I really know nothing. I couldn't attend the first meeting as I wasn't in India. I haven't yet received the minutes, so I do not know what the National Committee is planning." Worse off is thespian Dilip Kumar. His name appears in the list of National Committee members, but he isn't aware of the fact. When informed that he was on the panel, he pleaded ignorance: "I am not on the panel." Veteran columnist Nikhil Chakravartty was nominated to the committee, but he politely declined.
Contrast the confusion that reigns here with the manner in which the embassies and high commissions of the US, Britain, Italy, Japan, Germany and Russia, among others, have gone about the task. While most of them have already launched their celebrations with high-profile events, plans for upcoming exhibitions and shows have been drawn up clearly and well in advance.
The Enduring Image: Treasures from the British Museum, an exhibition—that is scheduled to be held at New Delhi's National Museum from October to December 1997 and at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai from January to March 1998—has already been planned down to the last detail. The opening of the exhibition—which will, for the first time in this country, feature major works of art from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, China, Medieval Europe and Japan—will coincide with Queen Elizabeth's state visit to India.
Similarly, Italy's tribute to India during the 50th year of Independence is already in full swing, with one event—Civilisation, City and Cars, an exhibition that will trace the journey from the aesthetic and scientific research of Leonardo da Vinci to the futuristic car design of Pininfarina—to be held in New Delhi only in the winter of 1997-98. Every detail of the calendar has been worked out. Says Steffano Gatti, the first secretary in the Italian Embassy in New Delhi: "India is high priority for Italy. That's borne out by the forthcoming visit of Prime Minister Romano Prodi and Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini, both of whom are expected to inaugurate some of the commemorative events." The Germans will be bringing Zubin Mehta and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra to India, besides organising seminars on Mahatma Gandhi and Immanuel Kant later this year. Once again, the details are close to finalisation.
SAYS Jain: "We have maintained the tradition of being late in the celebrations, too. The BBC had interviewed me three years back in Oxford for programmes they were doing for the 50th anniversary of India's Independence." Benegal, too, expects the Indian celebrations to be "a rushed affair" because of the yawning communication gaps. Mukhopadhyay foresees an exercise in futility: "The Government should move out of such events. It was a golden opportunity to inspire people, now it's going to be frittered away." However, HRD Ministry offi-cials are confident that the celebrations will be memorable. According to Sudhir, the secretariat has been receiving innumerable proposals from various ministries, departments, PSUs, NGOs, individuals and foreign governments. "The Canadian government," he says, "has sent us a package of events for the occasion, which is likely to be approved soon." The secretariat has also been flooded with more than 500 proposals for TV serials, feature films and documentaries. "All of them obviouslycan't be accommodated," he says.
In fact, the HRD Ministry refutes the contention that it's behind schedule. Says Deputy Secretary Sheo Narayan Singh Anived: "We are not celebrating the 50th 'year' of Independence. Others seem to be doing that, leading to the impression that India itself is doing little. We will celebrate the 50th 'anniversary' of our Independence and, therefore, events will begin on August 15, 1997, and continue till August 15, 1998." But with only six months to go, is the Government really in a position to pull it off? Consider the broad plans. The celebrations are expected to begin with a midnight meeting of both Houses of Parliament and all the state legislatures on August 14, 1997. The opening programme will last seven days, with a host of events—freedom runs, special meetings, processions, kavi sammelans—marking the week. Subsequently, ceremonies will be held on certain special dates—October 2, 1997 (Mahatma Gandhi's 128th birth anniversary), November 14, 1997 (Nehru's 108th birth anniversary) and January 23, 1998 (Netaji's 101st birth anniversary), for instance.
Among other things on the anvil are a world colloquium on freedom attended by representatives of countries that have gained independence in the 20th century, a photographic exhibition titled India at 50, the construction of a Freedom Memorial in New Delhi, the launch of a 'freedom channel' by Doordarshan and the commissioning of new feature films about the freedom struggle. In the forefront of the celebrations will be core programmes, which will involve the introduction of welfare schemes in areas like education, health, housing and environment, and the like.
Sounds great? Such proposals always do. But as it dithers—more out of habit than compulsion—will the Government be able to do justice to the spirit of freedom?