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India's Masses: The Public That Can't Be Reached
by Arthur Bonner

There have been many signs of progress in India since independence was gained in 1950, but a serious barrier to democracy in this country of 500,000 villages is the lack of effective means of communication between the government and the masses. As a correspondent for CBS, Arthur Bonner has lived in India for more than five years.

I FIRST began thinking about India's communication difficulties three years ago. I was in the western part of Bihar when Prime Minister Nehru inaugurated one of the major dams that have sprung up throughout the country since independence. I stopped at a post office and saw, in a corner, a short spear with two little bells attached to the shaft near the head. I recognized it, from descriptions in books, as a spear carried by dak (mail) runners. I thought it was a relic of the days when the mail was delivered by runners who needed the spear to protect themselves from robbers and wild animals and who carried the bells just to keep up their courage as they jogged along jungle trails. But the postmaster assured me that he still delivered some of his mail by runners who took three days going out along one route and three days coming back by another.
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India is trying to build itself anew, and there are many visible signs of progress. But communications are still needed drastically. Only 18 per cent of the people in India can read and write. Two years ago a research team from Jamia Milia University in New Delhi surveyed 150 villages in selected areas of the four Hindi-speaking states of north-central India. They found that 6 out of 67 persons selected at random were entirely ignorant of the fact that the British no longer ruled India.

In response to another question, the researchers found that 54 out of 314 respondents did not know the name of their own country. Some, howevcr, were aware of the word Bharat (India); they said they had heard people shouting Bharat Mata Ki Jai (Long Live Mother India). But when these same villagers were asked what Bharat signified, they said they did not know.

It is difficult to try to communicate the complicated forms of modern democracy to a people who may not even visualize a nation. I accompanied Prime Minister Nehru shortly before a general election when he attempted just this. The Prime Minister visited the lovely old ruins of Mandu in central India, where five centuries ago there lived a King who, with eight thousand wives, put Solomon to shame. A special effort had been made to gather together thousands of Gond tribesmen, who form the penniless peasantry of the surrounding scrub-jungle-covered hills. Nehru, speaking through a translator, gave a simple lecture in civics. He said there were no more British; they had all gone away. There were no more maharajas; they too were not ruling India. There were just the Indian people, who were ruling themselves. Everybody was an Indian, he said. He was an Indian and the Gonds were Indians. With no more British and no more maharajas, the Gonds like other Indians had the opportunity to choose who would be their rulers. He then went on to explain about the elections and what it meant to cast a vote.

Nehru was careful to speak slowly and to use simple terms that he repeated many times, as if speaking to children, but the entire idea must have been difficult for the Gonds to grasp. Nevertheless, Nehru delivers as many as a half dozen speeches a day during his tours because he knows that the only effective communication with the masses of India must be on a person-to-person basis.

The daily circulation of newspapers in India, with a population of 400 million, is only 3.1 million, and one third of these papers are in English. The dozen or so English-language papers are extremely important, since 99 per cent of the people are ruled by the one per cent who speak English. Whell I first came to India and heard people say this, I thought they were exaggerating. But my own experience has proved it true. I have talked to thousands of government officials and business, professional, and labor leaders throughout India, and we always conversed in English. An Indian who does not speak English cannot gain authority outside of his own limited circle. But the only persons who can afford the long education necessary to become proficient in English are those who were born with money or property. Thus the feudal system is perpetuated, and thus the English language papers are so important; they help mold the opinion of the people who count.

But this should not be overemphasized. Newspapers have little impact even on many of those who are literate, either in English or the regional languages. Stanley and Ruth Freed are young American anthropologists who have spent more than a year working in a village only fourteen miles from Delhi. About two weeks after the revolt in Tibet began, when the Dalai Lama had just reached the Indian frontier, the Freeds asked several of the more educated people in the village what they thought of the matter. The newspapers were full of news about the Dalai Lama, yet only one of the persons the Freeds asked had even heard of him. The sole exception was a young man studying for his master's degree. Among those unaware of the Dalai Lama's existence was their interpreter, a young English-speaking girl who had completed two years of college.

There is no television in India, and there are only slightly more than 1.5 million radio sets in use, most of them in the four major cities: Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras. The government has installed about 40,000 subsidized community radios in the villages, but this is just a beginning -- there are 500,000 villages in India. It is more than just a matter of poverty. There are no repair facilities in the rural areas, and so an entire system has to be set up to keep the community radios in working order. Besides, many villages do not have electricity and need battery-operated sets, which means that the batteries must be brought into a district center at regular intervals to be recharged.

Language is a further barrier to understanding. There are fourteen major languages in India, plus a few hundred dialects, and when Nehru speaks in his native Hindustani he is understood by less than half of the people. Unfortunately, the intellectuals who run All India Radio, the government-owned radio network, scorn Hindustani as a polyglot tongue and insist on using a highly Sanskritized version of Hindustani called Hindi, which the government is trying to propagate as the national language. As a result, there are relatively few who understand the Hindi news broadcasts of AIR. The language pattern outside of north-central India is even more complicated. AIR news broadcasts in Bombay and Hyderabad are delivered in five languages, while special programs for the hill tracts of northeastern India are spoken in fifteen separate dialects.

It is laid down in the Indian Constitution that the government should try to switch over from English to Hindi by 1965. But there is so much opposition to Hindi that the government recently had to promise that it would not insist on this deadline. It is not that those who oppose Hindi love English more, but they fear that if Hindi becomes the national language their own languages will be neglected. They also fear that those who speak Hindi as their mother tongue would find it easier to get government jobs than those who would have to learn Hindi as a second language. In most of the rest of the world language ties a nation together. In India language separates people and makes them enemies.

INDIA is such a complex country that it needs modern communications to bind it together, yet a great majority of Indians live in the age of the bullock cart. The Indian Airlines Corporation, the government-owned airline that provides all of the internal passenger service and almost all of the air freight traffic, has only 77 aircraft on regular service. More than two thirds of these are decrepit DC-3s used during World War II. There are only 400,000 telephones, or one for every thousand persons. Most of the telephones, like most of the radios, are concentrated in the four major cities. There are only 110 pages in the telephone book for the entire state of Kerala, which has a population of 15 million, or almost double that of New York City. There is only one motor vehicle of any sort, including motorcycles, for every 850 persons. But there are 10 million bullock carts, or one for every 40 people.

Automobile drivers curse the bullock carts for slowing down traffic, and highway engineers hate them because their narrow, iron-rimmed wheels destroy the surface of the roads, especially in the summer, when the asphalt melts under the baking sun. Yet they are as much a part of Indian life today as they were at the dawn of Indian history. And, judging from ancient temple sculpture, the bullock cart has remained unchanged throughout the rise and fall of countless kingdoms. The cart has two wobbly wheels about five feet in diameter and is drawn by two humped bullocks with the yoke resting on the bullocks' necks in front of the hump and cutting into the flesh. The Indian peasant is poor in money and technology; the bullock cart is the only vehicle he can afford or knows how to use.

It is estimated that each bullock cart travels two thousand miles a year and that 70 per cent of the goods in India are carried by bullock cart. The 80 per cent of the Indians who live in villages are scattered as far as twenty miles from a motorable road. When the second Five Year Plan ends in 1961, there will still be but 138,000 miles of all-weather motorable roads, or one mile for every 9 square miles of territory. Only 1500 miles of this will be two-lane highways.

INDIA depends primarily on its government-owned railroads for interregional movement. It has the fourth largest railroad system in the world, but it still does not meet India's needs. There are 35,000 miles of track, or 27 miles per 1000 square miles of territory, compared with 74 in the United States. There are only 9 miles of track per 100,000 people, compared with 138 in the United States. The Indian railroads were neglected during the depression in the 1930s. They were badly damaged and overworked in the war years and later when the subcontinent was partitioned between India and Pakistan. Meantime, population has increased at the rate of 7 million a year, and there is the new and heavy burden of the industries and projects begun under the two Five Year Plans. Because of all this, the Indian railroads today are less able to meet the demands made on them than they were thirty years ago, even though about 20 per cent of the Five Year Plan allocations are spent for railway improvement.

Traveling in an air-conditioned car on the Indian railways is about as comfortable as traveling Pullman in the United States, but third-class travel, which is what most Indians use, can be sheer horror. About two hundred passengers are jammed along with mountains of luggage into a single dirty, hot carriage. The seats are narrow and made of wooden slats. The smell of humanity is reinforced by the odor from the inadequate and seldom cleaned toilet. There is no drinking water on the train, and the rush for seats is so great that even when the train stops, a person who has a seat does not dare leave it to get a drink of water at the station. Some improvements have been made, but not many. The failure is deliberate. India is trying to build its industries, and freight gets priority over people.

Thanks to this priority, most of the outdated freight cars have been replaced and the total number has increased by 40,000 in the past ten years, but freight capacity is still inadequate. Businessmen complain that they have to wait three months for a freight car to carry their goods and that, at times, when a car is made available they have to wait another month before it can be attached to a passing train. They also complain that the movement of freight cars is so chaotic that even after goods are dispatched it might take a month for the shipment to arrive at a destination only five hundred miles away. The shortage of freight cars is a major cause of governmental corruption. Businessmen say that the only way they can get a car is by bribing railway officials.

Governmental inefficiency is the keynote. All of the interstate communications are owned by the central government, and many of the individual states have nationalized interurban bus and truck lines as well as their municipal transport systems. Yet entering a government office is like stepping back fifty years or more. There are few filing cabinets and paper clips. Papers are attached by a string threaded through a hole in one corner and then wrapped in a folder tied together by another string. A code letter is pinned to the cover, and the name of the file is registered in a ledger. The file is then tossed on a shelf along with mounds of others. The registers are tossed someplace else, and how any file is ever found again is a wonder. The rules for handling correspondence at the district level in Uttar Pradesh have changed little since they were drawn up in 1880. A letter has to pass through forty-one distinct steps and be entered in dozens of registers before it is answered. Throughout India, the government moves so slowly that it is not uncommon for an official to die before his pension is sanctioned and paid.

Fortunately, not all government organizations are so creaky. One of the most promising things in India is the Community Development program, which has shown itself receptive to new ideas and methods. It has sent thousands of village-level workers and others into the villages to teach everything from adult literacy to better ways of farming. It emphasizes the person-to-person approach and at times has shown great imagination. For instance, it has organized group tours of India by as many as five hundred villagers -- tempting them with a chance to worship at the traditional shrines and, in the process, showing them the new factories and dams, which Nehru calls the modern places of pilgrimage. In trying to communicate ideas, the village-level workers have a whole armory Of new weapons. All branches of the central and state governments are turning out books, pamphlets, and leaflets; special movies have been prepared along with audio-visual aids. There are hundreds of mobile vans equipped with generators to penetrate into the darkest interior, and there are even a few publicity setups mounted on bullock carts.

But an urban Indian intellectual is often as much a stranger to an Indian peasant as an Englishman or an American. Even when they do speak the same language, they do not think the same thoughts. When an educational movie is prepared in a Bombay studio, using actors disguised as farmers, the real farmers will always flock to the mobile van to see it. But they laugh at the wrong places. It is often a parody of their own lives and as such is entertainment, not education.

The problem is greater than just making more realistic films. Ideas not only have to be understood, they have to be accepted; and once accepted, they have to become permanent. The Community Development program works intensively in blocks of one hundred villages for about four years, after which the area is given much less attention. There are many apparent changes in these blocks. But Community Development officials have now found, much to their dismay, that the villagers quickly give up their new habits and ideas as soon as the external pressure is removed.

The reason for this is found in the word dharma, a religious term roughly meaning "the Hindu way of life." But since religion, especially in the villages, is intertwined with man's every act, it means more than the ceremonies of religion. Dharma includes all the ethics and mores of a man's family, caste, and community; it determines how a man dresses or plows his field or eats and even how he goes to the toilet. Dharma gives the sanction of heaven to the class and caste structure and lays down that superior authority must be obeyed. Thus a village-level worker, who represents authority, might easily get the peasant to change his habits. But once the village-level worker goes away, other aspects of the dharma -- mainly the spiritual pressure of tradition -- reassert themselves.

Foreign experts are often discouraged. I met a British nurse whom the World Health Organization had sent to Kerala, where she worked for three years establishing maternity and child-care centers. We had a long talk about all the things she had done, but as I got up to leave she remarked sadly that she would soon be going home and it would probably all be forgotten. I also met an American who came to India under our technical assistance program. He was sent to an area where another expert a year previously had taught the villagers how to install and use a large number of diesel pumps for their wells. When the second man arrived at the scene, he found that none of the pumps were in use. Some were mechanically defective, others had simply run out of fuel.

Perhaps the best way of getting ideas permanently accepted would be to present them through religious channels. But Hinduism has no established church which can be used as a means of communication. There are only individuals like Vinoba Bhave, Gandhi's disciple, who is collecting thousands of acres of land as gifts for his Bhoodan movement. Vinoba, with his asceticism and his long tours on foot, is operating within the dharma and is easily accepted. The landlords who give part of their holdings to Vinoba for distribution among the landless are the same men who strenuously resist all land reforms proposed by the government. But the Westernized administrators of India scorn Vinoba and his religion-oriented methods.

Nehru often says that he is not "religious-minded," and government spokesmen take pride in echoing that India is a secular state. After living in India for more than five years and realizing the force of the dharma, I am convinced that there is a direct relation between the de-emphasis of religion since Gandhi's death and the fact that much of the enthusiasm that existed at the time of India's independence has now evaporated.

Many factories and huge new dams spring up, yet despite the best efforts of the government, per-acre yields remain among the lowest in the world, and thousands of ancient minor irrigation works are falling into disrepair. The level of literacy is what it was a decade ago, and the fine-sounding laws banning untouchability or child marriage are seldom enforced. That is, there is a failure of the things that require the active cooperation of the masses. This cannot be accounted for solely by the lack of physical communications. Gandhi showed that despite the absence of roads and post offices it is possible to establish contact with the vast masses and mobilize them for action. But nowadays this spiritual rapport is missing; there is a vast gulf between the rulers and the ruled. This has serious implications. As long as there is no close contact between those at the top and those at the bottom, democracy in India has slender roots.


Copyright © 1959 by Arthur Bonner. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October, 1959; India's Masses: the Public That Can't Be Reached; Volume 204, No. 4; pages 48-51

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