Indian Decade

India and Independence

India marks Independence Day today. But vast numbers of urban poor have little to celebrate.

Today marks the 63rd anniversary of India's independence. It inevitably involves fine speeches from the prime minister and other officials about the many challenges that India still faces despite its myriad accomplishments since 1947. Sadly, a small but significant experience this week underscored the hollowness of the very notion of independence for a disproportionate segment of India's population–its urban poor.

I have the privilege this autumn of working in New Delhi as a researcher at a major national think tank while on sabbatical from my university. Before starting work each morning, I drop off my daughter at her school. Earlier this week, our Indian-made, air-conditioned, chauffer-driven Maruti Esteem stopped at a major crossing. A small, unkempt child with dishevelled hair showed up near my window and pathetically proffered two plastic Indian tricolour flags for purchase. I had no particular need or use for the flags. However, I went ahead and purchased them at the asking price.

As the light changed and we entered the crawl of New Delhi's justly notorious traffic I was forced to think of the irony of the situation. The child who sold me the two flags couldn’t have been much more than the age of my 7-year-old daughter. While she, thanks to an accident of birth, gets to attend what is probably the finest school in New Delhi, innumerable children of a comparable age are reduced to selling replicas of India's national flag in anticipation of Independence Day.

What will this day with its high-minded speeches, its pomp and ceremony and its nationalist fervour mean for those who are left selling flags for a living on New Delhi's mean and traffic clogged streets? When will independent India finally address the most crying needs of its poor and dispossessed?