‘National’ vs. Nation

Can there conceivably be any conflict between 'national' and the nation? Sounds both implausible and impossible. Nevertheless, growing evidence suggests that not all policies, programmes, schemes or laws that are 'national' in nature or nomenclature necessarily serve the nation's holistic interests.

My thought process in this direction was triggered by the column I wrote last fortnight (Right the wrongs in RTE; January 20, 2013). Right to Education, which was enacted as a national law in 2010, has indeed a noble aim: to ensure free and compulsory education for children between 6 and 14. However, as revealed by Pratham's Annual Status of Education Report 2012, there is an alarming mismatch between RTE's quantitative and qualitative outcomes, proving once again that enrolment alone cannot guarantee education. One reason for this is the absurd "no-exam" firmaan issued by the lawmakers and educational bureaucrats at the national level, which has led to a sharp drop in teaching standards in government-run schools in many states.

This isn't an isolated example. New Delhi believes it knows what's best for the nation. Be it education, healthcare, sanitation, employment, livelihood creation, skill development and so on, New Delhi thinks that the best way to fix a problem is to start a grand national scheme, with a standard one-size-fits-all framework of rules and guidelines. It is contemptuously dismissive of the fact that India is a vast nation with immense diversities. It also habitually disregards the reality that the people and institutions in our states, districts, tehsils and villages have a wealth of knowledge and experience of their own to deal with myriad developmental challenges.

Nothing illustrates the disruptive nature of some of the national initiatives than the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme—another case of outcome subverting intention. Gandhiji, a passionate votary of 'gram swaraj', would have been horrified at knowing that there is a highly centralised, bureaucratised 'national' scheme in his name promising guaranteed (partial) employment in rural areas. He would have certainly disapproved of the current design of the scheme, which has disrupted and corrupted the labour market in rural India without creating productive and sustainably employment- generating assets. Because of MNREGS, small and medium farmers in many parts of rural India are finding it difficult to get farm workers, especially for time-critical sowing and harvesting operations. This has made agriculture a riskier and less remunerative vocation, forcing a growing number of kisans to want to quit farming altogether. To make matters worse, MNREGS is backed by an act of Parliament, which obviates the scope for state governments and panchayats to introduce their own necessary flexibilities and reforms into its design and implementation.

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