A Visit to the UN Information Center (Delhi, Day Three)

Damn this was a long day. As if the visit to PRAVAH and the CDWS wasn’t enough, we spent the afternoon in a conference room at the UNIC in Delhi, where a government official whose name I was too tired to write down, along with his Anglican cohort Gavin, talked to us directly about the UN Millennium Goals and how they relate to India in the present tense. Outside the the UNIC building I saw some public art, graffiti I guess it was, that I absolutely loved.

“We have the cash, we have the science, we have the medicine, we have no excuse.” I used to date a girl who would have thought this was pretty cool. It’s funny because on my application for this program, I quoted Bono in one of my essays. One of his lyrics, “The world needs a big hug,” stuck with me, and I really feel that it’s true.

India has until 2015 to reach the eight goals for developing nations outlined by the UN. Our host at the UNIC told us that this is an “exciting time for India,” that the country is letting go of its “ancient cyclical history” and is enjoying a “galloping GDP.” Ok, sounds good. So why is that man on the street brushing his teeth with a twig and pissing into oncoming traffic while his wife goes from car to car motioning for food and money donations while holding their malnourished baby in her arms? No one doubts that there is a long road ahead.

You know, karma is the relationship between action and results, in a long-term sense. Our hosts at the UNIC made sure to indicate that the focus of India’s federal government in Delhi is shifting from long-term to short-term goals, which is certainly a step in the right direction. As the head honcho, an instantly charming official sporting wiry glasses and a deep blue kurta, pointed out, India is undergoing a philosophical change in its domestic policy. Conscious of cyclical failures, of history repeating itself to nausea as India’s ever-deepening problems become more and more unbearable, the government is trying to control the issues in a linear fashion, moving forward one small step at a time.

The UNIC in Delhi not only oversees development efforts in India but also in Bhutan, a country whose “happiness index” is widely known to be off the charts. The director who met with pointed out that Bharat (India) is “two countries sharing one geography.” In other words there are stark divisions between rich and poor, inclusion and exclusion, making governance complex. He mentioned that the Indian way is to “wait and watch,” which is an impediment to progress. Favoring a more proactive approach, he championed the issue of access. There must be equity of resources among the classes, which the UNIC sees as a “critical gateway” to acheiving the MDG’s.

We learned, as we delved deeper into discussion and statistics, that the goals most likely will not be met by 2015.  The UN’s primary goal is to aid governance, rather than implement development projects, as it has previously done. In this way member governments must account for progress. India’s government has more than 20 agency funds and programs associated with achieving the MDG’s.

Poverty eradication, which is of paramount importance, is a persistent problem in Southern Asia, although signs of progress are becoming clear in other areas. One of the UNIC spokesmen said the goal is eradication, but the process is alleviation. Again, small steps will hopefully add up to big solutions. South Asia has the highest rate of malnutrition among children, simply due to lack of food as families cannot cover the rising prices of produce. Hunger spiked in 2009, and progress was stymied in most other developing regions as well, due to the impact of the global economic crisis. As of now 237 million people (22% of the Indian population) are considered “food insecure,” i.e. they cannot afford the daily caloric intake required for human sustenance, leaving one of every four children underweight.

As for goal #2, universal primary education, our hosts said that the goal will be met by 2015. However, the quality of education is dubious. I would learn much more about the reasons for this on later site visits.

Progress related to women’s rights, health and empowerment is still lagging in many respects. South Asia in general has the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world behind Sub-Saharan Africa. Lower enrollment rates for girls persist in primary schools across the subcontinent. Fewer than 1/5 of all jobs outside of agriculture are held by women. This, couple with what we heard at the CDWS, indicates a grave lack of opportunities for women in India. We learned the phrase “missing millions,” used to refer to the unborn girl children in this country, victims of abortion, infanticide and abandonment. Though there are laws in place to stop such heinous actions, it seems that the law cannot combat societal practice. One idea to put curb these crimes is to track every pregnancy and to place a fixed deposit in banks upon the birth of the female child to be accessed when she reaches maturity.

As for environmental sustainability, many types of pollution–air, water, noise–are becoming increasingly problematic. The water problem in particular is something I’ve heard a lot about so far. Scarcity is a huge factor, and sanitation isn’t much better. The sheer scale of the country is a major issue making the problems complicated to solve, especially in remote areas.

The word Hindi word lokpal was used to describe the system of accountability needed to reach the goals. Transparency of operations is crucial. Government jobs are the most coveted in India. The represent power and security. Once you’re in, you’re in for life. I have many stories and figures to share about this topic, and the topic of “leakage” or corruption, in other posts.

Perhaps the most poignant statement of the day came from the kurta-donning directing (I really hope I can figure out his name) who wished us well on our month-long journey through India, which he termed as “a complex journey toward different truths.” He explained that, in fact, we are on two journeys here: one in which we learn what we never knew before, and another in which we unlearn everything we thought we knew. Though sounding almost Rumsfeldian in nature, I’ll take those ideas to heart.

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