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Whose Progress?

My wife and I travelled to India in October to visit relatives and friends. We have been there several times in the past 45 years and clearly, changes over that period are dramatic. Moving around parts of Delhi or hundreds of other cities throughout the subcontinent, the ambience appears to be more and more like that of cities anywhere else in the world. For visitors and for the growing middle class in India, life has become much more comfortable than it was four decades ago.

In the 70s, power was erratic, the water supply inadequate in quantity and quality and medical care rudimentary. There were limited opportunities for good education, and getting around meant cycle rickshaws, packed ramshackle buses or slow trains. The necessities and basic conveniences that we count on being available were absent or in short supply.

Fast forward to the present – this Asian tiger has provided these essentials for many of her citizens and for her visitors. The changes are the result of a push for unfettered development, and after a short visit and superficial look there are clear suggestions of impressive progress. But look under the surface.

Start with the power supply – these days there seem to be few problems in hotels and restaurants and in the homes of the well-off middle class population. But this is not because the public system satisfies the needs of the whole country. Rather it is because of the widespread use of private generators and invertors to fill in the still-frequent gaps when power fails. Likewise, in most cities the water supply is erratic and inadequate, and water quality continues to be below standard. Again, the well-to-do can provide for themselves by building cisterns and pumps to store and deliver water when it is available. Many have acquired personal reverse osmosis and UV-irradiation systems to provide purified drinking water within the home.

While public schools languish under inadequate funding, large classes, and poorly-trained teachers, families with means can send their children to world-class private schools. And while most public hospitals are crowded, poorly equipped and served by overworked staff, there are private hospitals of such high standard that they have established a lucrative business in medical tourism.

The disparities in public services are not likely to disappear soon. With the politically powerful upper echelon of society well-served, they have limited incentive to put pressure on the public purse and to redirect limited financial resources to infrastructure that supports the whole community.

This is not a diatribe against India (a country that I love) or any other place. Rather it is a plea, that here and worldwide, we examine and critique the widespread and growing idea that the private sector and individual initiative can bring true progress to all of society.  A commonly-held view of the virtues of low taxes now dominates the political scene in Canada and this has stifled politicians from developing and promoting visions of a better society.

“Centuries ago, John Calvin spoke of the government’s obligation to ensure that the basic needs (he called them ‘rights’) of the poor are met.”* Still standing and as relevant as ever is that biblical obligation of rulers to provide justice for the population entrusted to them. The Kingdom of God is a community and the King’s message is clear -  Do unto others….Take up your cross... Die to self and live... Give to Caesar what is his... anyone who takes away your coat, give him your shirt as well…sell all that you own and distribute the money

*Henry Hollstege and Bob Ritsema, The Banner, March 2014, p 37

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