April 5, 2001


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Saisuresh Sivaswamy

Holiday spirit

Any number of columnists have spewed verbiage on what ails India, and as is the case with any democratic, collective endeavour there has been no unanimity on the actual cause of what keeps us where we are -- on the periphery of the world's vision. To be pitchforked from the sidelines to anywhere near the outreaches of what passes for international centrestage, India has to embark on a Pokhran or react to attempts to redraw its boundaries, as happened in Kargil. Or have the minorities attacked.

Otherwise, India, a nation of one billion plus population doesn't matter for the rest of the world, never mind if we amount to four-fifths of the homosapiens populating earth. And for this sorry state, the one billion have only their backwardness to blame.

Columnists, analysts, various other experts have offered their treatise on why India remains backward, despite its innate richness, skillbase etc. And this ranges from the historic (wave of invasions etc), socio-cultural (the Hindu rate of growth), to the downright ridiculous (how can the brown-skinned ever be world-beaters?).

To such erudite theses, I feel the time has now to add my own contribution, even though I happen to be neither an analyst nor an expert. After all, isn't all theory tenable opinion?

The reason why we are where we are is that we as a nation give ourselves far too many holidays. Take just this week: Monday was Ram Navami, Thursday is Moharram, Friday is Mahavir Jayanti. Next week, there is Good Friday, followed by Ambedkar Jayanti on Saturday. And, this is not the first time that this has happened, every year hordes of government servants and bank employees take to the hillsides and other exotic locales as an obliging administration gives them a no doubt much deserving break from a hectic work schedule... Such a colourful assortment of holidays, pertaining to most if not all faiths can be possible only in a truly secular nation like ours, comrades Basu et al please note.

I can hear the critics puffing up their chests in indignation: What's wrong with holidays, what is this pinko turned saffron turned recidivist trying to advocate? But whoever said, or is trying to say that there is anything wrong with holidays? The point of contention here is the *number * of holidays, for beyond a reasonable point this could be in detriment to the national interest.

I quote from a report on which, although almost a year old, is still relevant, if anything the figures mentioned in it could only have gone up. The All India Association of Industries last year estimated that the loss to the national exchequer on account of indiscriminate holidays amounted to, hold your breath, Rs 27 billion. That figure looks innocuous, so let me put it in a manner that Indians are familiar with in scam-filled times: Rs 2700 crores. I could break it down further, but since I am not sure how many '0's go into a crore, I will leave it at that. But, believe me, Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha can work wonders if he has this kind of amount at his disposal when he is drawing up his Union Budget. And if the nation had access to this phenomenal sum for developmental works hopefully, there is no way India can be kept behind, one billion plus population or two...

Day after day we bemoan the fact that the nation doesn't have funds at its disposal, yet collectively we ensure that such a sum is wasted without a second thought. Is that a sign of responsible citizenry?

Forget the benighted citizens, sometimes even those who should know better tend to fritter away their larger responsibility in pursuit of more populist concerns. For instance, why can't the Government of India, as the deciding authority, consult captains of industry, trade unions, representatives of the large unorganised sector like restaurant workers, taxi and auto drivers as to the impact of holidays on trade and industry, and evolve an acceptable number of such compulsory shutdowns?

Even the Supreme Court, which could have shown the way as it has done all along by its interpretation of legislations and issuance of verdicts, two years ago refused to uphold the view that compulsory closure of industries on national holidays and festivals violated one's fundamental right to carry on trade and business.

The tragedy with India, as Vishwanath Pratap Singh demonstrated so eloquently when he inked in another to the already long list of national holidays, is that the administration, instead of trying to govern ably, is keen to leave its imprint on posterity with asinine actions, little realising that the golden reigns lauded in history books were golden because the rulers did not once lose sight of the public weal, in fact their prime concern was the common wellbeing.

The problem with India, as I see it, is we have far too many holidays. But the solution to this is not to banish all holidays barring Independence and Republic Days, that is neither possible in a multi-religious society like ours, nor does it really celebrate our rich diversity.

What I think the government should do is identify one holiday from each major religious community, which will be the only holidays during the year. Top of my head, it will mean Diwali (Hindu), Buddha Jayanthi (Buddhism), Mahavir Jayanti (Jainism), Guru Nanak Jayanti (Sikhism), Id ul Fitr (Muslim) and Christmas (Christianity). The rest of the plethora of religious holidays Indians are so keen on celebrating can be declared as optional holidays, certainly not national holidays. And no, August 15 and January 26 certainly won't be holidays; as truly Indian days, what better way to show our love for the nation by working on those days?

Even here, there's a caveat. The government should not cut down the number of holidays through executive action, but through legislative action. For the Supreme Court had declared, in the case referred to above, that 'if the legislature, in exercise of its plenary power under Article 245 of the Constitution, proceeds to enact a law, those who will be affected... cannot legally raise a grievance that before the law was made, they should have been given an opportunity of hearing'.

Now, all that this will take is a little bit of political consensus, and some balls on the part of the government. That, of course, is easier said than had.

Saisuresh Sivaswamy

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