An old proverb from the ancient India says in effect, “A good society is one in which the old plant trees under whose shade they will never sit.” The words bring beautiful images to mind. The Mango tree – now complete with a swing – planted by the grandfather who the little girl enjoying it never had the chance to meet. On the micro level, that might seem lovely, yet sentimental. But the point of the proverb is not just the conservation of a few trees or the gifts given to one family, as important as that is. The idea is that building and sustaining a society, a country, a civilization requires not just long-term thinking but unselfish behavior for the greater good. It requires not only the planting of trees, the building of material resources, and the creation of cultural institutions like temples but the wisdom and the care it takes not to burn those things whenever the need arises.
We live in a Tamil Nadu where this is no longer true.
Selfishness has become a part of the Indian psyche, and no generation of Indians or any other people have been free from it, personally or politically. But the decisions made by the previous DMK rule and the current political leadership are not merely personal or easily forgiven failings. Emptying treasuries and running up unprecedented state debt to increase government handouts today is a failure of our leadership politically and of our state culturally. We elected leaders who have sold the resources of the future- a future that does not belong to them- to finance the demands of increasingly greedy citizens today. Have we no respect for either the past or future?
There are circumstances where state debt is unavoidable. Infrastructure projects, new universities and at last resort, may be needed to conserve the nation (honoring the past and preserving the future). Far less dramatically and on a smaller scale, consider those like Kamarajar who spent long careers dedicated to planning the infrastructure of now great dams and industries, building universities, or advancing a field of science, all in the hopes that they were building something of great value to be not only enjoyed for themselves and their children, but to be improved upon for the enjoyment of generations hence. Those are all things worth investments of a person’s time and resources. As a nation, we might similarly decide that a large infrastructure project -the building of a new system of rails, pipelines, and bridges- would be worth an investment today that would not only pay off materially in the future, but would also leave a lasting and physically real gift for the next generation.
This is not what we are choosing to do today. In the amoral world of post-post-modernism, we are instead spending the resources of the future (the yet-to-be-earned tax dollars of future citizens) on the immediate wants of current citizens. Citizens who have already taken and squandered the resources given to them. In their desire to remain in power both the dravidian parties, are currently spending future revenues on the welfare state, providing TVs, Grinders, Mixers, Laptops and cell phones to today’s voters. While past generations would be appalled at this selfishness, Tamil Nadu leaders are instead betting on that selfishness, knowing that handouts can buy them votes, regardless of future consequences. Unfortunately, a majority of Tamil people have fallen into that trap.
And it is a difficult trap to escape. What can we do when the forest planted by our fore-bearers is gone, burned for the fires of those who have never planted a single tree? And what do we tell those who were not even here to see the flickering flames go out?