Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Five Revolutions To A New India

The world seems to be discovering India. At least, the cityboys are. The talk is that India is that 'emerging' nation now, which will put China behind. My taxi driver says so, one may assert. Besides, the Indian growth rate, compared to the anemic European and North American ones, looks stellar.

There are two reasons about this excitement regarding India. The first is Demography. After all, China is ageing, and India is full of young people. Lots of commentators, Nandan Nilkeni among them, talks glowingly about the 'demographic dividend'. The idea is that with so many young hands to work, this is indeed India's moment to lose. The second factor, though a bit cliched, is democracy. Indian democracy is a crowded, chaotic circus, but it is still the country's most crucial asset against the social discord that is bound to happen when a country changes course so dramatically. While the Chinese migrant labour may have to suffer in silence, only to rebel with force and finality (as they did in Ming times, forcing the emperor to commit suicide), their Indian counterparts will surely show up with Rajpath, in their force and in their colours, and on Prime Time TV. It isn't the most efficient spectacle, but it is still a viable way to let out the steam and resolve the disputes.

But, India has not achieved much so far. Those growth rates are not a reason to celebrate, because we started from such dire poverty. In fact, growth rates are a wrong measure for progress for a country like India, where the measure should be against what it could be or should be, not what it was. Much of the India story so far was about unshackling itself from colonial mindset, which gave us a paternalist state and an education system that divides. However, this is just the start and the full fare of freedom hasn't even begun.

So, what is this full fare of freedom, which will allow us to achieve dramatic rates of growth and prosperity (without capping our ambition by what China regularly achieves, a 10% growth of GDP)? I have five ideas to offer.

First, we need a revolution in governance. In the newly independent India 60 years back, the leaders justifiably worried about the centrifugal forces threatening the union. Many of those issues have now been settled. Language isn't a dead issue, but we have learnt to live with multi-lingualism. The rise of Dalits have been the strongest bond of India's national unity, as here emerged a group of people with a strong identity independent of religion and language, a pure modern political identity tied to our nation. So, one can be reasonably assured that even without an intrusive Delhi-based government, the country will retain its unity. And, therefore, it is time for a sweeping devolution, returning the power to the state governments, and beyond, to local governments at every level. The biggest problem in India today is that the government is too far from people. Resolving this will open up complete new possibilities and release the energies of people yet again.

Second, we need a revolution in education. Our paternalist government, modelled after the colonial state, could only imagine a colonial, top-down education system. But as the demographic pressure builds up, it is increasingly clear that the education system is failing us. Instead of riding the waves of demographic possibilities like the mid twentieth century United States, our failing schools and colleges may lead us to squander our advantage, and let the power of people turn on us, in the self-destructive manner as it did in Soviet Russia in the dying years of Communism. We need a complete revolution in the classroom, shaking the structure thoroughly and throwing away the deadwood, unshackling the entrepreneurial energy and letting the successful companies in India set up their own schools and colleges to build a new generation of workers who will work for them. We must make it easy, and not more difficult, for entrepreneurs to invest in Education, facilitate social enterprises, use efficiency enhancing technology and build new centres of educational research.

Third, we need an enterprise revolution. We have been babus so far. The whole idea of progress rested on giant enterprises and people finding their cubicle graves for eternity. That has to change, if this new, energised generation has to realize its promise. The governments should step back and let go, which they invariably will when governance returns to people and the aspirations, too remote to be understood so far, felt first hand in the corridors of power. The government's role should transform from a regulator of the enterprise to a facilitator. In this, we must look to China, whose success stories and stellar growth rates are more due to the enterprise revolution than it is given credit for. One can argue that the average Chinese tend to be more enterprising than average Indian, but that's all nonsense. India has been stifled by a generation of city-workers, the Babus, who wanted to subsist on a monthly pay cheque and lost bearings if they were expected to take the responsibility of their own. Today, a new generation of young people are streaming into the cities from the villages, just as in England two hundred years back, and whether or not we are ready for an Industrial revolution, time for an Enterprise revolution has come.

Fourth, we need a Language revolution. All 'revolutions' are controversial, but surely this is going to be the mother of all the revolutions in India. From day one, right in the constituent assembly, we could not decide on a language, reaching a compromise solution to use English for a number of years before moving wholesale to Hindi. But that consensus is largely forgotten today, if it was ever accepted: Today, we are moving towards a broken society with an unified urban culture based on English and its variants, and various local cultures with local languages. The gap is widening, and an Indian English Language, which incorporates some mixed words and usually a formal tone, is firmly in place. The development of India's future, all this we are talking about, is being dreamt and spoken of, in this language. However, this leaves a large section of our population disenfranchised, and in fact, this is the precise segment of the population providing us with the demographic bounce. This, therefore, is not an out-of-place suggestion: We need to develop an Indian language. Just as Malaysia and Indonesia have done, or a parallel could be drawn with the simplified Mandarin developed after the Cultural Revolution, which helped spread literacy and unified the country around a single language platform. This 'Indian' language can be based on any language, even English, as long as this is stripped down of rhetoric and a common minimum basis, like 'Globish', could be agreed.

Finally, India needs a revolution of self-image. For a long time, we have defined ourselves by our past: What we used to be. That is useful, but now a break must be made. India is as much a historical entity as much an imagined future, and the balance must tilt towards what we could be. This means all the other four revolutions, but more. We have lived with insecurities deep down in our culture, a sense of lost glory haunted us all the time. This defined how India and Indians appeared to the outsiders, a touch arrogant, often defensive, and mostly withdrawn. As if we wanted others to recognize us for what we are, before we engage with them, and was hurt when we were largely ignored. This defined all our external relationships, particularly in our neighbourhood. We treated Bangladesh and Nepal and Sri Lanka as our little brothers, and in turn and justifiably, our big brotherly attitude was deplored. We need to move forward and think afresh now, and understand that in the affairs of nations, only some differences matter: Our self-appointed guardianship of our region is resented and should be abandoned. And, we also have to understand that this is good for us: A self-image based on what we would be. Gandhi already said - be the change you want to see in the world - and he was speaking about our self-image: It is time we start building a respectful, ethical world around us, one relationship at a time.

I am an optimist. I see a future of progress. I do not see India dominating that future, because national domination are passe. I see a future shared among all nations of the world, one based on respect, ethics and mutual cooperation. I dream of an India participating in building that future: I wish for the revolutions which will make this happen.

1 comment:

kochuthresiamma p j said...

very interesting, tho i cannot fully agree with you on many counts.

on revolution in education, yes. india needs it. an option that's out there but is not being exploited is the community college concept instead of university educationas the only option for post secondry edcn. too long an issue to deal with here, but to some extent it'll impart local community an opportunity to develop skills required for the local industry or agriculture or whatever the local wealth generatng activity. tis will prevent the xodus to the cities.

i think india needs to totally transform its mode of development. growth rate must substantially factor in the BPL. all other figures are false. disenfranchising one huge section of the population for 'development'will break up the country.

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