Tuesday, November 01, 2016

The Hollow Society: One Conversation India Needs To Have

India is the fastest growing major economy, is the persistent claim. There may be some statistical truth (which some may consider an oxymoron) in the statement, Indians are definitely one of the most optimistic lot in the planet. For most of them, lives have got better within a lifetime, and they look out to the world - at least an world without Pakistan - with confidence. And, this dominates the political conversation in India - hope trumps fear, with pun intended - and the message of better days transcend political sloganeering to turn into everyday faith.

Being the doubter, therefore, is to fall out of step. Questioning the great achievements of the country is quickly pounced upon, and even reasonable discussions can get one branded as an enemy of the people. And, indeed, in this - the unquestioning faith in the India - the intractable regional differences that dogged India for most of its modern existence seem, for the first time perhaps, wither away. For once, the unquestioning hope of a Bengali clerk resonate with the pragmatic faith of a Gujrati trader or of a Tamil engineer. The hope that India will develop, and that it will claim its rightful place among nations, seem to unite the country, or at least, its striving middle classes.

It should be a great moment, this unity of hope! However, I fear that it is too ephemeral, and this conversation reflects not how strong the Indian identity is, but rather how hollow. And, before one gets to the all-too-familiar objections that talking about poverty and illiteracy is cliche, one must make the point that they come up, predictably and all too often, because they exist and they are getting worse. The hope that India has finally awaken and is ready to achieve its manifest destiny, apart from being a borrowed and ill-fitting euphemism, is superficial and perhaps unrealisable.

And, it is superficial and becoming even more distant not because India is destined to be in poverty by some divine reason, but rather because the political chest-thumping about development, and the accompanying shouting down of all forms of reasonable doubt, distract us from the structural issues that India faces. The current formula, of, for and by the Middle Class, that a domestic consumption led growth would completely transform the Indian economy is grossly unrealistic. Besides, other corollaries of the development agenda - the 'reform' to unleash animal spirits backed by infrastructure growth - espoused not just by the current government but also the previous ones, ignore some of the foundational issues of how a country like India can turn around. And, this ignored issues - Health and Education - are fast eroding away any gains India has made in the past couple of decades.

So, in short, I claim that India is facing a full fledged crisis of Health and Education. This is not what India, and Indians, want to talk about, but this is real, all pervasive and going to eat away the gains the economy may have made. The Prime Minister boasts, statistically correctly, that India will have one of the youngest population in the world, and will supply most of world's workers in the coming decades. But, this is a hollow claim like the other, as despite its youth, India's workforce is generally unhealthy and poorly educated.

Somehow, this issue is compartmentalised in discussions about India's development. Talking about Health and Education makes one look like a naysayer. Government officials, policy pundits and even business executives will rather talk about other issues - Labour Reform, Infrastructure or Easy Credits - than these issues. Even the well-meaning thinks that these are just too difficult and just too long term.

But why is it so? The reason simply is that these are the two sectors where India's shadow economy is. These are two sectors flush with black money and cash investments, and indeed, because of that, the mafia that dominates these sectors can control India's political discussions. The Modi government can even get Foreign Direct Investment approved for defence sector, despite India's ongoing paranoia about the ill intentions of Western powers and business houses with regard to its sovereignty, but it can not move an inch regarding any kind of innovation in health and education. Powerful vested interests, capable of buying out the political system with cash, keep the lid on these conversations at every level of the economy.

India's education in particular is one of the least liberalised, least open and rapidly deteriorating. It is controlled by black money and regulated by mostly corrupt bodies. One of the past presidents of Indian Medical Council was even caught taking a straightforward cash bribe from a medical school - for permitting an expansion of their seat capacity illegally (so that the school itself can 'sell' more seats for more cash) - and was convicted. The South Indian Education Conglomerates have blocked, for almost twenty years now, any bill allowing Foreign Education in the country, keeping their stronghold on the engineering and medical education, spoiling an entire generation with poor quality education and causing a jobs crisis and poor competitiveness which India is poised to face now. It is they who kept the conversation out of the media, generally controlling the discussion through their appointed talking heads and by control of the policy-making.

That a country can progress by tweaking policy but not addressing its health and education issues is a delusion of Titanic proportion (nowhere else arranging deck chairs on a sinking ship is more apt). And, yet, some conversations are now possible, for two different reasons in these two different sectors.

For Health, this is about technology - and the ability to disrupt the market through the creation of low-cost public health options, as well as things such as telemedicine. It is a market poised for disruption, as there is a vast majority of people who can not afford India's private hospitals and the public infrastructure is falling apart. But it is also important to recognise part of India's Health problem is India's education problem, the poor quality of health education, poor quality of medical schools and poor quality of jobs and lifestyle all bundled together. This is reaching a crisis proportion - young people dropping dead has now become far too common - and Indian middle class is facing an epidemic of heart and stress related diseases.

For Education, it is a longer shot, but some conversation is facilitated by rapidly changing nature of work and India's loss of competitiveness in the world market. This is now creating an unemployment problem - a quarter of India's engineers find a job after degree - which, in turn, is reducing the rates of profit. As with the historical experience of other protected markets, breach happens not when a market is very profitable and lot of outside players want to get in, but rather when the profits fall and the controlling powers of entrenched interests fall, and Indian Educational institutions may be rapidly entering that moment. 



No comments:

Popular Posts

How To Live

"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

Last Words

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

Creative Commons License

AddThis