The following essay was written for India Future of Change Competition last year.
A local train journey from ‘Bandra’ to ‘Andheri’ in Mumbai early last year was enough to remind me that not only is there a big cultural, regional and linguistic diversity in India but also a much more deep rooted economic diversity. Mumbai’s local trains alone bring out the social divide which exists in India today but sadly which isn’t the focus of any of our national policies. Nor does it affect most of us; as such a way of life has been ingrained and meshed into our lives from times immemorial. During my journey on that local train in Mumbai that day, I saw people from different strata of society walking alongside each other without any qualms. What I saw was, a multinational company’s elite travelling shoulder to shoulder with a manufacturing laborer. I saw an exquisite furnishing showroom by the station only to find a flea market next door. I saw small barely clad children running alongside the train only to get into their neighborhood situated next to the train tracks surrounded with muck and dirt. I saw the ubiquitous slum roofs only to find towering sky scrapers at the next station. Some thought and it doesn’t take long to figure that India’s eminent, lingering and mammoth problem has not had much administrative thought poured into it ever.
64 years since independence, but a major portion of the country still struggles for basic standards and decent conditions to live in. No less than 41% of India’s population lives on less than US$2 a day; this also makes India home to one third of the World’s poor. While one part of India makes strides in every sphere of development and sprints ahead, another part doesn’t even get to eat 2 meals a day. The general economic situation in today’s India is best represented by the current food crisis, while the major produce rots at the source only a part of the produce finds itself being completely utilized. Only a fraction of the produce garners all attention and adulation while the rotten are left to further decay. The need of the hour is to pay attention to the rot and prevent them from undeserving degradation. Similarly, it is very important and critical for every country to be inclusive and enable the downtrodden to be able to contribute to the country’s growth. Like controlled market regularization of costs would benefit not just the consumers; empowering the backward would help in spreading well-being to not just a few in country of a billion.
A country’s citizens are its assets which if not groomed properly can become the single reason for a countries downfall. Whether it is through crime, chaos, communism or unrest, a countries declension always finds it roots in its dis-satisfied citizens. It is the government’s responsibility to create opportunities for people, spread awareness and education and uplift the backward classes. But as the chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers puts it, “I don’t think anyone organization, whether it’s private or government, can tackle this issue. It calls for a new model of cooperation between public sector and private sector”. The challenge is to get the 2 facets of the country together on the same platform to discuss about the impending doom that looms large on India. The government which currently finds itself in a mesh of moral turmoil and ethnic dilemma needs to rise above the scams, corruption and communism, which come back each time in new avatars throwing it off guard and agenda. Most of the parliamentary sessions are driven by issues either of fraud, corruption, steep price rise or inflation. The government needs to be able to rise above the short term issues and current ills to find solutions to the hard hitting reality of India today: - ‘The growing divide between the rich and poor’. While India continues to grow and is projected to be the strongest contender for USA in the coming years, ironically one part of India still continues to struggle even for the basic amenities. While the rich are making global strides in academia, innovation and business, the poor keep getting sucked into a quick sand of abject poverty and destitution.
An inclusive society is a society where every section has equal opportunities to grow and succeed. The way forward seems an unending journey and a daunting task, but we need to begin somewhere. Every program starts with having a mandate and we need to get some discussion around inclusion in growth going as soon as possible before we find ourselves getting sucked into a whirlpool of destructive chain reactions. The first has to be revamping of India’s crumbling infrastructure. As more and more people migrate to cities in search of better standards of living and more opportunities, a greater degree of planning and design needs to go into the architecture and infrastructure of the our old as well as new cities. Not only do we need to make sure that more and more infrastructure industries come into existence but we also need to plan out our new cities with better systems and resources.
Investment in infrastructure will help the country be able to sustain the influx of people into its cities and also generate employment in those regions. Better infrastructure will lead to more foreign investment, more companies and more jobs. Also it paves the path for innovation, where more and more inventions can be realized. Quoting the example of China, where after the facelift of Beijing and Shanghai a few years back along with opening up of their policies lead to increased foreign investment and employment. The new infrastructure gave the existing companies opportunities to innovate and bring in more products into the market furthering employment. Also in general the quality of life increased not only just by the overall improvements and increased employment but also as the whole pulse of the country began to get more positive. It is time for India to realize the potential it has to improve in this sector and reap the benefits when there is so much buzz about India and foreign investors are waiting for opportunities to set up base in India.
We need to generate employment first to tackle the situation as is today, money creates money and growth creates more growth. We need drastic economic reforms to make it easier for investors to invest and be able to start their businesses in India from scratch. The question is why have we not been able to produce the likes of Mark Zukerberg given we have one of the largest youth populace who are also pitted to be among the world’s intellectual elites. The truth is that most of them do not get the right opportunities and exposure to look at the world holistically and innovate or ideate products capable enough to impact everyone worldwide. We have to be able to somehow include our youth in decision making to create opportunities pertinent to their needs and aspirations and bring about reforms which they want. The country needs to think from the perspective of what are the pain points that are holding back a talented generation. The foremost on my list of roadblocks to our success is India’s archaic economic policies. The last economic reforms took place 20 years ago. The world has moved on by leaps and bounds since then and it is time to rethink a new framework to encompass the requirements of modern day India. We have new challenges, industries and focus areas. However, only economic reforms without political and judicial changes will not stand a chance to benefit India. We need to create more transparent political and administrative systems allowing for full utilization of funds with minimal misappropriation. A well-known research study shows that no country has been able to achieve sustained income growth and poverty reduction without structural transformation. The Indian situation currently stands to be more challenging than anywhere else with its deep rooted corruption, a weak judiciary, undereducated politicians and ethnic diversity. We need reforms which empower backward sections of the society without getting biased against the other sections in each and every sphere but mainly education to start with. We are still following norms and rules formulated 64 years back during independence which stands to be obsolete and outmoded now. We need to relook at the criteria and our quota systems and reframe laws. Criterions keep getting added into the rule book but the existing criterions are never revisited and revised. We need to give the backward sections opportunities to growth but firstly we need citizens to be aware of those opportunities so that they are used and not misused and everyone stands a fair chance.
Education is definitely the first step we need to realize in order to ensure that every section of society is able to reap benefits of a developing nation completely and of all the opportunities it has to offer. Not only does education ensure inclusion where every section of the society can represent itself in national discussions but it also goes on to ensure that every section is able to utilize the opportunities to their fullest. It is a win-win situation where the citizens are elevated to better standards in every sphere but the country also is able to keep its growth trajectory on the positive. A small example of this would be Muhammad Yunus’s Microfinance framework, not only did it work very well for its beneficiaries but it also did wonders for the country by in large. We need such revolutionary ideas to improve the current situation we see our country in. But those ideas are only going to mature if we exactly know how to fit them in the larger context and make them work for larger communities. This is where education helps, it exposes individuals to the larger communities and problem faced by them and helps them to get out of their silo to make inclusive business models and inventions. The government needs to rethink their education policy and strategize a new vision for the future because certainly the as is scenario will be in shambles very soon.
Another alarming situation that expresses itself in statistics is of one-third of the population accounting for more than half of the GDP. Only a small percent of Indian population finds itself contributing a major chunk of the GDP from new emerging areas like Services (IT and ITES). So in affect what we are saying is the story of India Shinning is re-enforcing that ‘All that glitters is not gold’. In our case, the glitter is imported clients and call centers. As much as we need education to not only educate the rural population, but also the need of the hour is to create avenues for higher education and research. We need to become self-sufficient without having to depend on other economies for projects and work. Apart from education we need to focus on areas with the most concentration of our workforce, with the aim to help us to evenly distribute the currently lopsided GDP. Agriculture is still the single highest recruiter with 70% of our population earning its livelihood through it. However, the educated class still finds itself running away from anything to do with agriculture due to low compensation, little rewards and an uncool way of life. It is appalling to see how little value we attach with a profession in agriculture today which still is the backbone of the nation.
The need of the hour is to revamp all agriculture policies and incentivize involvement with it. We need more and more skilled work force and better technologies to take over are agriculture system which is in shambles as of today. Not only will more focus on agriculture make India more self-sufficient but it will gather more profit for the farmers and in turn fetch prosperity for the major part of India. We also need more awareness around techniques of farming and modern equipment. With a little use of technology India can increase its production from agriculture. The government should formulate policies and strategize ways to bring in more private investment in the agriculture sector. With more money and more control, the government can increase profits for itself, the farmer and the consumer. More and more people will be lured into the profession which drives India due to increased returns and lesser uncertainty attributed to modern techniques. The nation may begin to be a more prosperous place with the increased involvement of the elite in agriculture and predictable produce owing to more scientific and modern methods. If we can bring about even a little change in the way we look at agriculture, we can make an enormous difference to the happiness index of a majority of those 70% of Indians involved in that profession.
In addition to all the above the government has another daunting task too, to create opportunities for investment to generate the much needed funds whether it is for infrastructure, education, implementation of new policies or revamping the agricultural landscape. The government needs to very aggressively pursue this agenda in order to make India’s growth story inclusive. We will need to try different things and sticking to norms will not help. We have always seen a bottom up approach for any reform, which has been tried year over year. This time we need to think out of the box, a little different as the situation is a challenging one. One part of India has begun to not relate to the other part which has been left behind somewhere stuck in the same biases of thought and ideology. It is a scary situation with the feeling of alienation running strong in one part of India. If we are not able to address this situation at hand in the next couple of years, we may have the other side complaining and showing symptoms of estrangement like an orphan child. If we are not able to educate all our adolescents and youth even after years of education being on the nation’s top priority programs, we need to rethink the approach. Why not predict requirement of jobs and avenues where we need skilled labor and then go about training youth for those jobs. Make 3-5 year plans to set up industries and in the mean while educate and train youth. Also again to reiterate, the government needs to open up its policies to make it easier for industries and private companies to operate in smaller cities of India and help in creating an environment allowing them to set up plants and units in villages without resistance from the local populace. Education needs to be imparted and awareness campaigns run to empower locals to think on their own and not be swayed by vote bank politics. Such small things can eventually lead to the tipping of far reaching epidemics in such case no growth, deep rooted poverty, disillusion among people and increased crime.
Entrepreneurship is another avenue which promises inclusive growth in its entirety. India needs to look to train more and more leaders to take on daunting tasks and challenges of innovation and execution of new ideas. More and more local and indigenous industries need to come up in the near future which will not only generate employment but also empower the locals to make their own future and attain prosperity. But to make world class industries in every part of India, we need world class infrastructure in every part of India, world class work force in every part of India and a world class social and political regulation in every part of India. The question with which I had started was Is India Shinning or is it Whining?? Without doubts it is whining, irrespective of claims, media reports and comparisons with China. Even though India and China both happen to be very close on the transparency index for countries worldwide, in affect meaning that both countries are equally corrupt in their public dealings, China is definitely soaring and gliding more smoothly than we are. Like contrary to as in China, politicians who are found guilty of embezzlement are awarded a life sentence; whereas in India they continue to hold office and position until off course till they are voted out by electoral process. We have had names of so many serving politicians appear in cases of fraud, murder and corruption, but they continue to roam scot free. It is time for someone in the current government to take a stand. With sentiments running high against corruption and pro-growth, any individual and party taking firm action and un-wavering stand on these societal evils is definitely guaranteed to score brownie points with the people. Why not use such opportunities to play vote bank politics, a much more cleaner and constructive way to do so than the usually preferred mudslinging tactics?
May be the political intelligentsia feels that inclusive growth is all about inclusion of the corrupt, bad policies, utopian thoughts, slack actions and embittered citizens! But if we do have our eyes set on inclusion at every stage, the first step has to be Inclusive political participation. Hope we have our top business barons and techno tycoons listening. India being a democracy; the only way to tackle the problem is by reforms and policy making. Only through the active participation of individuals, who care about real issues facing our nation, we can hope to make a difference. A completely ideal society with full inclusive growth is a far-fetched dream but surely we can hope to do better than what we have done till now. We hope to make the transition from India whining to India Shinning but the question remains how soon?