Sunday, 4 April 2010

India Today (2010)

I wrote an article on this very blog about contemporary India in mid 2007. It has been nearly three years since then and so eventful have those three years been, that it has in many ways felt like a lifetime. The world has changed dramatically between then and now. The western hemisphere which has dominated the rest of the world for centuries now is in the throes of the worst financial crisis in living memory at a time when aging populations threaten to send pension costs skyrocketing. On the other hand, countries like India and China have not just escaped the worst of the downturn, but have already started showing signs of growth.

In my previous article, written long before we had even heard the word 'subprime' in this part of the world, India was a rapidly growing economy with a promising future. Three years down the line, there is talk of India being a superpower in another generation and becoming the third biggest economy in the world by 2040 or so. Such predictions may or may not come to pass. The very fact that the possibility is being discussed in serious fora by itself attests to the giant strides India has made over the last generation or so. Importantly, between then and now the Government of India has taken up several crucial initiatives that could eventually change the history of India.

Three years on from my previous piece, I'm even more optmistic than I was in 2007. Last time, my optimism was founded on sentiment rather than logic, but three years down the line, I have far greater reasons for optimism and reason for that can be answered in two simple words: Rural India.

I'm not suggesting even for a moment that things are looking great in the hinterlands. Nevertheless, there's no gainsaying that the Government's initiatives have improved things and that there's a very real possibility that we could turn it around over the next few decades using a combination of economic empowerment and education.

Back in 2007 I had written about the appaling backwardness of rural India and how much needs to be done. That situation still remains largely true, but for one very significant difference: the Government of India's vision of inclusive growth, which was just talk back then, is now being addressed through vital policy initiatives. The NREGS was in its infancy back then. As it stands today, it has dramatically improved the lot of vast rural masses. True the implementation of the NREGS is questionable on many counts, but the fact remains that it has given money and purchasing power to millions who never had it before. Is it a coincidence that at a time when urban India was hit by a recession, rural India remained largely untouched?

Another extremely important policy inititative is the Government's thrust on infrastructure. Anyone who has been monitoring Government Policy would know how far the Government has gone to promote infrastruture: the promotion of the PPP model, massive fiscal incentives and easy borrowing norms for infrastructure companies. True, our bureaucracy still remains shockingly inefficient. The babus are the biggest drag on our economy, but even their inefficiency can only delay things, they can no longer torpedo India's growth the way they could once do.

Apart from all that are the education reforms that could one day truly create opportunities to come out of the trap of illiteracy and the consequent backwardness- the one misfortune that today befalls scores of millions of Indians. As it is, mid-day meals have done wonders in terms of bringing children back to school. Vocational training, one of the crucial initiatives of the HRD Ministry, could empower millions to take up productive jobs without necessarily having to go for a university degree, which as of today is the only avenue available to those who wish to study anything beyond school (let's face it: the vocational courses we have today are terribly behind time and totally redundant).

Women's reservations will bring out several women in public life. True, the first generation or two post-reservations will spawn scores of Rabri Devis, but that's surely not going to be a permanent state of affairs. Surely, women will start asserting themselves at some point in time. With education more easily available in the years to come, we are realistically looking at a more equitable society in the future. Importantly, by creating a reasonably educated voter base, India could create a genuine democracy: a society where voters are aware of the powers and understand their rights and responsibilities- one thing that lacks today.

Sounds wildly optimistic, doesn't it? I readily admit that it is perhaps part fantasy but at least there is reason to feel that it could indeed come to pass. Importantly, the systems are being put into place which, if properly used, could go a long way into resolving India's problems. I am under no illusion that we will manage to completely wipe out poverty or social inequality from our society. Nevertheless, if we can bring down the number of poor from 500-600 million to even 300-400 million, that itself would be a massive turnaround. If we could ensure that the millions of children who go to bed hungry can get two decent meals a day, we can claim to be a truly free country.

Perhaps we may one day manage to realise the ideals of the Nehruvian era, the dream that millions of Indians fought several generations for, which thousands laid their lives down for. God willing, we shall one day redeem our pledge very substantially, we will one day realise those ideals which gave our society its strength for centuries. God willing, we have finally embarked on that journey.

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