Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Towards another lost generation?

My father was born just a few days before Independence Day in 1951. He belongs to the first post-independence generation- the generation which drew its first breath in independent India, which grew up amidst the idealism and high hopes of the Nehruvian era. His was also the generation which started working in the 70s- the period when ill conceived socialist policies consigned India to two decades of economic stagnation, the effects of which are being felt to this day.

Tragically, my father and many of his generation were in their forties when the Indian economy went into a state of transition in 90s. The painful transition, coupled with the Asian crisis in the late 90s derailed the careers of countless people from that generation. Many of them lost the way in the new world, the rest survived but never managed to reach the heights they promised to. Now in retirement, thousands of them simply do not have the life savings to comfortably take them through the last leg of their lives because their savings have been reduced to peanuts in these hyperinflationary times.

Nehru- The embodiment of an age of idealism

To me, my father and people of his age represent a lost generation that got the worst of both worlds. They spent most of their working lives in pre-liberalisation India and were too old to reap the benefits of the economic developments in the new century. The current economic climate could do something similar for the generation born in late 80s to early-mid 90s.

Over the last two years, the euphoria and optimism of the late 2000s have sudenly vanished. The vast majority of Indian companies have shelved new projects and put a freeze on recruitments, with the result that new jobs have suddenly dried up. The tragedy is that the current impasse is not due to a weakening economy, but on account of a paralysis of governance. Unable to build a consensus in its own ranks, much less with its coalition partners and hammered on all sides by charges of corruption of a magnitude unprecedented in Indian history, the Congress Government is tottering. Battling for mere survival, Dr. Manmohan Singh and co have failed to enact key reforms that India desperately needs if the high growth rates of recent years are to be sustained.

My greatest fear is that the current climate of political uncertainty could continue for a few more years to come. I see little possibility, if any, of the situation improving between now and 2014, when India goes to the polls. Should the Congress find itself unable to form a government then- a very real possibility- its hard to see who else can. The BJP at this point in time appears a pale shadow of the force it once was. Unless there is at least one party with no less than 120-150 members of parliament, chances of stability are nearly non-existent and its hard to see any party other than the Congress or BJP which can muster anything close to that number.

The epitome of a dysfunctional government

Should my worst fears come to pass, India could witness a period of political instability characterised by a succession of unstable coalitions, not unlike the late 90s. It will inevitable translate into an underperforming economy and a stagnant job market. In these ultra competitive times, a bad start to one's career could spell disaster. Thousands of people from the generation that was born in the late 80s and early 90s, who are at the beginning or will begin their careers in the coming years, are going to find it difficult to find good opportunities to start with.

A poor start to their careers will leave thousands of youngsters at a distinct disadvantage even after the economic scenario improves, with thousands of younger and fresher minds competing with them. Make no mistake, many of them might never recover from the wretched start to their careers, which will be through no fault of theirs.

The disaster can be averted if our political class can put the national cause ahead of narrow self interest. Sadly, history provides little cause for optimism.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

The Forgotten Land

Before we kick off today's discussion, I would like to make one small request: please write down the names of any ten Indian states and then scroll down.

Now that that you have jotted down those names, please check whether Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland or Sikkim appear anywhere on your list.

You can now imagine just how far the north-east region slips below the radar in the Indian mainland. It is and has always been a forgotten part of India. People from that region are invariably 'Chinky' or 'Chinese' for most Indians.  The fact that they look different from the rest of us and that their culture is completely different from ours pretty much marks them as foreigners for most of us. Its not as if most Indians are prejudiced against people from the north east, the problem is that we do not realise that region even exists.

North East India: The Forgotten Region

Under normal circumstances, would you ever imagine a group of people fleeing their livelihoods based on mere rumours? The fact that mere rumours of people from the north-east being targeted for violence triggered off a mass exodus shows just how deep the sense of discrimination and alienation runs among them, a fact that's hardly surprising given the extent of ignorance about the north east prevailing in India. A recent study by the North East India Image Managers showed that out of 600 professionals polled (from Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore), a staggering 87% could not even name all the states from the north east region.

In all fairness, I would hardly blame the people of India for their ignorance regarding the north east region. For whatever reason, news from the north east never makes its way to the mainstream media in India. Even an episode as colossal as the blockade of Manipur last year, which paralysed normal life and sent prices shooting through the roof in that state for a staggering 121 days, hardly received any serious coverage in the media. Imagine the uproar had something like that happened in say UP or Punjab.

The media is hardly alone in this respect. The north east is prominently missing even in popular culture. Apart from Dil Se (1998) and Tango Charlie (2006), I do not recollect a single Hindi movie which even featured the north east, unless you retreat more than four decades into the past to include Jewel Thief (1967). Why, I do not even recollect that region being mentioned in my history/ geography textbooks in school. It's almost as if the entire country is in a conspiracy of silence regarding that region. Is it any wonder that seperatist sentiment exists there?

The only way greater integration of the north east region with the rest of India  can be achieved is through greater awareness. For starters, the north east deserves a far more substantial space in our school syllabus, especially in subjects like Geography and History- I can hardly recollect reading anything beyond a passing mention about the region in my school days. It may also not be a bad idea to include folk tales from that region in the education syllabus- by no means a difficult or politically sensitive proposition.

Another means by which it can be achieved is by devoting greater space to the north east in popular culture. Given the number of Hindi movies that are filmed abroad, I don't see why a few of them are not filmed in that region. Surely, the beauty of that region will make for magnificent backdrops for scenes/ songs. It will not only gave the north east greater visibility, but also give a significant boost to tourism in that region. Its hard to think of a better or easier way to overcome the ignorance that exists in respect of that region in mainland India.

There is a need for greater cultural awareness regarding the north east. While my own knowledge is next to nothing, I do know for a fact that culturally it is an incredibly diverse region. A person from Shillong and a resident of Agartala have as much in common as person from Delhi has with someone in Stockholm. What's even worse is that most Indians regard women from the north east as being promiscuous, not realising that their culture is far more liberal than the conservative (not to mention repressive) mainland. I admittedly have little idea as to how this can be achieved, but someone ought to make our people understand that being from a different cultural milieu does not imply by any means that the woman is easily available.

Most importantly, the Indian media needs to devote greater attention to the north east region.  If we Indians expect people from the north east to consider themselves as Indians, we also have a responsibility to make them feel as if this country is theirs. The Hindi speaking heartland is but a part of India, not India itself. It is both ignorant and unfair to expect the entire country to conform to the socio-cultural mores of central India. We, the residents of the mainland, have a responsibility to understand and respect the culture of that region.

Those 'chinkies' are as Indian as us. Its about time we realised it.