My Wish list on India’s Independence Day

 

What do I wish for my country on its Independence day ( Aug 15th ?). Well, a few things come to mind – as I look at my country from the outside. Having lived outside the country for over 4 yrs now, I have firmly established myself as a Non-Resident Indian ( some would say Non-Reliable Indian), and  I am have become an outsider who has an insider’s perspective.

I believe it is a good position to be in, to analyse and look at a few problems which seem so entrenched and deep-rooted. We seem to have achieved much, since the British left the sub-continent in 1947, but we seem to have also squandered a lot too.

Here is my wish-list for my country and its people :

  1. End of poverty – It is only this year that I read a report on BBC website that there are more poor people in India than in the entire continent of Africa. Shocking, troubling and depressing indeed. But, there is also a great deal of resilience, dignity and courage in the Indian people.

I wish that there is enough for everyone to eat, basic healthcare for all and opportunities for advancement for those who want to progress socially and economically.

As a group of people, we Indians somehow carry on, plod through the problems and face life and what it offers us. This character seems to have evolved over thousands of years and generations of changes, both cultural as well as political. I firmly believe that gargantuan though this seems, the problem of income distribution is not just economic, but also cultural,  political and philosophical.With the right mix of politics and cultural reforms, we can achieve the end of poverty.  Amartya Sen, who has been infamously called the “Mother Teresa” of Economics has said rather philosophically “While I am interested both in economics and in philosophy, the union of my interests in the two fields far exceeds their intersection”. This perspective is also important to understand and de-construct India’s reality.

2. Equal rights and opportunities : When we speak of liberalisation, globalisation and growth, we are indulging in a very middle-class speak, which leaves out millions and millions of those who are not part of the “India”story. I think there has to be greater inclusion and also awareness that there is a huge segment of the population who are not able to participate in this story and who are denied equal rights, simply because of where they come from.

This should translate from just high moral principles in the Constitution to ground realities. We may use a combination of market economic as well as public sector initiatives to achieve this. Liberalisation since the 90s has achieved much progress, but I believe this must be tempered and integrated into the entire fabric of Indian society so the Indian economy doesn’t follow the trends of Wall street alone

3.End of bigoty and narrowmindedness : Regionalism, petty-politics of language, religion and caste is the bane of our society. While the multi-party system in some ways guarantees that there is diversity of opinion and participation by all strata of society and of all castes and creeds, I believe the amount of bigotry and narrow-mindedness that exists in Indian society is truly astonishing.

A dear friend told me recently that he thought the only way to get rid of this would have been to have Soviet style communism for a few decades. While that would seem rather strong remedy for the malady, perhaps some such drastic measure ( though democratic) would purge us of our narrow thinking.

4. Less corruption and greater civil society participation – With the brouhaha of Corruption and Lokpal having caught the imagination of our public and the media, which is ever-ready to pounce on any new issue that comes to the fore, there is also a need to look at practical measures to ensure there is less corruption. Passing a bill or law will not change much, unless there is a shift in consciousness of people.

Reform of the Administrative apparatus and also the civil services is a good idea. The Civil servants I have interacted with over the past few months ( who come to the Maxwell school of Citizenship) for training also point towards this fact. The pay-commission and its recommendations have apparently made life better for them, and the incentive to be “honest” is greater now. But, unless there is a more professional approach to public service, there is bound to be nepotism and red-tapism.

Platitudes and sloganeering may not really help much.

5. Regional peace – This is truly the Elephant in the room. With Pakistan at the brink of a social revolution, there is an opportunity for India to seal the deal with the neighbor that we have had trouble over the last few decades.

It is encouraging that we had talks with the Foreign minister of Pakistan a few weeks ago and there is at least a momentum to engage and discuss contentious issues. This should be kept up and both countries should ensure there is regional peace.

f there is something to be learnt from history, perhaps it is that when two neighbours fight, it is someone else who gains. Peace may not be the sexiest or cool thing to pursue, and it may even mean a few compromises; but diplomacy and politics is all about compromises and we should not forget this as we work towards becoming a regional super-power.

MENASA ?

The Acronym dictionary defines MENASA as – Middle East, North Africa and South Asia.

When you google it, MENSA throws up. Not a very smart acronym, this one. But try harder, and you will find the definition for it.

A new acronym. A fad. A smart ( and pretentious) way to club together groups of countries ? Well, that depends on the way one looks at it. But to me, this makes sense.

According to a few important reports that came out recently, this region will define the future of the world – the key argument being one of demographics and also resources. The one that i read in some depth is the one by the management consulting firm Mc Kinsey. If one observes the ongoings in the MENA region, with the Arab Spring, this seems like a far-stretched argument.

But let’s take the long-term view. Social change takes decades, not months and weeks ( often the time-span that traditional media uses as a frame of reference).

The arguments for MENASA can be summed up as :

A recent report by Mc Kinsey pointed to the demographics as well as the wealth of human resources in the region – which are full of entrepreneurial zeal ( refer:http://www.menasaforum.ae/partners/official/files/Perspectives%20on%20MENASA.PDF).

The region is set to generate nine per cent of the world’s total growth in gross domestic product in the next 10 years, up from its current five per cent share. And during this period it is slated to achieve real growth rates of six to seven per cent. The western economies have stopped growing or are experiencing deceleration, while the economies of MENASA continue to grow.

McKinsey estimates cumulative financial inflows from hydrocarbon exports in these countries could exceed $9trn by 2020.

India, Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey account for 92 per cent of the region’s population.

We also see that the widespread use of English in India, Pakistan and Egypt and French in Morocco, coupled with these countries’ significant pool of skilled people and the relatively low labour costs, make them attractive destinations for companies looking to outsource support functions and value-added services such as legal and accounting services. This is already happening in a big way and will continue to grow in the years to come.

But isn’t all of this fantastical thinking, in the absence of democratic institutions and also recourse to law and strong contractual systems ? This is a valid argument, especially when one reads of businesses suffering due to lack of transparency as well as red-tapism and corruption.

But with the growth in economies and greater demand for transparency and better systems, things are bound to change. In India, there is the Right to Information Act ( RTI), which is being implemented in several states, and has made the government more accountable.

Similarly, the Arab spring is bound to bring in better systems, which are more robust and responsive to the citizen’s needs.

I am inclined to believe that this region is where the action is. Despite the funny acronym, there is reason to believe that this is where the future lies.