Friday, December 25, 2009

Daring to Dream beyond Third World!

It is the season for pundits to pontificate on the decade that has gone by and appear suitably magisterial while predicting what lies in the decade looming over the horizon. I never wanted to be a pundit and will never be able to appear magisterial. So, I will restrict myself to suggesting some basic mindset changes in our country if we are to finally discard the Third World tag by the end of 2019.

The mindset change that we need is to stop thinking of India as a former colony and a victim of global myriad conspiracies. We as a nation are becoming so prickly that it is oft en laughable. If George Bush signs a nuclear deal with India that is truly historic, we whine and crib and proclaim that America wants to colonise India. If China arm twists the World Bank into not giving a loan for a project in Arunanchal Pradesh, we see dark conspiracies and start revisiting 1962. Ditto for the Doha round of WTO, for the Copenhagen Round of climate control talks and permanent membership of the UN Security Council. As a nation, we must become less prickly and more practical in pursuit of national interests. And what is our long term national interest? Growing at 8% a year and finally eradicating poverty. For that, we need to reform ourselves; not blame America or China.

The second mindset change that we need urgently as a society is to become more generous and charitable. Sure, we have examples of generous individuals and institutions in India. But what they do is not even a patch on what greedy capitalists do in America. I humbly request each one of the 200 million middle class Indians to make a pledge that they will voluntarily contribute Rs.5,000 a year towards primary education of poor children. Believe me, if middle class individuals and corporate entities make and implement this pledge, India will eradicate illiteracy by 2019 – even if successive governments are inefficient and corrupt.

The third mindset change that we as a society and nation need to urgently implement is to raise our sense of civic pride and responsibility. I know it is a tired cliché, the one about the Indian keeping her home spotlessly clean while nonchalantly dumping garbage on the streets. Indians desperately need to learn more civic manners and work ethics. It is wonderful to gloat about the beauty of our chalta hai mindset, but we will never cross the threshold of Third World scorn unless we change our ways as citizens. And please don’t blame politicians for this; it is you and I who are squarely to blame.

The last and most urgent mindset change is related to our education system. Our education system is geared to mass manufacture unemployable morons who only know how to follow orders, rules or a set pattern of work. Innovation, free thinking and initiative are ruthlessly discouraged – by schools, by parents and by peers. India will always be condemned to be a Third World nation unless we change this.

Here is to fond hopes that at least half these mindset changes do happen in the next decade!


Friday, December 11, 2009

Smaller States can be Bigger problems

I was waiting for a flight the other day at Mumbai airport and watching a news channel. There was a Russian woman with her face covered who was on screen, plaintively saying how she was raped by an influential politician of Goa and how the cops there were doing everything possible to hush up the case. Then I recalled frequent stories of how Goa has now been completely hijacked by criminals, mafia and politicians who think committing a crime and getting away with it is their birthright. That story was followed by a report on widespread agitations in Andhra Pradesh for a separate state called Telengana. And then I thought about the long standing demand for smaller states in many regions. I thought of Gorkhaland to be carved out of West Bengal, of Harit Pradesh in Western U.P., of Vidharbha in Maharashtra, of Koshal in Orissa and many more.

In each case, citizens demanding a separate state have a seemingly fool proof logic: their needs and concerns are not addressed by existing state governments and only a ‘state’ of their own can lead to better development and delivery of developmental benefi ts. Th e logic is that there wouldn’t be so many farmer suicides in Vidharbha if it becomes a separate state; or that sugar cane farmers in Harit Pradesh would get a better deal than what they are currently getting from Lucknow. On the face of it, the logic appears impeccable. But will this work in reality? Will smaller states genuinely lead to better welfare outcomes for citizens; for better governance and stronger democracy?

I look at the examples of Jharkhand and Goa and shudder at what might happen in reality. You and I already know about how Goa is rapidly descending towards hell; it became a state back in 1986. Then, in 2000, three states called Chattisgarh, Uttarakhand and Jharkhand were created. Almost 10 years down the road, can anyone say with even an iota of confi dence that freeing Jharkhand from the clutches of Bihar has led to more prosperity for citizens? In fact, exactly the opposite seems to have happened. Chronic political instability and relentless Maoist violence have become the signature themes of the state. It is a unique state where an independent MLA became Chief Minister. And now, we read about how Jharkhand was plundered by the same politicians to the tune of about Rs.40 billion? Development, economic growth and a better life for poor tribals of the state have remained illusions. Chattisgarh and Uttarakhand have not performed as outrageously as Jharkhand; but they haven’t excelled either.

So how do people of Telengana expect a miracle in terms of growth, poverty eradication and prosperity once it becomes a state? And will the creation of Vidharbha lead to a stop in farmer suicides? My fear is that things might worsen. The problem in India is not about smaller states but pathetic governance. With pathetic governance persisting, creating smaller states will create more Jharkhands and Goas.

I know it is a tall order, but it is really time for citizens – and the media – to more aggressively confront the ruling class with hard questions. And keep asking those questions till governance improves. Creating smaller states will be like wishing away the real problem.