Friday, August 26, 2005

Counting people

Most of us have many different ideas or models or beliefs of how India should develop. Most of us will agree on some things (clean water, clean air, sanitation, paved roads, electricity, schooling for all), but might differ on whether you need more or less flyovers, more or less public transport, more or less state intervention in various areas…the list is endless.

We also have different ideas on India’s population (how can this large population be made an asset to the nation? How can population growth be reduced? Do we need to reduce it, and if so, by how much? What should the government do? Do we compare ourselves with China?). Another endless list of possibilities.

People, and their worth.

Ashwin Mahesh has an excellent Op-Ed in Indiatogether. Some excerpts:

” I was reminded of this reading an article in the Indian Express earlier this summer by one of India's best-known CEOs. Coming home to Bangalore from Beijing, Nandan Nilekani despaired of the crumbling state of his hometown, and wondered if it would be too much to wish for an eight lane highway from the airport, and a special safe passage for bicycles, instead of the years-late flyovers holding us up without end. Certainly, that's doable, and knowing this is doable must make his despair all the more striking. I endure the years-late flyover he referred to daily myself, and am certain that Bangalore is years away from having a safe path for alternate commuters.

But what, really, is the problem? Is it infrastructure? Or could it be that there's something else to be answered along the way to getting there from here? The more compelling question, it seems to me, is not whether India can achieve the standards of prosperity - and accompanying comfort in public spaces - seen in the West, but whether this transformation is to be achieved by the application of technological and scientific capability, or by diligently tackling the great social and economic divides of our society…..”
(emphasis mine).

Risks and skepticism:

The risk, as we are seeing daily, is that various theories of how such progress can be attained tend to distract us from such a straightforward consideration. Such distractions are inevitable, but how we respond to them need not be. So, if the government proposes a grand housing plan with Rs 17,000 allocated for each new house, we can be skeptical enough to ask if that's really workable. If the government builds one high school for every six primary schools, we can ask ourselves if that's really going to put all the children in school up to graduation. If water is to be privatised, we can ask ourselves how those who cannot afford to pay fit into our dreams of progress…..”

Basic education:
” Decades of pursuing policies to ‘uplift’ the weaker sections have produced the world’s most illiterate democracy. This was always predictable, because the education of the poor was separated at birth from the education of the middle and upper classes. From that founding mistake, the rest of the litany was assured………….If, instead, we had set out to ask how every Indian child could be educated by a system equally accessible to all, we might have done a lot better. Indeed, the experience of most East Asian nations – whose economic gains we yearn for, but whose social policies in pursuit of those gains we rarely examine – proves just this.

Read the full piece here.

The article does make you stop and think beyond the usual dreams, and about what kind of progress India needs.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Sunil for the link. Nice article.

We've got to stop looking at yardsticks, and start looking at the people whose lives would be touched by measuring up to them.
So true! When will people realise this? After the recent floods, many people were worried about the repustation of Bombay. And so many instances of yardstick-love.

Off-topic, I have a Rock-eating death monkey that can defeat your Porride-eating monkey:D

Michael Higgins said...

Hi Sunil
I think Ashwin Mahesh should ask this simple question, "What is the business of India?" If the answer is to help the poor, then India will have plenty of poor to help forever. If the business of India is business, then the poor will soon have opportunties that their parents never had. The problem in India, more than anything, is that India is not a place that a businessman would want to do business.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Sunil for the link.

Michael -- I think the poor in India cannot afford to have your kind of confidence: If the business of India is business, then the poor will soon have opportunties that their parents never had. I'm not saying that you are wrong. You could well be right, but what if you are wrong? So it looks as if the best thing to do for India is to have its business as business, same time not forgetting the business of helping the poor directly. Why can't there be a middle ground?

Veena said...

Sunil - Thanks! Hadn't seen this article.

Michael - I think I agree with Anand. If the business of India is only business, its quite possible that by the time the said opportunities are available, we would have lost a good percentage of our population. So lets try to do both and see what we come up with some kind of a middle way for now.

Sunil said...

Vishnu, curse your rock-eating death monkey. Kasa was the best :-((

Michael, creating opportunities for commerce and business need not mean not helping the poor (how you define help might differ). So, i guess i don't understand your comment.

Anand, Veena, thanks for your comments. I don't know, but I would like to see change in India without too many people going through too much pain in the process. Call me foolish if you want to......:-)

PK said...

A friend on his firstever visit abroad to SE Asia wondered why we are not as prosperous and living condition here is not as good as in S.E.Asia.Think about it and you will realise that all the countries in S.E.Asia had dictatorships for long stretch.Democrasies will have this different views for almost anything including what should be menu for lunch! we will argue and form committes,sub commitees, GOM,Cabinet comm. of senior ministers, then send it to Environmental committee,then to decide whether its fits into CMP,Social justice etc etc etc.if IA/AI take 12 yrs to decide what aircrafts to buy, you know where we are heading.In dictatorship decision good or bad is taken quickly( he doesnt know how long he will rule),if its good as in S.E asia you win .If its bad as in Sub sahara africa you are in dumps. but its not like trishanku condition that we have. everything is in perpetual 'hold'.

Sunil said...

Actually, i'll disagree with you on this one pk. This is a popular urban legend, if anything. The dictatorships in S.Asia are Pakistan, Nepal (of sorts, with a civil war with maoists going on), Burma (the worst kind), and Bhutan (of sorts, but the king is increasingly democratizing the country, and if he contests elections, will win with a 90% mandate). Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan are in far worse shape than we can imagine.

In S.E. Asia, Thailand is a multi-party democracy, and Malaysia is increasingly democratic. These are the two success stories. Cambodia and Vietnam (which has single party rule only) are mired in poverty. Indonesia isn't doing all that well.....and the people there have the same living conditions as those in India. Singapore is a strange contrast........though under single-person rule (for all practical purposes), it cannot be used as an example or for comparison, because it is (a) a city state, (b) the system is EXTREMELY meritocratic, unlike any dictatorship, and (c) There is substantial freedom of expression, which is not a characteristic of most dictatorships. Farther East, there's China, which is this wierd system of communism with a capitalistic touch, and Japan and South Korea (extremely democratic, and extremely successful by any standard). North Korea is on the other hand a dictatorship.....and in pretty bad shape by any standard of measurement. So, i'm waiting to see the examples of "good dictatorship" you speak of.

The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

A really interesting article... like you i'm an optimist and would really like to see India realise all the potential that she has.

PK said...

You missed the point.All these countries had Dictatorship for a long stretch, and even today they move back and forth between Democracy,Semi Democracy.Malayasia,Indonesia are classic example. Point is A decision taken by A Dictator(with or witout his cronies help) and by democratically elected Govt with multiple level of decision making have 50:50 chance of being right(beneficial) or completelly wrong(Disasterous).Reason being one cant predict what would be the situation after 5-10-15 yrs as there are too many variables.In India we just debate each and every issue for such a long time that it looses relevance.

Sunil said...

pk.....actually, I don't think I missed the point at all. Yes, Malaysia and Indonesia had dictatorship like situations for a long time. There has been some progress in Malaysia, but a large number of problems as well. Indonesia isn't really better off than India. So, I completely fail to see how dictatorships have actually been helpful. Yes, a dictator can take an instant decision, but there's no reason to think democracies cannot make effective decisions. There's just too much overwhelming evidence against that! Indian democracy of course has grown in its own way.....and some times the debates go on for ever. But in reality, most of what the government does is not even known to a majority of the people. There is no right to information, nor is there ANY public debate on any issue of national importance. Think about it...have you ever actually participated in debates on road construction, railways, defense, food or any thing else? Or do you just hear about some thing after it has been passed? That is a problem of the bureaucracy or political establishment, not due to excessive debate! Any way....the lives of the people are the lives of the people. Decisions affect all of them. It cant be right if a person arbitarily decides on directions to go....its shooting in the dark.

And i'm yet to see an example of a dictatorship (in your comments) that is actually successful.........

Sunil said...

pk......that said, there is something about the luck of the draw.

Here's an article by Atanu, well worth a read.