Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

The country is undergoing multiple transitions. Despite these many revolutions within the revolution, we sometimes seem reluctant, even afraid, to confront change, and seek comfort in a familiar, even if unsatisfactory, past.

The Challenge of Multiple Transitions in India


By B G Verghese

Triplicane Cultural Academy, Chennai, Diamond Jubilee Lecture, 13 July, 2013

"We are never contemporary with our present. History advances in disguise. It appears on stage wearing the mask of the preceding scene….". So the French philosopher, Regis Debray tells us in “Revolution in the Revolution”. It is not uncommon to fall behind contemporary reality, let alone become prisoners of the past. This obscures ground truths and prevents timely engagement with emerging situations, thus entailing a heavy opportunity cost of delay. India is in danger of falling prey to the insidious disease of Nostalgia.

The country is undergoing multiple transitions. Despite these many revolutions within the revolution, we sometimes seem reluctant, even afraid, to confront change, and seek comfort in a familiar, even if unsatisfactory, past. Sixty-six years after Independence, India is not the country it was in 1947. Our geography has remained more or less static since Partition, but our demography has changed drastically, altering all ratios such as mouths to feed, jobs to be created, housing needs, and natural resources to share, especially land and water.

Nothing is the same. Yet we all too often hear nostalgic references to the past, especially with reference to the environment.

The exponential growth of numbers has not merely been quantitative but qualitative. At the commencement of the First Five Plan in 1950, maybe no more than 50 million elite lived in a modernising, industrialising and largely urban India while the vast majority of 300 million others resided in the traditional and largely agrarian recesses of Bharat. With education, communications, development and social change, maybe 500 million live in "India" today while over 700 million inhabit "Bharat". Millions graduate from Bharat to India every year, but especially at general elections that are greatly empowering political and social mega-convocations.

There is however another qualitative difference to be discerned. The country's enormous diversity lends it astonishing richness and hybrid vigour. This has gradually telescoped into a larger sense of Indianness without necessarily affecting pride in ancient identities and heritage. But divergent starting points and varied trajectories continue to project a complex social mosaic that is by no means uniform in pattern or texture. Thus it is difficult to define emerging India in simple categories despite visible convergences in language, dress, food habits, marriage partnerships, manners and customs. Globalisation has added a further dimension to domestic standards and values.

This upwelling from below of newly empowered cohorts has necessarily resulted in new political formations giving rise to coalitions as the alternative to former single-party dominance. This is a natural progression and the fact that intelligent persons should baulk at the rise of local and regional parties betrays a deplorable lack of understanding of the nation's social dynamics. This phenomenon will maybe take 20 to 30 years to spend itself before a natural process of social aggregation lays the basis for the rise once more of a few dominant political parties.

Nonetheless, India is no longer an agrarian society though a slight majority still lives in the countryside. Manufactures contribute more to GDP than farming, with services accounting for the largest share. Agriculture can no longer absorb growing numbers as farm holdings shrink under population pressure. Greater agricultural production has to come from increased productivity and better land and water management. In another 20 years India will be a predominantly urban society, which it already is in some regions. All children should be in school by then. But there will be no demographic dividend unless jobs and skills multiply.

Yet, witness the agitation by teachers at Delhi University as it moves to broaden its curriculum and the knowledge base of its alumni by moving to a superior four-year degree course! The status quo is safe, change unsettling. That is not the best outlook for a nation that wants to progress. But then Hindi has the same words both for today and tomorrow as for yesterday and the day before!

The urban configuration will change. Mega-city peripheries will cease to be noisome shanty towns sheltering Malthusian refugees. Instead, rural growth centres will multiply as hubs of small and tiny enterprises servicing the countryside and supplying the cities. Urban India will also spawn satellite towns, green cities along radial axes with rapid connectivity. This is already happening. The east-west railway corridor, with planned industrial hubs alongside from Punjab to Mumbai via Delhi and Ahmedabad is the first manifestation of this new ribbon architecture. A national grid of super-highways will perform a similar role. Here is a huge new challenge for well planned urbanisation, with sanitation as a central concern.

All this will happen within a democratic framework. India uniquely among post- colonial nations deliberately determined that it would make full-fledged parliamentary democracy the instrument of economic and social transformation and poverty alleviation rather than its end product. The world, and even some in India, scoffed and wondered about what would be the result of this brash experiment, standing history on its head. They have remained to marvel. The Indian elections are a wonder of the world with a vibrant electorate larger and more diverse than that of all of Europe, including Russia, and North America combined.

This deliberate choice was founded in the belief that democracy alone would keep together an extraordinarily plural society of many ancient nations and cultures within a new states-nation or commonwealth of nation states. India's democracy, with all its flaws and wrinkles, remains a beacon of light and hope, glowing stronger for the grim interlude of the Emergency in 1975.

The ever new cohorts graduating into India from Bharat are a disparate and impatient lot having spent generations in servitude to caste and poverty, awaiting empowerment and an investment of dignity. Nehru asked Indians in 1947 to tighten their belts so as sooner to uplift the next generation. Today, none is prepared to wait any further having stood in the queue for decades only to see progress falter and the corrupt and privileged siphon away the gains. Hence the anger and restlessness inherent in the huge mass mobilisation behind sundry causes or icons-of-the-day like Anna Hazare, or periodic social explosions. Naipaul's million mutinies have mutated to a billion mutinies, now largely organised rather than atomised protests.

None can get away with the empty promise made to Oliver Twist of "jam tomorrow". Yet few seem to recognise that Time is a most precious but wasting resource. Critics or busybodies, as many of them are, demand more time and still more time for "democratic" consultation and review in the market place instead of getting on smartly with the job through due constitutional process.

Southern and western India have made a demographic transition. Parts of Northern India are getting there, but with a huge gender bias evident in the deplorable indices of female foeticide even as incomes rise. The Eastern region, alas, remains a laggard poverty belt marked by distress migration that has generated inter-regional tensions. The nation needs to add 10 million jobs per annum, or 100 million jobs over the next decade, just to keep pace with the annual growth in the labour force commensurate with population increase. That is a stupendous task by any yardstick, anywhere. Failure can only result in bread riots and social upheavals that will only further retard progress.

Where are these jobs to come from? National Sample Survey studies indicate dwindling numbers among mainline farmers. Marginal farmers are leasing in land where they can to make up more economic holdings or selling their land and, with the landless, migrating to the big city in search of gainful employment. Studies done around the time of the Singur-Nano controversy in Bengal suggested that the first priority from sale of land was education of the children to give them a better chance in life and, thereafter, investment in self-employment. A grave disservice has been done by freezing khadi and village industries, a brilliant Gandhian strategy, into a frozen "ism". This has, with some exceptions, resulted in spawning subsidised sweat shops whereas, given an infusion of technological, managerial and marketing upgrades, they could become a thriving and productive source of off-farm rural and small town employment.

The goal of a "socialistic pattern of society" aimed at ensuring public-sector control over the "commanding heights of the economy". This has shown diminishing returns. Market reforms that trigger the talent and energy of entrepreneurship and innovation are the order of the day in an inevitably globalising economy, with both its promise and perils. But dead habit and fear of relaxing administrative and political control inhibits reform, even of the police and criminal justice system where patronage remains paramount at the cost of good and honest governance.

Small may certainly be beautiful, but big is not necessarily bad and, given economies of scale, is generally more efficient and competitive. There is danger in mindless giganticism but little merit in smallness for its own sake. Hence mergers and acquisitions need not be frowned upon.

To return to the challenge of vastly expanding employment, we argued the case for a modernising tiny and small scale industrial sector. However, this is not going to be enough to stimulate and sustain high growth and exports so essential to generate the wherewithal to invest in uplifting the poor and alleviating poverty sooner than otherwise. For this the country needs to expand and upgrade its limited, creaking infrastructure - the Railways, highways, power plants, ports, telecommunications, irrigation systems, cities, water supply and sanitation systems, and educational and health facilities. This in turn is going to require further and more efficient exploitation of natural resources such as land, water, minerals and forests, while not ignoring the need for conservation and sustainability. The key consideration here is balance.

There is the popular myth that nature is unchanging and that the original creation was ideal. Far from it. Nature is fickle. Continents have been separated; rivers have changed their course and lands have built up by seismic sedimentation or eroded or flooded by natural events. Man has felled mountains, drained swamps, cleared the jungle and cultivated and irrigated barren land. Much of the Lower Himalaya, the European and Japanese Alps, and the Appalachian Mountains are covered by regenerated, not pristine forests. If man has despoiled nature, caused species loss and paid the price of his folly, his genius has equally created new landscapes and species. True, his folly has led to polluting the land, air and water. Yet he has created better environments while poverty has been the worst polluter. So touch-me-not is not nature's supreme axiom. Prudence and balance are.

Like all development since the beginning of time, this requires changing land use patterns through land acquisition. With colonial principles of eminent domain yielding to participative development, resident communities legitimately claim stakeholder rights apart from fair, even generous, compensation and resettlement for involuntary displacement. India has been on a learning curve in these matters and past default cannot be reason to veto on-going and future development through stubborn defiance or insistence on totally unreasonable demands.

It is routine to hear demands of land-for-land as compensation. There is less and less land available or, in some cases, none at all. Equally, people increasingly want to get off the land to better their economic and cultural lives. Yet the cry remains "land for land" which, translated, means imprisoning people in a past from which they seek escape and emancipation.

It is as sad to see project clearance all too often become a long drawn out battle with final approval taking five, six, eight or ten years to obtain after second thoughts, litigation, retrospective application of regulatory laws, delays in framing of rules, violent protests, divergent interpretation of agreements, much back and forth on safety and impacts, consequent project reviews and so forth.

The giant 12 million tonne POSCO steel project, with mines, transport links and a captive port to be built with South Korean collaboration in Orissa has been pending for years on grounds of displacement, compensation, and scepticism about local employment and ancillary arrangements. Land acquisition for it has just been completed, after eight years! Costs have meanwhile multiplied and benefits postponed. Who gains? In the case of the twin Vedanta bauxite mine-cum-alumina project, continued production at the current one-million tonne alumina plant at Lanjigarh, Orissa, is threatened by delayed clearances for bauxite supply even as the licence to mine bauxite at the nearby Niyamgiri site has been cancelled.

The controversy in this case extends to alleged violation of tribal rights, potential ecological damage and going ahead with further construction in breach of conditional approvals "in principle". The charge is made by social and ecological activists, both official and from civil society. Vedanta contests these charges. The matter is in court. The tribal population that was hitherto the beneficiary of Vedanta's mandated corporate social responsibility activity for the past six years is now bereft of that godsend. The tribes have been abandoned to the gods in the name of protecting their rights and sacred landscape. There is none to mourn this tangible tribal loss though Vedanta probably accomplished more tribal welfare in six years than delivered by the Orissa government in sixty. Who cares?

There has always been an anti-nuclear and nuclear power lobby in India. Following the tsunami that damaged the Fukushima power plant in Japan in 2011, local protestors, joined by ideologues, have continued their highly emotional agitation with reinforced zeal against the Kudankulum project, being built with Russian collaboration. Plant failure in tsunami-like situations, possible radiation leaks, loss of livelihoods, damage to fisheries by discharge into the ocean of return coolant water outflows at temperatures of up to seven degrees Celsius, and less than generous R&R have been variously pleaded. These fears and allegations have been carefully examined and answered and safety and monitoring regulations have been tightened. Comparisons with Fukishima have been shown to be mistaken. Yet the agitation has long continued, delaying commissioning of the first of four 1000 MW units by over a year in a power-starved state like Tamil Nadu. Fortunately, the project has moved forward and Kudankulam power will shortly feed into the grid.

Much of Uttarakhand has been declared a sacred eco-system from which further storage dams are banned. Likewise, storages above the foothills have been barred in Arunachal on grounds of seismicity and harming lower-basin hydrology. And this at a time when entire resident populations and pilgrims are imperilled and impoverished by cloudbursts, debris dam breaks and recurrent floods even as the much reviled Tehri Dam on the Bhagirathi mitigated the Uttarakhand disaster.

Displacement caused by development, especially dams, is constantly cited. Yet who knows that 30 to 40 million distress migrants, families included, tramp the country annually in search of any seasonal work they can find for lack of development. Project displaced persons benefit from planned R&R. But distress migrants get nothing. They are "nowhere people" without civic rights left to fend for themselves, human flotsam and jetsam. Who cares?

Left wing extremism, so-called, is attributed to tribal neglect and exploitation, most cruelly by corporate mining interests that plunder the land. Approximately 80 to 90 per cent of India's mineral, forest and headwater wealth (south of the Himalaya) is located in Fifth Schedule Areas that are constitutionally empowered to provide tribal people a protective shield to develop at their own pace and in accordance with their own genius under the guardianship of Governors. The Fifth Schedule has however long been disregarded, even discarded, without a murmur of protest or concern at this gross violation of the human and constitutional rights of the tribal people. What has replaced it is bureaucratic and contractor raj where exploitation and indignity reign. It is in this situation that the Maoists assume the role of Robin Hoods as they murderously execute their master plan to overthrow the state through revolutionary violence, using hapless tribals as cannon fodder.

True, corporate bodies and even the state have been guilty of savaging the land and environment in the name of mining to extract the coal, iron ore, bauxite, and harness the water and other natural resources required to build infrastructure and ensure high growth. Many nations have experienced an age of robber barons before these same people turned philanthropists. Learning from this experience, there is increasingly in place a new framework of law and administrative safeguards, vigilant NGOs and an alert media to monitor compliance and ensure against excesses. The Supreme Court's Samatha judgement of 1997 in an Andhra mining case laid out a scheme of corporate social responsibility for leaseholders on tribal lands that has become a benchmark today. We must build on that.

Corporate houses today are not necessarily part of the problem but must be seen as part of the solution. Though undoubtedly driven by the profit motive, they have the monetary, technological, managerial and marketing skills the State lacks to get things done. Tribal people do not wish to live in the wilderness as museum specimens but aspire to a better and more modern life. We cannot force "progress" on them but, equally, to deny them the progress to which they aspire would be the height of arrogance and social suppression.

Gandhi termed honestly earned wealth a trust. Corporate social responsibility corresponds to that ideal of Trusteeship. Let us create legal frameworks for this transition.

Can high growth and more growth continue forever? As it is, the competition for natural resources is becoming unsustainable. The answer lies in paying heed to Gandhi's aphorism: "There is enough for everybody's need, but not for everybody's greed". It is one thing to lead a life of reasonable comfort and dignity and quite another to indulge in extravagance, vulgarity and waste. Bhutan strives to maximise Gross National Happiness instead of Gross National Product. A blue ribband commission under Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz, set up by former President Sarkozy of France after the Wall Street-led global financial meltdown in 2009-10, also suggested abandoning GDP as the ultimate measure of success. Instead it urged adoption of a new human welfare index that included yardsticks like culture, leisure, health and a pollution-free atmosphere.

Should India and China aspire to ape American living standards, the world would not be able to sustain the burden. Why then even try? The aim should be balanced growth with more public consumption than wasteful private consumption: public transport, public housing and so on. As much as 26 percent of Delhi is under paved streets but shrinking sidewalks and unregulated private vehicular increase has clogged roads and pavements, increased traffic snarls and road rage, slowed down vehicular speeds, added to the fuel costs of idling and enhanced travel time and aggravated pollution. Free roadside parking for a SUV takes more space than given to a jhuggi dweller on exorbitant illicit rentals. Pedestrianisation, higher vehicular taxes, congestion and time of day fees and better public transport should be the aim if we are to reduce automobile pressure. This would call for new town and spatial planning models.

Panchayati raj or decentralised local governance would enhance participation and accountability and smaller states and districts would be a logical corollary making for more effective cooperative federalism.

India must move not merely with but ahead of the times to be contemporary with the present. With systemic and structural reform, it needs also to move more purposefully on a third front – building Fraternity. Dr Ambedkar always said that without Fraternity, Liberty and Equality would not be sustainable. Events have proven him right. Most of our current ills – caste and gender discrimination, communal stress, Maoism, language and identity differences, - stem from derogation of Fraternity, a larger idea than secularism that has usurped its place. Outdated social structures inhibit progress and change. National integration demands equal opportunity and cultural freedom and not a straitjacket framework based on political theology such as Hindutva or any other narrow particularism.

India is in transition.We cannot grasp the future if we remain trapped in the past. Beware the perils of Nostalgia.

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