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October 20, 1999

BUDGET 1999-2000

The Rediff Business Special/Dr Mrityunjay B Athreya

In Defence of Civil Society

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There is increasing recognition of the concept and importance of civil society. All countries are realising the potential and limitations of the state on the one hand, and the corporate/business sector on the other.

Both have their uses, but are not enough to satisfy all the needs of the civil society, consisting broadly of the citizens and their formal and informal non-governmental organisations and groups.

Indeed, the civil society has to create and sustain governance mechanisms to supervise the state and business, and make them its servants, and not its masters. For this purpose, a variety of communication needs arise.

Physical Quality of Life

The primary concern of most citizens in any civil society is the achievement of a reasonable standard of physical quality of life. It is particularly more central in poorer societies like India, who are late entrants to the industrial revolution and economic growth.

The Indian peasants and farmers still rely substantially on the monsoon rains. Normal precipitation, droughts and floods need prediction and timely information and warning.

There is need for new input technologies. But there are also concerns about issues like terminator seeds.

Kargil has brought solidarity. But communication should mould public opinion in both India and Pakistan towards peace. The Haq Centre Report shows rising abject poverty in Pakistan -- up from 24 million in 1985, to 42 million now. Pakistan is spending more on the military, forcing India also to do so.

There is need for perspective and balance in discussions on Indian poverty. It probably will never be eliminated. The US President has advocated a $ 15 billion package to help the 14 per cent poor, about 36 millions, in America.

As the equity cult spreads, small investors and depositors need protection. The Securities and Exchange Board of India took steps recently to repay about 5,000 small holders of a failed mutual fund. The Reserve Bank of India, the Company Law Board and other regulators need both critique and appreciation.

In this era of globalisation, very distant factors, in remote parts of the world, will continue to affect all. There may be an asymmetry. The opportunities may accrue more to the rich. The threats may affect the poor more. So there is a need to forewarn about developments in the World Trade Organisation, regional blocks and major country policies. The civil society inputs should influence India's stance and demands in the Millennium Round of negotiations on world trade (scheduled to be held in Seattle in November).

Even at an eight per cent rate of GNP (GNP = gross national product) growth for 30 years, India may only reach the per capita income of Thailand today, according to a CII study. So, we should communicate the message of simple, healthy, lifestyles. High industrial growth can also be an ecological disaster, given India's high population. People should rely on renewable resources such as biomass and rainwater harvesting.

Author Umberto Eco considers agriculture a greater invention than electricity and the chip, for saving human civilisation.

There is much to do on PQL. The Human Development Report 1999 of Karnataka shows that even in that supposedly, relatively more advanced, non-'Bimaru' state, the three parameters of longevity, education and income, are quite low. (Bimaru = Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh).


India has most of the structures and institutional framework of a parliamentary democracy. But its governance could become an "elective dictatorship", as Lord Hailsham feared, even for Britain, in his 1975 Reith Lectures, on the BBC. Indeed, it did in the UK for parts of the 1980s. In India, it has oscillated, since the untimely death of Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1966, between an authoritarian regime and less stable coalitions. We need to improve the spirit of governance.

There is a need to build up advocacy from below, and by intellectuals and the media, for state and central government agencies to do more for the poor, in a sustained manner.

The public should be informed to elect leaders like Nelson Mandela, who said "Retirement (from politics and office) is like being out of jail again." He echoes Mahatma Gandhi and Loknayak Jaya Prakash Narayan in their stress on lok neeti, the politics of the people, over raaj neeti, the politics of the state.

Queen Elizabeth-II pay has been frozen The political leaders and the bureaucracy must become more cost conscious. Administrative expenditure gobbles up more than 80 per cent of programme funds. British public opinion has brought a pay freeze even for their Queen. The royal family are now expected to travel by public air and rail.

There is need for purposive governance. There has been general approval of the recent "caretaker government" taking many necessary decisions. Recently, three Cabinet committees met and took mega decisions, on the same day, on telecom, divestment and restructuring. This needed non-party political coverage.

Will many countries, including some parts of India, become ungovernable? Brian Atwood, the outgoing US-AID chief, regrets that the industrial countries are growing "shamelessly rich". The poor are falling way behind. The ratio of wealth of rich to poor has gone up from 9 to 1 in 1900 to 65 to 1 in 1998. He fears more war, terrorism, migration and ecodamage.

Do some of our politicians believe in the saying --- "Far better to reign in hell, that to serve in heaven"? Is there a vested interested in poverty, backwardness and fatalism? Communication should promote self-governance from the village upwards, thrift and other self-help groups, assertion, and making the state a servant of the people.


While roti, kapda and makaan (food, clothing and shelter) are basic, and legal civil liberty is necessary, these are not sufficient for a high, total quality of life. The preservation enrichment and enjoyment of indigenous and national cultures is essential for the soul of man.

Encourage innovation, rather than just imitation of the richer countries. Theo Mbeki, South Africa's second president, speaks of a renaissance. "No longer a European outpost." How long will India be "an Anglo Saxon outpost"?

Re-examine all traditional values and attitudes. Retain only those which are wholesome in the current context. For example, restore gender justice, by cherishing the woman and the girl-child; remove religious, caste, regional and other inter-group animosities.

Discourage violence in children and in the neighbourhood. Prevent the gun culture. The US is a standing example of how difficult it is to get out of it, even with the best communication technology, infrastructure and reach.

Arnab Chatterji of the J P Institute has challenged Amartya Sen's assumption of "neutrality" in cultural exchanges between rich and poor nations. There is asymmetry; and consequent hazards of destruction or emasculation of local cultures, and the imposition of a global monoculture.

Crime is also going global. The UN Human Development Report 1999 estimates it as the fourth largest sector of the world economy. It amounted to $ 1.6 trillion, higher than the UK GDP of $ 1.2 trillion.

Children need some protection from the harmful fare on the Internet and television. In the US, something called the V-chip is being used as a filter. A Kaiser Foundation study finds that 77 per cent of parents want to use it. The Centre for Media Education has disseminated the US Television Parental Guidelines 1997. There seems to be an endless cycle of technology, consumption, temptation, law, loophole, ingenuity and so on.


Satellite television is increasing its enormous reach in India, the Asian region, the global ethnic Indian and South Asian community, and, indeed, the whole world. Sun TV, beginning with Tamil, has added channels in Malayalam, Kannada and Telugu. Zee, beginning with English and Hindi, has just announced a channel in Marathi. Star, coming in with English, has found merit in adding Hindi. Doordarshan has been responding to competition.

The government has thrown open 140 FM radio channels, in 40 cities. Despite the onset of television and multi-media, the radio holds its own. I find myself spending more time with the wireless than with the screen.

Andy Grove, co-founder and chairman, Intel, feels that the print media may become "dinosaurs in a cyber age". He predicts that "on-line news will change the economics of the media industry".

The Internet, like the telephone earlier, can be put to several positive uses. One of these is to set up helpline sites to counsel people to avoid harmful addictions, domestic violence, etc.

There are a wide array of regional language newspapers, journals and magazines. There is increasing sophistication in terms of both broad spectrum publications, as well as highly focussed, niche newsletters and other organs.

The reach of landline and cellular telephone is rising. It will grow exponentially if the government fully implements the restructuring model of the Athreya Committee on Telecom Reforms, 1991, whereby government will focus on policy; the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India will handle regulation; and all service operations will be in the competitive market place.


The civil society gets bombarded with certain kinds of political party and commercial communication. A relatively smaller part of the society gets an overload. A larger part does not get enough. Even to the extent it does, its absorption capacity is less due to problems of literacy, level of education, conceptual and other relevant skills.

The content of communication has great scope for improvement. The programme software tends to veer towards light entertainment, in order to attract audiences and advertising revenues. The total media advertising expenditure in India went up 20 per cent in 1998, to a total of Rs 68 billion.

This was made up of press (56 per cent), television (36 per cent), outdoor (5.6 per cent) and radio (2 per cent). The public interest content and advertising are minuscule.

Premiere, a film magazine, recently carried a psychological analysis that the success of Walt Disney films rests on "playing on children's fears of being alone and self-loathing". Violence, horror and escapism are predominant in box-office hits.

The media industry tends to carry more negative news. There is a need to celebrate much good news, such as the recent UN Sotiroff award to the Navjyoti Delhi Police Foundation for drug control efforts. It is good to see sections like "Making a Difference" in Outlook magazine and "India Matters" on Star TV.

There is enormous scope for enriching the content with appropriate general information for all, as well as specific information for different target groups. These could include --- economic, technological, social, cultural, spiritual; analyses of local, regional and national progress, problems and options on ecology harmony, and administration; the role that the individual citizen, small and large groups can play; and the positive contributions that they can make.


Existing communication infrastructure and approaches make both positive and negative impacts as well as leave gaps.

Highly commercial, materialistic communication can have disastrous effects, over a period of time. With the massive communication power in the US, a recent Rutgers University study finds that marriage registration has fallen to a 40-year-low. Fifty per cent of marriages end in divorce. The number of unmarried couples rose from 439,000 in 1960 to 4.2 million in 1998.

This has its implications for child upbringing and crime. Is India headed that way?


I have advocated, in several fora, over the last decade, a three-part vision for India, in the 21st century -- an economic superpower; a social model of democratic pluralism; and a spiritual beacon to humanity coping with the dilemmas, of science, state and values.

We should build on the vision of Vasudaiva Kutumbakam, the world as one family; Indian civil society as a major pole of global civil society.

Indian public opinion should empathise with and support democratic aspirations elsewhere in the world, such as the political liberalisation in Iran and the impressive gains of liberals in the recent Kuwait elections.

India should rapidly use the surpluses of the higher economic growth path of 8 per cent annual GNP growth, say, for the next two decades, to erase the grave injustices of tribal and rural deprivation, child labour, the aged, the sick, the handicapped and many other such disadvantaged groups.

The physical infrastructure of dams, canals, power plans, road, rail, telecom, airport and other assets should be created, with minimum, unavoidable dislocation of people and damage to the economy.


Advocate philanthropy by corporates and better-off individuals. Members of the civil society should horizontally network, and help each other, in addition to the efforts of the central, state and local governments. Bill Gates of Microsoft has just written a $ 100 billion will for AIDS research and other social causes. Alumni of the IITs are donating generously to their alma maters. Philanthropy can take many forms -- money, labour, knowledge, effort, time, etc.

Allopathic medicines will become dearer due to the WTO. State health services will be unable to cope with the billion plus population. So stress preventive healthcare. Shareera maadhyam khalu dharma saadhanam. A sound body, for righteous work. Avoid modern lifestyle diseases.

Non-violence has to be a core value. As Joan Baez said: "Non-violence is a flop. The only bigger flop is violence." Nuclear weapons and war are temporary. Only peace can be permanent.


Mobilise civil society opinion and involvement on major national and global issues. Gerhard Schroeder recently received 17 million pleas for waiver of $ 100 billion debt of the poorest countries of the world. Imagine how many million pleas we could raise in India, on many vital issues of life and death to the poor.

We should mobilise the motivation and wealth of the Indian diaspora, our Non Resident Indians and Persons of Indian Origin, to support communication campaigns to reach the civil society, especially the poorest of the poor. The NRI inflows crossed $ 21 billion in March 1999.


Every nation, in the globalised world, has to be economically competitive to survive; a reasonable military capability for defence, until there is a world government or enduring peace; and social cohesion to avoid implosion. Ultimately, this requires that every citizen, individually and as a member of small and large groups, needs some essential skills.

One of the important skills for every adult and adolescent is the management of money. The lower one's wealth and income, the more critical this skill. Indebtedness due to unproductive habits and expenses continues to be a hazard for peasants and workers, not only in India, but even in the more industrialised countries. "Pay day loans" to poor workers in the US, by loan sharks, carry implicit interest rates of as much as 600 per cent per annum.

Start more organisations like the new National Centre for Design in Moradabad to lift the aesthetics of its famous brass bidri work, in order to preserve indigenous craft and other skills, and also market their products and services globally.

We should encourage youth to acquire the skills for socially relevant new careers, such as in environmental and wild life management".


The Indian individual citizen, the family, farm, firm, industry, government and society are under more threat of obsolescence, in the short term, from globalisation. In the medium term, they must catch up and exploit the new opportunities of the global society. Learning is critical.

To escape some of the possible alienation of technology and consumption, each citizen should be enabled to acquire self-knowledge. "After a long time, I have met myself", says Swamy Ramdas in Dashabodh.

Spread the lessons from successful sagas like Jayakumar Bandhu Gunde, 45, role model of modern agriculture, in Maharashtra. He has succeeded in raising groundnut yield, using TAG-24 variety. He is not satisfied. He wants to reach the Chinese level of 11.5 tons per hectare.

Dr M B Athreya is a Delhi-based management advisor. He was formerly professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, and at the London and Scottish Business Schools. The article is based on his lecture at the Decade Celebrations of the Centre for Media Studies, in New Delhi.



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