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Future can belong to India, if. . .

By Arvind Singhal
December 21, 2006 10:56 IST
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As another remarkable year comes to an end, Indians remain amongst the most optimistic and enthusiastic about their future compared with citizens of any other country.

This optimism is reflected in myriad ways, e.g. various surveys on the same subject, rise in consumer spending including that on credit, investment plans in every sector, buoyancy in the job market, etc. In many ways, many Indians have already started believing that the future has already arrived!

However, this may or may not be the case. I recently had an opportunity to participate in a very interesting seminar organised by an extraordinary body named AIESEC, where the debate was not so much on if India has a great future but more on our readiness for the same.

As we head into another new year, it is important for all of us to take a pause and objectively assess our country's prospects. I believe that India, at this point in time, indeed has a unique opportunity to propel itself into a golden era within the next 20-30 years.

Looking back at history, we know that India has experienced golden eras a few times in the past. Some of these eras included the Indus Valley Civilisation almost 5 millenniums ago; the Magadha empire including the Maurya dynasty 2 millenniums ago; the Gupta and Chola empires a millennium ago; and surprisingly, even as late as the early 19th century, when India and China accounted for a significant part of the global GDP.

We missed track somewhere during the last 200 years and started falling behind others -- slowly but steadily. In this new millennium, India has again been blessed with an opportunity to rebuild itself and re-occupy centre stage. It would be really sad if we missed the opportunity now since it may well be another millennium before we get another one.

Let me first state what I believe are the best things that are going for India at this time.

There are several on the list but for me, the most important ones are, first, a young population that has no "memory" of the past and hence it can break away from whatever has restrained India in the previous 5-6 decades. Indeed, if the recent past was worth emulating, then we would not be so low on almost every indicator of human and socio-economic development!

Our second-best strength is the latent entrepreneurship that is spread across the length and breadth of India. Ironically, it is on account of the failure of our political leadership in the last six decades to create adequate employment opportunities for its burgeoning population that over 50% of its adult population is self-employed micro-entrepreneurs.

Thirdly, we are now living in a world that is valuing intellectual capital more than any other physical resource.

Fourthly, there is a rapidly rising literacy rate in the below-25-year age group, holding out hope that the youth of today will be far better educated than their parents and grand-parents.

And finally, there are signs of increasing penetration of information technology that potentially brings a global "library of knowledge" (through the World Wide Web) to the individual, giving an unprecedented potential for self-learning.

What is coming in our way? Again, the list is long but probably the three biggest hurdles include a flawed democracy that is creating more fragmentation on the lines of caste, community, religion, and geography; a lack of urgency amongst our planners and bureaucracy, who have little or no realisation that we have to catch up with the rest of the world very rapidly to make up for decades that have been lost with little or wrong action; and a vision that is very near-term (next election, next session of Parliament, or the next fiscal year) rather than the next 100 years or next 50 years or even next 25 years.

For example, we need to think and plan about our education, urban development, healthcare, and environment needs for the next 25 or 50 years and put into motion the appropriate action.

In this backdrop, what do we need to do? Again, there are many things.

To start with, in our own ways -- as individuals and as business enterprises -- we must not only believe in the future of India but also acknowledge that each one of us has a role to play.

The individuals' role should include shedding dogma and re-writing paradigms; a respect for time, and the discipline of time with an attitude that what can be done today must be done today, and then that we also have to do today what could have been done tomorrow; practising and encouraging creative thinking so that the collective power of tens (if not hundreds) of millions of original thinkers and practitioners can transform India beyond imagination; and finally, believe in and diligently pursue quality and excellence.

If we can do all of this, there is no reason why the future cannot belong to India! Conversely, if we do not act now, it could be a repetition of an interesting statement I heard a decade ago from an international visitor: India has always had a great potential, and (unfortunately) it will always remain that way (only potential)!

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Arvind Singhal
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