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Ram Teri Ganga Maili

Last updated on: June 12, 2024 11:28 IST
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Six decades and more later, we are now captives of our identities.

Every poll is based on elaborate calculations of electability of candidates on the basis of their castes and other narrow definers.

That, along with voter promiscuity, is what defines our political culture, which remains stubbornly resistant to any change, asserts Shreekant Sambrani.

IMAGE: Senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader Narendra D Modi holds up a mace during an election campaign rally in Agartala. Photograph: Jayanta Dey/Reuters

This is the continuation of the election comment Don't Expect Modi To Change! that appeared on Saturday, June 8, 2024.

Throughout the campaign, we heard about Viksit Bharat by 2047.

We also heard about how many new airports we have built, how many Vande Bharat trains are running (not much about the unexpectedly slow progress of the Bullet Train, though), how many smart phones we make and export and numerous other indicators that should tell us that we are well on our way to become a developed economy and a possible economic superpower.

Of course, we daily heard about India being the fifth largest economy in the world, soon to be third, and the fastest growing large economy.

Right on cue, the day after the polling ended, we had the second estimate of economic growth 2023-2024 of 8.2 per cent!

Even if we were believe all the government statistics (unlike earlier, now there are some major concerns about the credibility of our official data), we are now firmly on a change and development path?

I raise this question based on two indicators, one highly personal and the other wholly macroeconomic.

On 1 June, Parvati, who helps clean my home, a Dalit woman whose husband is a sweeper in our housing society and earns a reasonably good salary, asked me at 9 in the morning (she usually arrives not before 10) for the immediate payment of her salary.

She gets paid on the dot on the first of every month.

She said the gas cylinder was about to be delivered and she needed the money right then, before I could even shower, because they had no money (She had spent Rs 10,000 plus on her grandson's birthday 10 days earlier).

Thirty years ago, her counterpart Dahi, also a Dalit lady and also the wife of a sweeper, this time a municipal one, used to approach us with similar urgency for paying for kerosene.

So over 30 years, what has changed is the fuel, but not the hand-to-mouth existence, nor the mode of thinking.

Second, as the government loses no opportunity to tell us, after Covid, some 800 million Indians (nearly 60 per cent of the population) have been receiving free rations and will continue to do so for another five years.

I know of no other claimant for developed status where so large a proportion of population requires a subsistence dole.

IMAGE: Modi waves after flagging off two Amrit Bharat trains and six new Vande Bharat Trains in Ayodhya. Photograph: ANI Photo

When we talk of export of smart phones, we do not mention that we only assemble components, which we import from China.

For our drug formulations export to developed countries, we use the basic chemical agent imported from, you guessed it, China.

The same is true of most telecommunication gear, white goods and consumer durables, machine tools and power generation-transmission equipment and so on.

China is our leading trade partner (and diplomatic-territorial adversary), but it is mostly a one-way traffic: China exports, we import.

They sell us goods worth over $100 billion, mostly manufactured goods and machinery and components, and we export about $16 billion, mostly primary products.

Our global performance shows (mostly, not always or steadily) rising exports.

On closer look, we will find that a big chunk of our exports are primary commodities.

When we export rice or sugar, we are in fact exporting substantially greater quantities of our scarce water (one kg of rice uses up to 5,000 litres of water.

Sugar, the other major commodity we export, is not far behind in its water intensity).

Big ticket items such as pharmaceuticals, gold and jewellery and now, smart phones, are really based on large imports of basic formulation, raw gold, and components.

If we consider only the value-added as true exports, our numbers would shrink greatly.

We are nowhere in exports of manufactured goods; we are overtaken by Bangladesh and Vietnam even in our traditional exports of garments.

We are far from being a second China, or China + 1, we are mostly a supplicant to China when it comes to international trade.

IMAGE: Women plant rice saplings at a paddy field in Assam. Photograph: Anuwar Hazarika/Reuters

China started its economic reforms in the 1980s under Deng Xiaoping's Four Modernisations, when our economy was of a comparable size, and we did the same 10 years later under P V Narasimha Rao's prime ministership.

Reform in Chinese characters meant sustained growth at double-digit rates.

Reform in Indian alphabets meant halting, step-by-step increase in growth rate from around 5 per cent a year to about 7 per cent annually in three decades.

China today has a national income of $19 trillion, nearly five times as large as India's $ 4 trillion.

The funny thing about growth rates is that they don't tell you the full story; they lull you into a false security.

If we grow at 7 per cent annually and China grows at 5 per cent, we fall behind China by $670 billion.

What good is the distinction of being the fastest growing economy if the gap between China and us widens every year?

IMAGE: A farm labourer plucks vegetables in a field in New Delhi. Photograph: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters

We need to realise that the large size of our economy is a function of the large population.

Even a low per capita income can make the economy large.

This was pretty much the case of India two millennia ago.

India was the largest economy in the world until after 1,000 AD, but had a stagnant low per capita income.

Post industrial revolution, much of Europe and then North America grew because of rising productivity of labour and capital, but India and China stagnated.

China changed gears forty years ago, but eternal India still resists change.

That is why even the slightest reform as envisaged by the agriculture, land acquisition and labour reform legislations, parts of the agenda of the early phases of the Modi regime, have had to be abandoned, with the government paying a heavy price in terms of public support.

And the newly anointed champions of democracy, the more vocal parts of the INDIA group have been very shrill in their critique of NDA for being anti-people.

They also believe in competitive populism, where mai-baap sarkar will not only provide large doles, but also won't touch reform with a barge pole.

IMAGE: A labourer loads boxes on a handcart at a market in New Delhi. Photograph: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters

If one were to do an honest introspection as to where India is headed economically, one would discover two very large issues which will be the major challenges.

The first is unemployment. No amount of whitewashing through micro start-ups as employment creators can cover the fact that there just are not enough jobs going around to absorb new entrants to labour.

Agriculture is already bulging at seams with absorbing surplus labour it does not need, when it should be providing these hands to other activities.

And service economy for the unskilled means careers such as courier runners or the lowest rung of the hospitality sector.

Even for those labelled as educated, there are no opportunities.

Horror stories of hundreds and thousands of applicants for the most menial government jobs which call for no skills continue to appear in the press as often as they have all through the last six decades.

The fact is that we turn out tens of millions of school and college graduates every year who have zero employable skills.

All this turned up in the election campaign.

The root cause is the continuing inability of our education and training institutions to skill the youth appropriately for the present age.

Add to this the habitual indiscipline of our labour.

The Singapore patriarch Lee Kuan Yew, a hero to many in India including Prime Minister Modi, once said that he would never hire Indians to run assembly lines, because they lack the commitment and ability of the Chinese to do things right every time.

This would require some serious thought and dialogue across the board among leaders of business and politics.

Instead, what we have are competitive offerings of doles for the unemployed, presumably through running currency presses overtime.

That is akin to offering a band-aid for a festering wound on the body economic.

Modi waxes eloquent on the demographic dividend in his speeches even when he is not on stump; what we do not consider is that this could easily turn out to be ticking time-bomb.

IMAGE: BJP supporters hold empty cans during a protest against the water crisis in Bengaluru, March 12, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

The other elephant in the room is even larger: Water.

Even in the age of climate change, we have copious, if unpredictable, monsoons, but more than 90 per cent of the precipitation runs off to the sea.

By early summer most regions are thirsty.

At the height of the heat wave and election campaign, the national capital faced a water crisis.

Bengaluru and Chennai are perennially short of water. Other metros and even Tier II cities are not far behind.

The main culprit for this is agriculture, which is a profligate waster of water.

An unfortunate consequence of minimum support prices has been the emergence of a crop-cultivation regime which is at odds with the resource endowment of the region, such as cultivation of paddy-rice in Punjab and Haryana.

It is plain as daylight that we lack a national water policy or a consensus.

Again a dialogue between riparian states on judicious use of water is impossible.

Even when they were ruled by the same party, Haryana and Punjab could never agree on the Satluj Yamuna Link canal.

Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are permanently in the Supreme Court with their Kaveri water dispute.

Other states which share rivers are in similar quarrels.

A new dimension is that even within a state, there are now water issues between regions.

Water wars between areas and people when they break out, will put all other conflicts in shade in terms of fierceness.

IMAGE: Bharatiya Kisan Union Ekta Ugrahan chief Joginder Singh Ugrahan and farmers stage a protest in Patiala, May 23, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

These concerns affect all of India, going beyond any subnational geographies; they are also not bound by the quinquennial election cycle.

They are here now and demand urgent action.

That in turn must depend on a national, non-partisan consensus.

But that noble ideal is now ever farther out of reach.

The bitter campaign was an ill wind blowing across the country that did nobody any good.

Arrogance on one side was matched in equal measure by intransigence on the other.

A dialogue among the deaf and the dumb is more likely than among our political elite.

Evan Bayh was a highly popular and respected Democratic senator from the normally Republican state of Indiana between 1999 and 2011.

Although he had won both his terms with more than 60 per cent of the vote, he declined to run a third time, because he felt that 'There is too much partisanship and not enough progress -- too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem solving. Even at a time of enormous challenge, the peoples' business is not being done.'

That would be an apt summation of the situation that prevails in these days of nation-states, political parties, interest groups, and even corporations following beggar-thy-neighbour policies.

The hope in the early years of Independence, when this columnist was growing up, was that along with education, the importance of identity culture defined by religion, caste, and language loyalties will soon decline.

We will confine religion and rituals to our homes and our new temples would be the development projects such as the Bhakra Nangal dam, as Jawaharlal Nehru eloquently put it.

Six decades and more later, we are now captives of our identities.

Every poll is based on elaborate calculations of electability of candidates on the basis of their castes and other narrow definers.

That, along with voter promiscuity, is what defines our political culture, which remains stubbornly resistant to any change.

IMAGE: Modi supporters cheer his arrival during a roadshow in Mumbai. Photograph: Hemanshi Kamani/Reuters

An analogy may be apt here. The Ganga is the holiest of all our rivers, without any doubt.

It is also among the most polluted. We take what we think is a holy dip in it, holding our noses and hope that we don't fall sick.

We have made numerous attempts to clean it, yet it continues to carry urban waste, tannery effluents and dead bodies floated in it.

The current Varanasi MP made a promise to turn it into an inland port and a hub of commerce, but it is so deeply silted that there is not much draft for larger vessels.

Occasionally, there are floods and the river breaks its banks; but for the most part, it flows ever so slowly as to be mistaken for still water.

Our political culture resembles this real-life Ganga, not its idealised image.

A very well respected business leader, with whom I shared some of these thoughts, said, "I don't know much about politics, but an organisation with sxxt culture will never realise its full potential."

Sir, your very apt analysis makes me cry for my beloved country.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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