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Can India Deal with Halahal In Amrit Kaal?

By SHREEKANT SAMBRANI
August 15, 2022 09:54 IST
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We have our own problems for sure and they are not trivial, but for now, our economy is in not too bad a shape, our politics is as personality-driven and authoritarian as that of most countries in the world.
We must make the best of what we have and not be excessively unhappy looking at the grass on the other side of the septic tank which may not be greener after all!, observes Shreekant Sambrani.

IMAGE: Students participate in Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav celebrations in Agartala, August 14, 2022. Photograph: ANI Photo
 

As the original Midnight's Child, Salman Rushdie, recuperates from a heinous attack (on his person as well as that most basic of human rights, the freedom of expression), he ought to be in our thoughts.

Our celebrations of 75 years of Independence must begin with a thorough condemnation in the strongest possible terms of this assault.

When freedom for one is under attack, freedom for all is diminished.

I am not quite one of the midnight's children, having been born four years earlier.

Yet my sentient life is almost entirely shaped by the last three quarters of a century.

Which makes me want to reflect on what it has meant for me.

In my view, Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, has been the dominant influence beyond any doubt for much that has happened for the good of the country, and some that has been not so good.

His name being anathema for a sizeable section of our current polity in no way affects this value judgement arrived at after thorough cogitation.

Nehru's most important contribution is the building of what he so fittingly called the temples of modern India -- large dams, major industries and vast infrastructural projects.

All those have admittedly not made India join the ranks of the developed nations even after 75 years, but without them, we would surely have not survived the onslaught of the many disasters, natural and manmade, we faced in this period.

It would have been entirely possible that India would have been mired deeply in the Malthusian trap which doomsday prophets such as Paul Ehrlich had predicted as the country's fate even 20 years after independence.

Possibly, India may not have even survived as a unified nation-State.

Without the dams and the irrigation network, Indian agriculture would have continued to be greatly vulnerable to climatic vagaries.

The Green Revolution would have been restricted at best to a few small geographic islands, amidst a highly iffy sea of cultivation.

Instead, today we are nearly monsoon-proof. Even a very bad year causes our grain production to decline in single-digit percentage points.

And it has allowed us not only to build a significant buffer stock enabling us to tide over the effects of bad monsoons, but also emerge as a noteworthy exporter of grain, which the world has reason to appreciate and applaud in its time of need this year.

Nehru's choice of basic industry -- steel, other metallurgical products, capital goods -- in units able to exploit economies of scale created a solid base for further industrialisation.

Again, the point is that this alone was not entirely sufficient to India a major industrial power, but without it, we would have surely continued to remain in economic dark ages.

IMAGE: Jawaharlal Nehru, who led India as its first prime minister from the nation's birth at the midnight hour on August 15, 1947 to his death on May 27, 1964. Photograph: Harry Shepherd/Fox Photos/Getty Images

Nehru's whole-hearted commitment to scientific temper and modern education is only marginally less important than the physical 'temples' of modern India. He urged the adoption of a scientific point of view in all walks of life.

The creation of various apex councils for promoting scientific, agricultural and medical research under the government with considerable funding facilitated the emergence of worthy institutions of research and learning in various fields.

People my generation are most grateful for the establishment of Indian Institutes of Technology.

We were able to get world-class education at next to no cost, which meant that those with abilities but without means benefitted enormously. These institutions served another and even more significant purpose that was not part of their mandate.

Their early graduates pursued further studies abroad, mostly in the United States, but also in Western Europe. Their illustrious performance in Western academic institutions created a very large impact. These bodies of higher learning eagerly opened their portals to later Indian graduates. The rest, as they say is history.

The world recognised Indian intellectual prowesses and started relying on it as a professional powerhouse.

As pioneers, we may not have become materially as prosperous as succeeding Indian emigrants, but we provided the sturdiest of shoulders on which they could stand.

Caste, creed and regional differences were subsumed under our common identity as Indians.

Indeed, many of us thought that it was demeaning to be so narrowly identified and refused to provide these details in those halcyon years of early independence.

The Indian identity now shattered in myriad pockets saddens us no end, but that appears now to be irreversible.

Nehru's Fabian socialism and his fascination with the erstwhile Soviet Union led not just to the industrial structure, but also to a complete commitment to planned economy.

The Avadi Congress of 1956 mandated the government to control commanding heights of the economy to facilitate the emergence of the socialist pattern of society.

That led to what we now see as suboptimal performance of the Indian economy for the remainder of the last century.

IMAGE: The first batch of vehicles bearing the 'T' roll out of the Tata Engineering and Locomotive (now Tata Motors) plant at Jamshedpur. Photograph: Tata Central Archives

But the Nehru regime was not the worst perpetrator of what we have now come to call the licence-permit raj, which shackled and emasculated the economy.

That honour surely belongs to his daughter, Indira Gandhi.

Her regime dictated who should produce what, how, how much, at what cost and where, often ignoring ground realities and sacrificing economic efficiency.

The well-known economist Raj Krishna called this progress the Hindu rate of growth of around 3.5 per cent a year, just barely keeping pace with the rate of growth of population.

Slow stagnation seemed pre-ordained and was attributed to the Nehruvian philosophy of planning.

To be fair, Nehru was not alone who was taken in by the Soviet Union, which seemed to have leap-frogged to become a modern industrial State within a few decades after it threw off the imperial yoke.

Leading economic and social thinkers such as Nicholas Kaldor and Harold Laski were acolytes of the Soviet model. The economic literature of that era is full of notable contributions on planning models by numerous others who later went on win acclaim and awards such as the Nobel prize.

Nehru's idealism was based on what now appears to be political naivete. His on-again and off-again commitment to plebiscite in Kashmir has led to a geo-political quagmire which even today dominates all our policy thinking and holds us back in many areas related and unrelated.

His trust in a common bond between all colonised peoples of colour was charming but turned out to be entirely unrealistic and one-sided.

The Chinese revolutionary leaders, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, ever committed to restoring the Middle Kingdom to what they considered to be their rightful place at the centre of the universe, played him like a stringed instrument and dealt a fatal blow to his leadership, in the process setting India back substantially as well.

This writer firmly believes that such flaws notwithstanding, Jawaharlal Nehru's place as the principal architect of modern India is unchallenged. As the Bard said, 'The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.'

IMAGE: Indira Gandhi on her first visit to the United States as prime minister in March 1966. Photograph: Bettmann/Getty Images/Kind courtesy Juggernaut

***

An Indian Rip Van Winkle who fell asleep at Independence and woke up in 2022 would barely recognise the country.

The landscape has changed so much. Cities have grown enormously and new ones have sprung up where none existed before.

In nominal money terms, India is now a $3 trillion economy, with a per capita income of over $2,000 a year.

That places it in the middle income category, albeit at the lower end of it.

Life expectancy touches 70, and the literacy rate nudges 75 per cent, all a sea change from the abysmal conditions in 1947.

Communication and connectivity have vastly improved, with the number of Indians using cell phones and Internet touching near record numbers globally, second only to China.

Every manner of good and commodity and service is now available, of course at a price.

Truly, the Indian middle class, though numbering under 10 per cent according to their purchasing power, has never had it so good!

The ride hasn't been smooth. There have been ups and downs, the worst being the droughts of 1965 and 1966, and the national shame felt at having to physically ship its gold reserves as collateral for an IMF bailout in 1990.

Yet there was the proverbial silver lining to these dark moments.

The first led to the Green Revolution which not just boosted agricultural production but also changed started the transformation of rural India.

The latter led to the unshackling of Indian economy, with numerous benefits following the liberalisation.

On the whole, Indian policy making has shown considerable resilience.

Take the present as an instance. Mid-2022 has been a particularly troubled time for the entire global economy. It is marked by disruptions to supply chains of commodities as well as services.

No country is immune to unusually high levels of inflation. Both the United States of America and the United Kingdom have registered their highest levels of price rises in decades, as has the European Union and face imminent prospects of slipping recession of considerable duration.

Developing countries face the prospect of devastation of their economies.

India seems to have done remarkably well under these circumstances. It has managed so far to hold the the inflation rate at or below 7 per cent.

Its growth estimates have been downgraded by most international agencies, but they are still around 7 per cent, making it the fastest growing large economy in the world.

It turns out in retrospect that the post-pandemic stimulus of around 1 per cent of GDP, considered inadequate then by many, including this writer, was just the right size so as not to lead to high inflation now, as has happened elsewhere in the world.

Indian economic management seems to have come of age now.

And yet -- there is always that dreaded reservation! -- the Indian economy has not been able to reduce inequalities.

The poverty ratio may have come down to near single digit percentage point, but we must remember that our poverty line refers to bare minimum survival.

The mounting buffer stock of grain is as much a testimonial to the productivity of agriculture as it is an indictment of the poor purchasing power of the neediest.

Since the pandemic-related lockdowns, the government has had to provide free rations to 800 million Indians or 60 per cent of the population.

This is not so much an indication of the government's welfare orientation as it is of the sheer vulnerability of a large majority of Indians, 75 years after Independence.

The biggest problem facing India today is unemployment, especially among the young.

There are no reliable statistics, but to all but the intentionally blind, this fact is self-evident.

Creation of job opportunities is way short of demand, thus making agriculture the employer of the last resort.

People claim family farming as their occupation but that benighted farm neither needs them all nor can it support them with decent incomes.

Photograph: Amit Dave/Reuters

The gulf between Bharat and India has been growing.

At Independence, agriculture provided livelihood to 70 per cent of the population and accounted for 60 per cent of the GDP.

Today, 46 per cent of the people claim to be dependent on agriculture, but it accounts for only a 14 per cent or 1/7 share of GDP.

A person in India thus earns seven times as much as his counterpart in Bharat.

With any reasonable growth of agriculture and the rest of the economy this gap will widen.

In turn, it fuels migration to the already overcrowded cities.

Urban unemployment is thus largely a spill-over of the rural poverty and underemployment.

This situation cannot be rectified until the population's dependence on agriculture for livelihood reduces.

That means not just a lowering of the ratio, but actually a reduction in absolute numbers.

That can happen only when there are adequate non-agricultural jobs in rural and urban areas.

At present the prospects of this happening anytime soon, say in what remains of my life, are bleak.

We must recall that in the early 1980s, China was in a pretty similar situation.

Since then, it has followed a policy of State-sponsored industrialisation, created new cities dedicated to industry by offering incentives, actively pursued foreign businesses to set up shop in China and emerged as the workshop to the world.

From a beginning of manufacturing low technology consumer goods, China today has emerged as the sophisticated supplier of every manner of capital goods and electronic items.

It is now the largest trader internationally, with a hefty trade surplus.

In the process, it has grown to an economy five times the size of that of India, while the two were of a similar size in 1978.

There is much that we can learn from our neighbour. That is the subject of a later column.

***

Finally, on to political and civil liberties, which is another area of major concern.

Castes continue to divide India as they always have.

Yet our positive discrimination policies (reservations in government jobs and electoral positions) have empowered the Dalits and what are called Backward Castes.

Instances of discrimination, at times brutal, continue to surface regularly, as do the state machineries' limited ability to deal with them.

Elections are held as scheduled, and are for the most part fair.

Freedom of expression is constricted at times.

All this results in India's democracy, the largest in the world, being called flawed and not without justification.

Democracy everywhere has flaws, some minor, mostly not so minor.

Yet most people like us make a conscious choice as to where we want to live, after carefully weighing the pros and cons. And no country, not even the Scandinavian ones or Canada or New Zealand or Switzerland remains good at all times.

We make allowances for this and accept our country of domicile, warts and all. I made my conscious choice half a century ago.

Since then, other choices have been possible, but none enough to require reconsideration of the original decision. It is counterproductive to one's peace of mind to think of other societies and consider ours in a poor light.

IMAGE: Garment workers stitch shirts at a textile factory in Andhra Pradesh. Photograph: Samuel Rajkumar/Reuters

Not too long ago, it used to be said that Sri Lanka had the best quality of life indicators among the South Asian countries, besides having the highest per capita GDP in the region.

It has now sunk into a political and economic morass and its own new president -- who wouldn't have quite made to that office on the basis of popular choice -- says it would be two years or longer before there is any semblance of normalcy in the country.

Or Bangladesh. Over the last three years we have pulled out our hair worrying about that country growing at a rate higher than ours and briefly having a higher per capita GDP than ours. Now it has joined Sri Lanka and Pakistan in hiking energy prices by 50 per cent or more practically overnight.

We have our own problems for sure and they are not trivial, but for now, our economy is in not too bad a shape compared to any other country in the world, our politics is as personality-driven and authoritarian as that of most countries in the world, and the rupee at 80 to the dollar is in far better shape than most other emerging market currencies and the euro as well.

The short point is that since a search for Utopia would be futile, we must make the best of what we have consciously chosen and not be excessively unhappy looking at the grass on the other side of the septic tank which may not be greener after all!

Finally consider this: The great churning of the primordial ocean undertaken by gods and demons according to Indian mythology led to the offering of both amrita (the celestial elixir) halahal (universal poison).

Can we accept one without the other, and if we cannot, how can we deal with the halahal, we must seriously introspect in this amrit kaal.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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