This essay of mine won the Discover India Essay prize at University of Michigan. The event was the first India Business Conference at Michigan. The Essay won me a certificate and whole lot of money in a beautifully organized and heavily attended India conference (though collecting the prize from one of Saffron India’s posterboys wasn’t the most enjoyable event of the night).
Discover India Essay: “One Billion and Counting”
Only the continent of Africa exceeds the linguistic, genetic and cultural diversity of the nation of India
– US Library of Congress, Note on Ethnic groups
Today at school, we had the Alumni reunion, and outside the Siegle Café I met this alumnus from the 1958 batch. We talked for an hour about the housing bubble, the Ford Museum, the Korean War, the GI Bill, and as always what I lack in depth I compensated with breadth. And then the Alumnus asked –
“You are Brahma, right?”
I was surprised. How did he know my name? I am quite famous with my parents, but not so beyond that.
“I know that you ‘were’ Brahma because I’ve heard that Brahmas are the most intelligent and prosperous people in India”
It took me a while before I realized he was talking about the Indian caste called Brahmins. I did not get into a prolonged discussion with the white American with all his mid-western humility on India’s complex caste maze that evolved over many millennia.
But we do love generalizations, don’t we? When it comes to something as abstract and complex as India, we may love it even more. India, which Nehru called a myth and a reality at the same time, ensures you a catastrophe down the line if you approach it with a generalization.
In this essay, I’ve tried to put into perspective three core issues that define the billion population – Identity politics, Future indicators instead of lagging indicators, and Collective’s instead of Individual’s market.
The Politics of a Billion
“Nations are born in the hearts of poets; They prosper and die in the hands of politicians” – Mohammed Iqbal, Poet.
Caste is the Indian reality, and our politics is defined by that. Of course we can deny it for another thousand years. But anyone attempting to understand why a woman Chief Minister of one of India’s most impoverished states erects costly statues of herself in every junction would probably want to understand the caste hierarchy that permeates Indian society. May be the fact that, two decades or so ago, this woman could have been paraded nude and assaulted if she drew water from a ‘upper caste’ well would go a long way in explaining the politics of identity in the Indian Heartland.
Castes evolved in India as a form of dividing labor. For instance, the ‘Chamars’ were the caste of leather tanners, a line of work considered unhygienic. But irony and history has it that anyone who was born into a ‘Chamar’ family was henceforth treated as unhygienic and ‘untouchable’, even though he or she was not a tanner. This exclusion of about two thirds of the Indian population from the mainstream continued for well over two thousand years.
These castes started asserting themselves in different parts of India at differing times over the past 80 years, some states went through this essential identity churning before independence, but most of the states reached that stage only in the past two decades. This explains why democracy in India has different contours in different states. For example in states like Kerala, democracy is in a later stage where women’s issues and green issues are debated, while states like UP in the heartland are still passing through the churn of identity politics. Anyone who goes into India unaware of this deep fault line of caste is in for seismographic shocks. Caste defines the way India conducts business, and anyone aware of this will interpret the country better. And that will determine whether the ‘Billion’ is a challenge or an advantage.
The Future Indicators of a Billion – People, Technology, Education
The GDP debate around PPP notwithstanding, it would be worthwhile to look at the future indicators for India. India figures at 132nd position on UNDP’s Human Development Index. HDI’s comparative measure of specifically child welfare, literacy and education leaves India high and dry. Despite marginal reductions in poverty – 60% of Indian women are under-nourished, 20% of the world’s out-of-school kids are in India, 25% of the world’s birth-related-deaths are in India, 74% of rural India has no toilets, and we are still arguing if we are the 4th or 12th largest economy in the world. You don’t create a developed nation and then develop your children, your children – the nourishment you give them, the education you give them defines the nation’s future. If we fail in that, we’ll be left with one billion challenges.
India has covered a lot of ground in poverty alleviation and the nation’s technology prowess is second to none. The effectiveness of the NREGA scheme for tackling unemployment in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh is a classic example of how effective legislation and technology prowess joined hands to make poverty history.
Why are we not able to replicate the above in case of mal-nourishment, education and Urban renewal? The Indian states have money, but not the management agility required of a prime mover. These are areas which present immense opportunities to organizations which have expertise and ideas in these fields.
The Possibilities of a Billion
India is a country where a unique idea whose time has come will catch fire easily. Then the mob takes it on their shoulders and dances around with it. It is a spectacle, a miracle sometimes. When Gandhi drew a handful of salt on a beach in Western India, night fell on the empire whose sun never set. The same happened with the green revolution that eliminated famine in India, and Operation Flood which multiplied the country’s milk production through the co-operative movement.
There are several instances where spectacular synergies between the Government and business changed history in recent times too. Rajiv Gandhi-Sam Pitroda team’s idea of tapping into India’s entrepreneurial spirit brought about the telecom revolution in India by connecting every village in India with a public phone. The cellular surge in India was another spectacle of Government-Business synergy, with regulations placed and removed at right timings. A very recent example is when middle-class India bought into TATA’s idea of the world’s cheapest car, and in a lesser known side story the cash strapped TATA (After the Jaguar deal) was able to stay afloat with the over 200,000 bookings in a month. TATA understood India, and India got the idea. And when that happens, you have a billion opportunities.
Predicting India’s future should not be attempted. It’s like marching to Moscow.
“When Nehru goes,” wrote Aldous Huxley, “the government will become a military dictatorship – as in so many of the newly independent states, for the army seems to be the only highly organised centre of power.”
I admire Huxley’s astute mind, his intellect. But he was wrong. When Nehru died, the army remained in the barracks. India survives always, and proves all experts wrong.
Arundhati Subramaniam writes “To the Welsh Critic Who Doesn’t Find Me Identifiably Indian.”
This business about language,
How much of it is mine, how much yours,
How much from the salon, how much from the slum,
How I say verisimilitude, how I say Brihadaranyaka,
How I say vaazhapazham
It’s all yours to measure, the pathology of my breath…
That’s what India provides -Indoxication.
P.S: Like India, this essay has severe limitations, esp the 1000 word limit. And I have listened to criticism of people who think they are Betrand Russell’s true inheritors. Any comments making fun of the essay (esp from the girl who writes “FO” on this blog) will be moderated.