India at 75: Sisyphus in the Himalayas

The occasion of India’s 74th Independence Day is a major milestone and I am sure it will prompt many articles, stories, films, songs, poems, speeches, etc on the subject. And so, it should, for it is no minor accomplishment.

Guess what? As I typed the page heading “150th blog post for Peripatetic Perch” to start this piece, I just realized that on an infinitesimal scale, I have an occasion to celebrate as well. This happens to be the 150th article that I am writing for my blog, not counting Writings on The Wall, and other similar pieces that I write directly in WordPress – including The Whistle Library Monthly Selection, exclusively for subscribers. Together, they all total 250 pieces, or thereabouts. Not bad, eh?

About India’s big day and 75th year of independence from colonial rule, I am both overawed by the occasion and what it represents, as well as concerned about how we will ever face the challenges ahead. Because while we have indeed come a long way from 1947, it has been a long and arduous journey. Yet, the country cannot afford to rest or enjoy its accomplishments, because these are as yet not accessible to everyone, and because there are so many new challenges ahead.

I cannot believe that my parents and I have lived through 75 years of India’s independence. They were born in the decade before independence, and I arrived 15 years after independence. It is strange and perhaps attributable to the fact that my parents were born in South India, and grew and studied there, that I have never ever heard them criticize the British at a personal level. Of course, they were against British colonial rule and were supporters of India’s freedom movement, young as they were then. But – and this becomes even more apparent when looking back – they were beneficiaries of western education, they widened their horizons through reading books of which there was always an ample supply at home, and were schooled in the traditions of rational and secular thought. My mother’s case is particularly striking since she spent almost her entire school and college years away from home, studying in boarding and residential schools, even as an only child in the 1940s and 1950s. It is a pity that she never pursued a career because she had two daughters to raise and both our grandmas to care for, at home.

I suppose you could say the same for me. Growing up in Assam, Secunderabad, Delhi, Mussoorie and back in Delhi, in an environment of reading books, rational and liberal thought, I realise I have had a rather privileged upbringing. We were never rich, and never aspired to wealth either, but we were open-minded, keen to learn and apply ourselves to hard and honest work. I too have spent years in residential schools and in university hostels, learning to discover the world on my own and fend for myself at a very young age. And my father has had a huge intellectual influence on me. He worked in the Indian Railways and later in the Indian public sector as well as the private sector in the finance department.

I have been fortunate to have built a career in advertising and brand communications in India over several years – until it was brought crashing down by unprofessional circus organisations I worked for, more than 15 years ago. This, when I have responsibilities towards my aged parents with whom I live in Goa. I have also had the privilege of so much travel within the country with my parents as a little girl, and years later with my ex-husband and treasure memories of a beautiful land.

Why is it important that I share this? Because we have all been beneficiaries of western education both through our reading as well as formal instruction. And also, because we were relatively untouched by the trauma of communal riots and the partition which mark India’s Independence Day with a terrible sadness for many people from North India and from Bengal.

Despite our own personal experiences, I have to say that India has been faced with a Sisyphean task for the past 74 years. Immediately upon independence, India had to build an industrial base at home and also provide for millions of the hungry and poor. For the British had left us an impoverished country, even in the absence of war. Nehru’s government was determined to make us self-reliant industrially and to provide a strong, scientific base for India’s future growth. In this, he differed from Gandhi who had a vision for India as a village-based economy, growing primarily on the strength of agriculture and handicrafts. Years later, we have to say that we are the richer for both these leaders’ visions, since we have managed to combine the industrial with the agricultural, and science has flourished along with the arts.

Teacher’s Order by Nicholas Roerich (1947); Image courtesy wikiart.org

Nehru was also convinced of the need to share the growth and prosperity more widely, and of the government’s role in ensuring this. It is not by accident that we call ourselves a socialist, secular republic. By commissioning Ambedkar to write the Indian Constitution, and by enshrining certain rights and responsibilities within it, our leaders were securing the future of millions of Indian citizens. Today, each of us has a duty toward protecting the Constitution and to never allow it to be undermined or subverted.

One of the features of India’s growth for which Nehru is often blamed is the excessive dependence on the state sector and also for import substitution policies. Perhaps these had lingered far too long after their purpose had been served, but it is also true that many private sector companies that were engaged in business even prior to independence grew and thrived under the new policies of Independent India. Many of them lead Indian industry today and have diversified into newer businesses and global markets, as I wrote recently on my blog.

It is also thanks to Nehru’s adoption of the five-year plan from the Soviets that India managed its economy with an eye on the immediate as well as the longer term. The need to modernize agriculture was felt so strongly that we imported American know-how and collaborated with the best agricultural scientists in the early ‘60s, leading to what we often call the Green Revolution. The foundations that were being built for an independent country were based on scientific research – a lot of it indigenous – on technology and on developing the tertiary sector. We were building what is often referred to as the mixed economy – private enterprise along with a large state sector.

The state could have retreated from industry once the country’s industrial base was strong enough, but when you consider just how many millions of people, they provide secure employment to, it is perhaps just as well that they continue to be in business. I would always argue for the non-profitable PSUs to be divested or wound up, though, so those people are better employed elsewhere.

Around mid-way in this 74-year journey, India decided to liberalise its economy and open its doors to foreign investment. That was in 1991, when India was faced with a balance of payments crisis and we were forced to find a way out. Economic liberalization along with partial convertibility of the Indian rupee were the highlights of those reforms. Foreign investment also meant that Indian businesses that had entrenched themselves had to become more competitive and this did spur innovation at home. One of the other highlights of the economic reforms was to dispense with the license raj, which had become a feature of the Indira Gandhi years.

This freed up industry and their willingness and capacity to invest. The Indian economy went from what was euphemistically called a Hindu rate of growth, averaging 3%-5% for most of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, to a slightly faster rate of growth of 5% to 7% in the 1990s and early 2000s. As you can see from the World Bank chart below which tracks our GDP growth rate from 1961 onwards, it is only from 2003-04, that India began to experience GDP growth rates of 8%-9%. This has already slowed to around 4%, well before the pandemic struck last year.

Unfortunately, GDP figures never tell the complete story. Three decades later, the task of reforms remains unfinished. The Sisyphean aspect is most visible in the inability of most Indians to rise above their circumstances and make good. Around 90% of the economy continues to languish in the informal sector, providing employment to most of the country, but of the weakest and most insecure kind. Most live a day-to-day, hand-to-mouth existence and until recently a third of India’s population lived below the poverty line.

The reasons are apparent: lack of adequate investment in education and healthcare, especially in rural India where even today, a significant 55% of the population lives. Urbanisation grew steadily from the 1970s onwards and our cities don’t have the infrastructure to be able to cope with the pressures of a growing urban population. In fact, many economists believe that the biggest problem in this century will be urban poverty.

We need to be able to help people stay where they are and find sustainable livelihoods. Which means India needs to take development to the people in villages, to the hinterland where they eke out a livelihood from their paltry earnings from agriculture or handicrafts and provide them a viable alternative. It means we have to plan for developing new towns closer to where they are and for growing the existing ones, so that they can share the burden of providing for millions of the rural/semi-urban population.

This will help change the landscape of the informal economy and help more of it shift to a formal one. Unfortunately, it needs more than just building new towns and cities; it needs more and better education and healthcare for the millions who live in the hinterland, something India has neglected for decades. The private sector has been forced to enter into the education and healthcare sectors, but their intervention is mostly at the level of higher education and health in urban areas. This must change; education and healthcare have to be the government’s primary responsibility and they must be the main providers of this social infrastructure. Having neglected these for so many decades, we rank 131st in the 2020 UNDP Human Development Index of 189 countries and now lag our smaller neighbouring countries in basic human development indicators.

Another policy that will help formalize and grow the economy is in terms of providing people ample and good job opportunities, in these small towns and cities. I have been writing about the need to encourage and grow our MSME sector, in a way that makes Indian business and our economy more competitive, a la Germany’s Mittelstand companies. It would require us to identify key competitive advantages that India has and encourage innovation and specialization in those areas among MSMEs.

If we have to deal only with old problems, it wouldn’t be so bad. Unfortunately, India also faces Sisyphean realities in the form of new challenges that are arising out of geopolitical, technological and climate change developments. I can’t help but think that the Sisyphean metaphor in the Indian context is of Himalayan proportions. We are barely able to tackle existing and long-overdue problems, before being hit by new ones that drag us down again. Not least of which is the current Covid-19 pandemic raging through India and the world, especially the new Delta variant. And this, with limited financial firepower, limited borrowing capabilities, and technical expertise, since we are but only a low-to-middle-income developing country. Yet another good reason to formalize our economy, so we have better tax revenues with which to plan future development.

Kanchenjunga by Nicholas Roerich (1947); Image courtesy wikiart.org

I think the new challenges India faces require a different set of capabilities and responses too. We need to think long term, and act swiftly in the short term. Flexibility, speed of decision-making and implementation will be the need of the hour. Greater decentralization will be required, with the centre providing the enabling environment as well as the policy framework within which to operate. This is quite different from the centralization tendency that I notice in recent years. We have also seen that the Gujarat model of development cannot be replicated across the country, for the simple reason that the conditions for that kind of development, even if it were the right one, do not exist uniformly across the nation. Therefore, economic development policies have to be localized at state level, within a larger national framework.

One sign gives me hope. In the past 74 years, the Indian middle class has grown in India’s cities and towns across the country. These are India’s biggest consumer class, as well as the educated, enterprising class on whom future growth depends. However, I also notice that the Indian middle class is not as vocal about issues that affect the country, whether it be about the minorities, economic problems, women’s rights, civil liberties, etc. It appears that either they have been lulled into a kind of consumption-induced stupor or else they are frightened out of their wits to speak up. Both of these would be a sad commentary on Indian democracy and its future.

The dynamism of most economies around the world, including India, comes from its educated and skilled middle class. They form the intelligentsia and act as agents of change. They keep governments in check, innovate, create jobs, and keep the wheels of change turning.

The time is here, I think, for another set of reforms that will set the path for more equitable growth in the future. It must be focused on taking development to the interiors of India, incentivizing India’s MSMEs and making the bulk of Indian industry more competitive. Let us work towards a future in which middle-class people like my aged parents and I, are even greater in numbers. That we are working and actively contributing to the economy and innovating our way to success.

And let us hope that in the coming decades, more of us Indians will feel that we actually have some control over our lives and our destinies. That, to me, is the real sign of a progressive and dynamic democracy.

Perhaps we ought to aim for the Sisyphean ordeal to end by 2047?

The featured image at the start of this post is Mount of Five Treasures by Nicholas Roerich (1933) courtesy wikiart.org. Nicholas Roerich was an internationally renowned Russian artist who came to India and lived here for many years. I have had the privilege of seeing his paintings of the Himalayas at his erstwhile home in Naggar, Himachal Pradesh, which is now a museum.        

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