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The Case For Hope

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In a sense, 2010 was a strange year. The economy picked up from the second half of calendar 2009 and continued doing well thereafter. We may see GDP growth exceed 8.5 per cent in 2010-11, which is a testament to the entrepreneurial skills and determination throughout the land. Thanks to excellent monsoons, agriculture has done very well, and we are now all set for a bumper ravi crop. Amidst this, there has been the overhang of relatively high inflation which, somehow, people have got used to — except when sugar, dal and edible oil prices shot through the roof, as these did earlier, or the fabled onion, as it is doing now. Conventional economic indices suggest that India has done well in 2010, and is on track to regain the 9 per cent GDP growth target.

Yet, there have been some terrible news. Public revelations about the extent and sheer size of corruption has shocked the nation's intelligentsia. It is as if the cesspool has an inexorable capacity to simultaneously widen and deepen at remarkable speed. The tapes of a woman playing out her bag of tricks to secure outcomes that were questionable in theory and cost the exchequer oodles of money have offended many. The worst news has been the non-performance of the Parliament.

The winter session of 2010 is probably the least productive in Indian parliamentary history. Parliament worked only on the inaugural day, after which the proceedings were stalled every day, forcing adjournments. According to PRS Legislative Research, a Delhi-based research organisation, the Lok Sabha used just 5.3 per cent of the time available for debate and discussion in the winter session. The Rajya Sabha used 2.1 per cent. The time worked by our representatives: 7 hours and 37 minutes in the Lok Sabha, and 2 hours and 44 minutes in the Rajya Sabha.

When a year ends so poorly, why the title, ‘The Case for Hope'? Because less than a week ago, my wife Radhika and I saw scores of schoolgirls, well-fed, scrubbed, cheerful and uniformed, walking up and down the steep bridle path between Sitla and Mukteshwar, in the mountains of Kumaon, in threes and fours, gabbing away, to and from high school — just as girls would in any metropolitan city. I drive often enough in rural north India, and am convinced that there are many more girls being educated — and not being forced to drop out of schools — than they were in the 1990s or early 2000s. That gives me hope.

It is not just in Kumaon that I see a greater emphasis on educating girls. The route from Delhi to Sitla takes us through various Muslim-dominated areas. In the 2001 Census, Muslim girls were much poorer educated compared to others. The differential may still exist in the 2011 Census, but pure eyeball evidence suggests that the gap will have substantially closed. I'm willing to bet that in the past decade, more Muslim parents in up-country India are tuned in to educating their girls than ever before. That gives me greater hope, because the 2001 Census had clearly showed how Muslim children, especially girls, were falling behind in education.

Then, there was the Bihar elections. Nitish Kumar is as droll and serious as Lalu Prasad is exaggerated and foolish. By the Janata Dal (United) winning 115 seats out of 243 and its ally, the BJP, winning 91, Nitish has demonstrated that good governance and development matter way more than caste, creed and divisive hectoring. I don't know if Bihar is a turning point. But the fact that a quiet and efficient political administrator won in Bihar for the second time in a row gives me hope.

The communication revolution gives me hope for economics, for grassroot politics and for democracy. A major reason for the success of the English Revolution leading to the beheading of Charles I and the ascendancy of the Parliament was pamphleteering — of various anti-royalist, pro-democratic groups printing pamphlets that were read and debated in taverns throughout England. Today's pamphlet is the mobile phone and the SMS. With more than 55 per cent of Indians having phones, people are communicating like never before. Only to increase over time. That will not only create more business and employment, but become a fundamental tool for the politics of inclusiveness. I reckon that in the next five years, much of electioneering and creating mass movements will occur via mobiles. That is another cause of hope — democracy encompassing new tools of the trade.

I could write more. But as I look to the start of the second decade of this millennium, I am convinced that our time has come. More than it ever did in the history of this land.

The author is chairman of CERG Advisory.


(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 03-01-2011)