2020: India the Elephant or India the Tiger?


Strange that we should define the India of 2020 in terms of the two animals that may well be extinct thanks to the enduring apathy of the Government and its trust in commissions which are known more for their omissions than for their solution-providing ability but more of that later.

Where will India be in 2020? Or more importantly where do we wish India to be in 2020? It is much the same debate, which engulfed humanity when we talked of the turn of the century and thought about all the virtues that the new millennium would bring to the table. But nothing dramatic happened. Except that terrorism became a global currency thanks to 9/11 and religion reared its ugly head thereafter in a myriad ways: be it in Manhattan or for that matter in Godhra. Before we crystal-gaze as to where we wish to be, it is important that we analyse where we really are today. And that is not a pretty picture. India has the most dismal track-record in the two most basic life-altering domains: health and education and even now, no in willing to talk about them in terms of making real changes so we are saddled with a system that is replete with the most reprehensible progress a nation can make in the twin areas of health and education. While we as a nation may boast of the global prowess of our IITs and IIMs, there is a reality that we are brushing under the carpet: that of providing an education which is meaningful and which helps bring food to the table. We as a society have been seized with degrees and academia with little emphasis on achieving work through education. It is this that will ultimately help break the back of poverty but we need to arrest the decline that is already rampant in our villages and cities. Much like the elephant, we have taken measured steps in terms of laying out a single-minded education policy: with the result that more text-books have been altered keeping political influences in mind, than read by students hungry for knowledge. Schools have become the preserve of big business and fugitives from the law. These are the people running our education system for the large part and the average Indian family is captive to this kind of emotional (and fiscal) blackmail and extortion.

I also believe that today's education does precious little in preparing the average Indian for tomorrow’s problems and as we move increasingly towards a borderless world, our education system will need to be tweaked where it can engage, interact and contribute to that changing global order: where the education that has been imbibed is relevant and impactful: and not just another degree which must be framed and hung on a wall in a house that is dampened by poverty. We have had many initiatives as far as education is concerned. But none of that has materialized in creating an energized movement, which will yield not just better software engineers but people with varying skill-sets. Because, the key question that we need to ask ourselves is, whether our so-called software prowess is a function of intellect or cost? To most people it is the latter. And will remain so till someone else, perhaps in Africa, can match our costs and take away our jobs. I also believe that a lot has to do with people who run our system and my wish is that by 2020, we will be able to provide meaningful education to millions in this country without ever worrying about them securing a future on the back of that education. I believe by 2020, education will change from a need paradigm to an engagement paradigm: vocation will guide the template of education we seek and that alone will be the abiding principles by which text-books and syllabi will be fashioned. I believe, politics will yield way to information and there will be little choice since I see the internet playing an even greater role in terms of spreading information and information that is both transparent and challenging: hence the leitmotif of what we believe to be education will also change as will its application. Thus, to sum up, I see education moving from the must-have paradigm to the must-use paradigm. Textbooks will no longer be political manifestos since most people will not use textbooks to carve careers and there will be greater global alignment of the education system. The little boy in Saharanpur will have as much access as the little boy in Illinois. And therefore, making both these boys relevant and wealthy will be the role that education will don in 2020. Its respect in society will remain where it is since we continue to be saddled with strong middle-class values even five years hence. Which may be both a good thing and a bad thing!

Health as an area is perhaps where India has let its people down the most. Be it primary, secondary or tertiary, we have a track-record that stinks and the tragedy is nothing has been done for the last 58 years and I doubt very much will be in the next five. There are issues pertaining to health, which are not being discussed, and I believe some issues like population have both a health and social index. The girl population in many parts of India has been on the decline and yet as a society we are unwilling to come to terms with the dastardly acts of female infanticide that we witness thanks to girls still being seen as a weaker sex unwilling to carry on legacies of business or family. This social blinkering has caused unrest, the likes of which very few countries have or will ever experience. Then there is the infant mortality issue on which again there has been no meaningful state intervention. I believe health is as much of a fundamental right as any and it is the duty of the State or the Community to do all that it can in this area and be it the Government, or for that matter the private sector, very few have made genuine contributions. And whatever progress we have made in the area of medicine has once again been restricted to urban India. Primary health in India is in a shambles: and the rot is broad-spectrum: right from the kind of health we provide to the kind of prescriptive drugs we have available for the masses. We have the largest quota of spurious drugs in the world and yet there seems to be no action on this front.

Our immunization policies have not yielded the kind of results they should have for two reasons: the education regarding diseases and the methodology of avoidance as also the provision of the vaccine is almost theatre-like: we have two days in the year where politicians parade their concerns about health and show themselves at the forefront of this immunization program: but that apart, nothing real seems to veer get done. If you look at the urban landscape, many hospitals are nothing but a front for big business making blood money. More recently one of India's showpiece heart care facilities was accused of making money whilst being a charitable outfit. If you look around, then today's India is very unhealthy: pollution and tropical climes have only added to this miserable condition. And things are only going to worse before they get better. Indexed to health is the social state we live in. many diseases are not discussed: as if they don't exist. We today have the world's second largest HIV population and yet there is no plan. No plan to either alleviate the suffering or get into preventive care: the whole effort by NACO is once again an attempt at tokenism than some real work. Hospitals still shy away admitting people with HIV and this in 2005! We will have a pandemic when it comes to HIV and yet no one is talking about it. State-run institutions are doddering: there is a lack of both talent and equipment and here we are trying to hawk medical tourism. Much like education, health too has remained the preserve of the rich and the capable: almost ironic that people who need good care the most, are indeed the most deprived. No nation in the world can support a state-financed health initiative which is why it is so important that we give health insurance a boost but then again when will we ever debunk the Left nonsense of FDI in insurance? Our people need good health: that is their basic right. Where do I see health in 2020? Not very different from where it is today.

I see more big business getting into the business of health but I do not see health being either broad-based in terms of accessibility or affordability: both critical requirements for s system that must guarantee health to all. I see our HIV situation worsening and that alone will push the healthcare bill beyond what we can afford and will impinge on other areas such as infrastructure. I see the urban-rural chasm widening in this domain like never before. And in fact medical tourism will alone make the Indian a pariah in the very same hospitals that tout global excellence. Because the dollar will be more favored than the rupee. With a world that will focus increasingly in health, preventive health care will be critical. Many countries in the EU are today facing economic sanctions because of SARS: and the deaths it has caused. India can ill-afford to have either advisories or sanctions because its health environment is pathetic. So for that and that alone, we will need to focus on health with renewed vigor. Corporate India will have to play a far greater contributory role than it has played and that is what I hope we will see in 2020. A more robust and active public-private partnership in the business of health.

Having said that, there will need to be a change in the social framework that governs India and that sadly enough will not happen by 2020. The world's youngest nation has the oldest set of people governing it and that is not going to change. People with the smallest stakes in the future of India are today shaping its destiny: we have still not moved in terms of electoral politics from being caste-driven to being issue-driven and the Lalu Yadavs represent a malaise in our democracy that is not going to go away. For many reasons, it is right in its existence. We have through various steps taken in our history till date, been a country that has moved away from the aims and aspirations of the masses, Even today, there are 500 people in Lutyens Delhi who try and shape the destiny of 1.2 billion Indians. This inequality is countered at the hustling in a manner that leaves governance starved of any goodness. There are only a few good men in Indian politics and most of them are there not by inclination but either by design or by family calling. We are even today happy worshippers of the dynasty, which is both good and bad. Dynastic politics represents continuity but also engenders the worst kind of sycophancy, which prevents rationality from permeating the decision-making progress. And that is my real worry; I do not believe we will travel very far as far as the political idiom of this country is concerned. And leaders who have taken grave political risks have led countries that have made that economic transformation. Be it Le Kuan Yew or Mikhail Gorbachev or Margaret Thatcher. This risk-appetite is missing in the Indian politician and will continue to be absent in 2020. We will see more regionalism in our politics at a time when some level of federalism would be of great help. I am not a great believer that bullying will exit Indian politics: the demands made by the Left that we see today will only get shriller because of the influences of regionalism in Indian politics. Add to that the real lack of genuine and honest talent; we will remain a politically challenged country even in 2020.

I am no soothsayer so will not even hazard a guess as to who will rule us: no matter which party is in power, caste and sectarianism will not elude us and this will be our biggest failing in the next five years. If not in the next hundred! My wish is that we become a society which functions in spite of the politics of the day: where we gain so much economic muscle, that people like Pappu Yadav and Raju Bhaiyya pale in comparison. Where the Left continues to dissent as we march on. Because the elephant cannot remain one when the world is looking at agility of thought and purpose. Which is why, like the tiger, we have to pretend to be the Lord of the Jungle even if we aren't. I believe with greater education, will come greater awareness of what is good and what is not; of what is right and what is not and perhaps that can contribute to the changing landscape of electoral politics but to hope that it will happen by 2020 is being a bit of a Walter Mitty.

One area of enduring concern is the way we behave: not in terms of basic etiquette but as a society with each other. The attitudes we possess and the social norms we observe. Today's India is still largely feudal. The new found consumerism that we tom-tom is in fact not a blessing but indeed a curse. Our festivals have become enterprises of commerce; dowry has taken on a new form and our corporate world still suffers from monopolistic tendencies of the worst kind. I hope all of this will disappear. In a global order, there is no place for jingoism and that is what some of our cries for help at least in terms of industry, are. I have a huge wish list from industry. I hope, by 2020, industry gives back in greater measure not only to its shareholders but also to the community at large. I hope CSR is not another term that needs to be parked in Annual Reports but becomes something more tangible and more real. I believe industry will have a tremendous rile to fill that perceptual gap between the haves and the have-not's and once this understanding dawns on them, we will be fine. To alter the phrase, let a thousand Tata's bloom. We need our companies to have not just large profits but equally, large hearts. We must figure not only on The Rich Lists but also on The Give Lists. Philanthropy is sadly missing in almost every Indian. We don't give as much as we should. Ironically, research has proved time and again, that the poor give more than the rich: in pure statistical terms. This needs to change. I hope as a country, we become a more equal society by 2020. A society, which can actually reward the good and correct the wrongs. Through an ideology which is embracing and not isolationist.

Finally, the set of influencers will have to play their role too. I believe we in India have a media that for a large part has sold its soul. From the time it stood as a watchdog to the time that it has been domesticated, the journey has been a sad one. I believe a country, as progressive as India and with all its inherent contradictions needs a media, which engages the mind and not just titillates. The intellectual fodder that media provided has disappeared and my belief is we can ill-afford that. We need a vibrant media and more critically a media that we can respect. Sadly, in today's India, there are very few you can either trust or respect. This must change by 2020 and once again with the Internet and the new expanding world of blogs; I believe we will see a fairer and stronger media.

We have prided ourselves on being the elephant of the jungle. Where our strength and our size are both a huge advantage. I truly believe that by 2020 we will be more tiger and less elephant. I do not for a moment think we will have our population under control, but in critical areas we will demonstrate a more aggressive and agile resolve. From being an elephant with just memory, we will become tigers with the purpose of becoming competitive. Because if there is one thing that India today lacks, it is that competitive spirit and I do not mean it in the context of industry alone: but in every sphere of life. For far too long we have allowed our karma to dictate our dharma. All that needs to change and will change by 2020. We will be a far more responsible society. We will be far more agile and we will be the world's oyster. But like all makeovers, this will be a journey riddled with obstacles and with pain. Which is why our past as elephants will enable us higher tolerance levels. Which is why I believe, by 2020 when the world will feed on GM foods and run hybrid cars, what is the harm if India is a cross between an elephant and a tiger?