As elections approach in India on the 18th of April, I was reflecting on my aspirations and hopes for India. My country is one that will always continue to inspire humanity. We are a nation that have gone through many changes over the last five millennium and will continue to undergo change. India has absorbed, bewildered, amazed and inspired humanity for as long as time itself.
I was born in a small village. Both of my parents are both from small villages in Tamil Nadu. The framing of my life’s context and those of my thoughts are shaped by my own personal experiences of my India. My reflections below are very much around urgent areas that should be improved for the betterment of my fellow Indians.
Retain our pluralism
The beauty of India has only ever been amplified by her pluralism. In recent years, the violence and deaths surrounding the beef bans leading to cow vigilante violence has reached a crescendo with the flames of discontent being fanned by self-interested groups. In this cauldron of violence, it is not just the Muslims but also other well-meaning Indians, such as Swami Agnivesh who has promoted social and communal harmony have been attacked physically.
The rising persecution on religious minorities is a trend that is also of grave concern. It is not merely the Muslims but the Christians who are also increasingly being targeted in spates of communal attacks and tensions.
India should always remain a land where pluralist ideals are supported and upheld. A land where people of all faiths, all backgrounds and all creeds are treated with respect and dignity.
My India has always been a cauldron of hope, freedom and succour to all people. My hope and my desire is that the carefully woven social fabrics of society are not damaged beyond repair.
We have witnessed a number of real economic turbulence brought on to the people through demonetisation which impacted the poor and rural community more than others. Going to my villages, and seeing people queuing up for hours in the extreme heat to withdraw money to purchase daily essentials was painful. It wasn’t like the experts, including the Reserve Bank of India, did not warn the authorities who implemented demonetisation that it was going to rock the economy.
People were driven to beg for their own money from the banks. This has caused an economic impact that is still being felt two years on.
The poor and confused application of the Goods and Services Tax also did not help and small businesses (who are the lifeblood of the Indian economy) were hit particularly hard.
Economists often refer to the demographics dividend which India enjoys, namely that of a young population. However, in order to enjoy the benefits of a young population, there needs to be a relentless focus on creating jobs and enhancing employability options the people, particularly the young. A focus on manufacturing needs to be coupled with the new skills that people will need in order to be gainfully employed in an age of automation and robotics.
There needs to be better access to capital because there isn’t sufficient lending in the economy, particular to small and medium sized businesses. A well-regulated capital market that supports the government ambitions and aims is crucial for funding to help grow the economy.
Protect intellectual diversity and discourse
I referred earlier to India’s traditions of pluralism. The intellectual diversity and discourse of India has been what kept us at the forefront of innovation and scientific advancement and discovery. Sadly, we are seeing a regression in this aspect. We are seeing press freedom being curtailed, we see increasing marginalisation and reciprocal condemnation by leading Indian thinkers and we see the active undermining of Indians who only seek to protect the nation, such as the ex-RBI governor, Raghuram Rajan.
India’s progress can only be further enhanced if it allows for a diversity of views and opinions. We do not exist in a nation that allows for group think. It is only when people have the right to challenge, question, shape and ultimately improve our thinking that we can continue our progress as a nation.
Smothering dissent leads to a state of autocracy which is against the very soul of who we ought to be as a nation.
Resolving deep seated societal problems
I have written in my blog often on the dangers and perils of economic inequality. Economic inequality remains one of the biggest challenges in India. Creating meaningful employment, providing educational access, supporting social mobility and improving the quality of life for all, rather than just the few, will be crucial for India.
Failure to do so will see the economic dislocation lead to a social fracture that will hurt the entire nation. The more we can do to strengthen the underlying economic structure and spreading the wealth more broadly, the better our chances of harmonious progress.
Economic alienation and rising extremism go hand in hand. Efforts to stem one will help reduce the other.
There is also a growing North-South divide in India, with the central government losing both influence and favour in the South. This has not been helped by the active alienation of the South by New Delhi, be it in term of support or recognition of the contributions made by the Southern states. The Indian journey since Independence has been one where the different states from the North to the South have had challenges but with a common view of progressing the nation together. However as things stand, there is simmering resentment in the South. Part of this is driven by a notion of Hindi-supremacy which the Southern states object to. Another part of this is that despite being the economic engines of the nation, southern states like Tamil Nadu only get a small proportion of tax revenues compared to the significant federal funding the northern statues like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh get.
India still has a large distance to travel in terms of what we do to address the endemic problem of corruption. The Corruption Perception Index (CPI) ranks India 81st in a list of 180 countries with a corruption index lower than the global average. The scourge of corruption is a drain on the people, it is an virus that will suck the lifeblood of enterprise and productivity from the nation, eventually rendering it lifeless. There are no quick fixes to this but considering how we fairly remunerate our civil servants will be one important step. Our policemen, soldiers, public administrators and other civil servants need to be given a fair wage which will help reduce the temptation to boost their income through other means. More punitive and bold measures are required to penalise those who bribe and those who get bribed.
Protect our farmers
Finally, my hope for India is how we protect our farmers – our cradles of security. Our farmers should be cherished and treasured for the sacrifices they make year on year. They take on debt, they toil in the fields, they struggle without water in drought after drought, they see their peers committing suicide in the thousands, and yet they persist. Their persistence is what feeds the nation.
My hope and my dream is that the farmers of India are given the respect and the support they need. Their success and well-being is the well being of India. When the farmers of India fail, then India as a collective will have failed.
I come from a small farming community of padi fields and coconut plantations. I have witnessed first hand the bureaucracy that strangles farmers from getting insurance money that is rightfully theirs, months after it is due to be paid. I have seen how they struggle without water after having planted the seeds and applied fertilisers. I have seen their pain in not being able to pay back their debts. I have seen their struggles first hand. My hope is to provide a voice for them, to help my fellow Indians realise that when our farmers flourish, then all of us flourish.
As an Indian, I remain an optimist. These are but temporary challenges, and I remain confident in our collective ability to continue our onward march towards progress. Jai Hind.
As the beautiful song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” goes:
When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark
At the end of a storm
There’s a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark
Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
Though your dreams be tossed and blown
Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone
You’ll never walk alone