India is at a cross-roads today. It has experimented with democracy as well as socialism however flawed it might have been. It has a significant and growing portion of its people living with a decent standard of living, even though that is a minority of the population and not comparable with the developed world. It has increased life expectancy from about 32 to 68 years and birth rate per woman has declined some in recent years (a positive indicator vis-a-vis population).
India is the pharmacy of the developed world and a software-services power.
From here, India can go the slow tortuous way of Russia/Brazil or it can go the path leading to a pre-eminent developed nation like it was a few centuries past. When we think about we we want to be, it is worth thinking about some benchmarks to help us check if we are heading on the right path and how far we are. The ultimate metric for India’s success has to be the metric that has always drawn people to any developed nation : the quality of life enjoyed by an average or middle class citizen. This metric was true 1400 years ago when Chinese traveler Hien Tsang visited India and was wowed – and this is true today when Indian travelers visit the USA for the first time.
This metric is important because countries like China even though fast developing – have demonstrably fared poorly on this metric. Not surprisingly, no one wants to move to China even though it is justifiably “the factory of the world”.
So what are the constituents of this quality-of-life metric? Clean drinking water, a safe (non-health damaging) environment, nutrition, education, health care and housing would be the most pertinent factors. In my opinion, these constituent factors have roughly been listed above in the order that their lack would most threaten our progress as a society.
Without going into each of these factors let us focus on one of the big threats which has caused entire civilizations in the past to collapse – the Mayans of Central America for example. Clean drinking water is a serious crisis in modern India exacerbated by population growth, poor planning and poor use of resources. Like trapping rainwater/runoff for eaxmple. The areas of India most often flooded are the ones in dire need of clean water for most of the year. Even in a capital city like Delhi, there is not a reliable and adequate supply of municipal water. In smaller towns and cities, water borne diseases run rampant due to water sources that are untreated or unsafe due to pollution by industrial waste.
The enablers of the quality of life metric are growth in business, productivity and good use of natural resources. All of these require a tremendous investment in education and basic infrastructure. That is of course, well known. What is important though is that all the investment and resources that is required by the country is already in the country but is trapped or discouraged by a poor protection of rights : property rights – physical, financial and intellectual, and judicial rights. The super-catalytic effect these protections can have on the growth of a country or the lack thereof is explained and documented by the acclaimed economist Hernando de Soto in his book “Why Capitalism triumphs in the West and fails everywhere else”.
This requires a two pronged approach :
– participation of well-educated Indians from the middle class in people’s movements, media and politics to rebuild and reclaim decrepit institutions
– heavy investment in education so that people recognize what is important and can be great contributors. The poster child for this is Ireland which changed from a sender of hordes of immigrants to the USA for over 150 years, to a “European Tiger” within the course of the last 15 years.
Once we have established these protections and invested enough to make quality education accessible even to the poor, it will open the floodgates for progress towards our quality-of-life metric.
The other thing that is missing in India is respect for other Indians and Indian-ness. I am convinced that this (self-respect) is the biggest strength of the United States and this has to be the biggest strength of any country that wants to pick itself up from its bootstraps. Once we have that in addition, I’m willing to bet my lifesavings that India will leapfrog China and Europe and be restored to the glory that Hien Tsang saw. Citizens of the world would see India as a model, much as it was seen for several millenia.
(VK is an IT professional who also writes on Tech Notes, Snippets, Trends and Business
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