May 31, 2020
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The Arriving Millions

Multitudes have to be connected to modernity for our great leap forward

The Arriving Millions
Narendra Bisht
The Arriving Millions

It has become a cliche to speak of India as a land of paradoxes. The old joke about our country is that anything you say about India, the opposite is also true. We like to think of ourselves as an ancient civilisation but we are also a young republic; our IT experts stride confidently into the twenty-first century but much of our population seems to live in each of the other twenty centuries. Quite often, the opposites coexist quite cheerfully. One of my favourite images of India is from the last Kumbh Mela, of a naked sadhu, straight out of central casting, with matted hair, ash-smeared forehead and scraggly beard, a rudraksha mala around his scrawny neck and a distant gaze in his eyes, for all the world a picture of timeless other-worldliness, chatting away on a mobile phone.

Young Indians are growing into such a paradoxical India. What are the prospects for the expansion of the participative political space in tomorrow’s India, say over the next two decades? To me this desirable objective requires both growth and equity. It is happening, but there’s still a lot that needs to be done before we get there.

The benefits of economic growth must reach all Indians—the majority of whom are young, and the majority of whom are poor. Statisticians tell us that the current proportion of the total Indian population under 25 years of age is 51 per cent and the proportion under 35 is about 66 per cent. This predominance of youth in the population is expected to last until 2050, with the average age of an Indian in 2020 expected to be 29 years.

This is both good news and bad news. The good news is that this means we will have a productive, dynamic, even youthful working-age population for decades, while most of the planet, including China, is ageing. (China’s current average age is 38; in ten years, it will be 50). We used to bemoan our failures at population control, especially in contrast to China; but when one single Chinese, born from his country’s one-child policy, is desperately trying to support four grandparents, his Indian counterpart, the child of our country’s population-control failures, will be riding the cusp of a demographic boom. In the next twenty years, the labour force in China will shrink by five per cent, and in the industrialised ‘Northern’ world, by four per cent; in the same time frame, India’s labour force will increase by 32 per cent.

But then, there’s the bad news. The availability of a human resource of such magnitude only means anything if we can feed, house, clothe, educate and train these young people so they can actually contribute to socio-economic change. If we fail to provide them the opportunities to make something of their lives in the new India, the same population could be not only a burden but even a threat, since so much of terrorism and extremist violence in our country is carried out by embittered and unemployed young men.

The average age of an Indian in 2020 will be 29. We’ll have a productive, dynamic nation when the planet will have aged.

How are we going to give them these opportunities? Plainly not through agriculture alone, because rural India already cannot sustain the 600 million people currently trying to live off the land. That is why India is suffering the painful tragedy of farmer suicides every time the monsoon disappoints and the harvests fail to sustain a debt-ridden farmer’s family. Over the next two decades, India will witness a massive migration from the rural areas to the urban, both to existing cities and towns and through the transformation of rural centres into urban townships. In turn, this will have an impact on other vital aspects of Indian life. First, on our education system, which will have to cope with hundreds of millions of young people who no longer intend to be farmers and peasants, but will want the education that will equip them to lead viable urban lives. Second, on our demand for and consumption of energy, which will multiply exponentially as new infrastructure is built and as urban dwellers seek electricity, water, drainage, roads, telephone connections and mass transit. Today, 400 million Indians, overwhelmingly in rural areas, are not even connected to the electricity grid. Tomorrow they will be. Our government aims to increase power generation in India by seven times—700 per cent—over the next 25 years.

If, say, 300 million Indians were to move from the villages to the towns in the next two decades or less, can we absorb all of them, educate all of them, employ all of them? If urban India succeeds in accommodating and absorbing these young people, we can enhance their life chances by enabling them to seize the opportunities of the twenty-first century. This is a task that must be taken on by a society that in 2009 passed a Right to Education Act, embracing all children everywhere in our country. Right now, desperately poor parents in India, working as rickshaw-pullers and domestic servants, are scrimping and saving to send their children to mediocre private schools that they can ill afford, because they see a decent education in English as the best guarantee of their children’s future. Now, the state is stepping in to ensure that their dreams do not have to constitute an impossible burden on them.

If that works, and we bring the benefits of education to every illiterate child in India today, then perhaps 200 million of the 300 million people I spoke about will suddenly be able to compete with the rest of the world. I say to Westerners: these Indians tomorrow will be able to answer your phones, make your airline reservations and pursue your credit-card defaulters, but they will also be able to read your mris, design your automobiles, write your legal briefs and invent your next gadgets.

That’s if we succeed. What if we fail? As a political representative in India today, I certainly do not take the prospects of success for granted. The process of doing what I have described is not just huge in itself, it also involves something no society, not even China, has yet attempted. And that is to connect millions of citizens in a functioning democracy to their own government: not just to announce entitlements that will be showered upon them by a munificent government, but to provide opportunities that they are expected to grasp for themselves, and to create delivery mechanisms that ensure that these opportunities and entitlements are not just theoretical, but real and accessible.

This is essential in all societies, but it is indispensable in a democracy. As a Member of Parliament, I am struck by the fact that a majority of the voters in every Indian constituency are, by international standards, poor. The basics—food, clothing, shelter, roads, electricity, drinking water, jobs—dominate our politics. This is why my party has focused on inclusive growth—the combination of economic development and social justice as the lodestar of its work.

If this is important enough when voters are poor, it is deeply significant when they are both poor and young. Young people in India are now asking that their voices be heard, that their issues be addressed and that their roles be recognised. They want to be accepted as partners for development, helping to chart a common course and shaping the future for everyone.

As young India grows into and demands change, our national politics is undergoing a vital shift as well. I believe that a major reason why my party won the 2009 general elections is that our political leadership was able to delink the national polity from the incendiary issues of religious identity and caste denomination that other parties had built their appeal upon. Instead, we put the focus on what the people needed—more development, better governance, wider socio-economic opportunities.

And yet, paradoxically, the stresses of economic development have created disparities which risk becoming centrifugal forces, dividing our society between rich and poor, urban and rural. To counteract this, we need to devise creative, ambitious responses to deal with the challenges faced by our people—to connect them to the opportunities the twenty-first century offers.

One such response is the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), which provides a hundred days of paid employment as a matter of right to one member of every rural family below the poverty line. Another is the expansion of microcredit to the rural poor, and a third possible response in the near fut­ure will be the Food Security Act my government is currently working on.

Young Indians grow up in an India of hi-tech and tradition. We’ve to connect 500 million Indians to the rest of the world.

The objective of such measures is inclusion and connection—inclusion in the great Indian 21st century story, and connection to the institutional structures within which that story unfolds. In my visits to the poor and dispossessed, when I am in Thiruvananthapuram, I am acutely conscious that the opposite is still the reality for millions of my fellow Indians. They face exclusion and disconnection for a variety of reasons: their place in the traditional social structure, their caste, their poverty, but also because our country has not been able to build the physical means—roads, highways, power transmission lines, telephone systems, schools—to connect them. India’s most powerful young leader, Rahul Gandhi, rightly speaks of two Indias—one connected, one not. Establishing the connection between the two Indias is vital to our country’s place in the world, and vital to developing a convincing sense of a liberal democratic India.

And if we succeed—when we succeed—we will be connecting 500 million Indians, over the next two decades, to their own country and to the rest of the world. Half a billion villagers will join the global village. That is an exciting prospect. But only then can we truly speak of an India ready to fulfil its huge potential.

Yes, we still have huge problems to overcome. Some claim we are a superpower, but we are also super poor. We can’t really be both of those. We have to overcome our poverty. We have to deal with the hardware of development—the ports, the roads, the airports, all the infrastructural progress we need to make—and the software of development: the human capital, the need for ordinary people in India to be able to have a couple of square meals a day, to be able to send their children to a decent school, and to aspire to work a job that will give them opportunities in their lives to transform themselves. We are, however fitfully, on course to do all this.

But to play a major role in the 21st century—to fulfil its undoubted potential—India also needs to solve its internal problems. We must ensure that we do enough to keep our people healthy, well-fed and secure—and secure not just from jehadi terrorism, a real threat, but from the daily terror of poverty, hunger and ill-health. Progress is being made: we can take satisfaction from India’s success in carrying out three kinds of revolutions in feeding our people—the ‘green revolution’ in foodgrains, the ‘white revolution’ in milk production and, at least to some degree, a ‘blue revolution’ in the development of our fisheries. But the benefits of these revolutions have not yet reached the third of our population still living below the poverty line.

Our growth was never only about per capita income figures. It was a means to an end. And the ends we cared about were the uplift of the weakest sections of our society, the expansion of employment possibilities for them, the provision of decent healthcare and clean drinking water. Those ends remain. Whether we grow by nine per cent, as we once did, or by just about six per cent, as we did in 2012, our fundamental commitment must be to the bottom 25 per cent of our society.

But it’s all taking place, this great adv­enture of conquering those real challenges which none of us in India can pretend don’t exist. And it is all taking place in an open society, in a rich and diverse and plural civilisation, in one that is open to the contention of ideas and interests within it, unafraid of the prowess or the products of the out­side world, wedded to the democratic pluralism that is India’s greatest strength, and determined to liberate and fulfil the creative energies of its people. That is the transformed India of the early 21st century, and its future—and the place of young leadership in that future—is worth celebrating.

Courtesy: Wisdom Tree; India: The Future is Now. Edited by Shashi Tharoor. Hardbound. 192pp. Price Rs 495; Contributors: Anantkumar Hegde, Anurag Singh Thakur, Hamdullah Sayeed, Jay Panda, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Kalikesh Singh Deo, M.B. Rajesh, Milind Deora, Nishikant Dubey, Poonamben Veljibhai Jat, Priya Dutt Roncon, Sanjay Jaiswal.

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