Inconclusive India

Inconclusive India

Mini Teaser: The resolution of the paradoxes that define India will determine its future trajectory.

by Author(s): John R. Thomson

Chennai, home to the call-center industry and one of the country's most efficiently run large cities, is placing half its 3,200 tons of daily waste volume under modern, private waste removal and treatment. Not surprisingly, such cities are among those most interesting to prospective foreign investors, and other urban centers are getting the message.

The most banal of popular Indian practices illustrates the extent of the challenge. Despite numerous public latrines, it is common practice for men to relieve themselves against walls and for not a few women and children to squat at curbsides. Beside a wide disregard for control of human waste, there is almost universal participation in littering, whether nonchalantly dropping a used paper while walking or jettisoning an empty bottle while riding in a public or private vehicle. Such habits promise to die slowly, if at all, but the famously fastidious Gandhi can serve as inspiration.

IN ADDITION to the commitment of funds to revamp infrastructure, there is a palpable need to heighten a sense of pan-Indian responsibility-and destiny-in the spirit of the Mahatma. And that importantly includes coming face to face with the legacy of corruption.

Seasoned international businessmen place Indian bureaucracy in first position for inefficiency and close to the top in corruption, when compared with other countries. Needless demand for forms and approvals daunt the most patient prospective investor, and governmental red tape is a key reason cited by foreign businessmen for deciding not to do business in India.

Opinions are divided as to whether government inefficiency and corruption can in fact be significantly reduced, much less eliminated. Far too many Indian and foreign businesses continue to pay for "facilitation" of the complex, multi-tiered project approval process. As Indians commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of their independence, it is unfortunately fitting to note Mahatma Gandhi's wry observation: "Corruption and hypocrisy ought not to be inevitable products of democracy, as they undoubtedly are today."

The political side of government is as murky as the bureaucratic. At every level, politicians abound who are ready and willing to assist in moving projects forward-and who are equally ready to block a project if not properly "consulted." The Bharatiya Janata Party, the leading opposition party nationally, with strong support from religious Hindus, is no less a stranger to corruption than the Congress Party, which traces its roots to Mahatma Gandhi, or than the communist parties.

Indeed, in recent months D. Raja, national secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI) has campaigned vociferously against public and private staff reductions and privatization of state activities, including private management of pension funds. Demagogic public outcry and private stalling tactics to the contrary, no one predicts either the CPI or the Communist Party of India (Marxist), known as CPI(M), will give up the perks of coalition power. The bureaucratic miasma is endemic and, so far, there is little concerted effort to rectify it.

Within the private sector, there are encouraging voices who understand the importance of values to economic success and how spirituality remains critical to India's competitiveness, underscoring key aspects of Gandhi's message. P. R. Krishna Kumar, managing director of Arya Vaidya Pharmacy (Coimbatore) Ltd.-a firm specializing in Ayurveda, the 5,000 year-old natural system of mind, body and spiritual care-believes India must regain its moral balance:

Our country's strength was its great spiritual awareness. Dharma-righteousness-was our greatest asset. Education should be focused inside, on every individual knowing who he is and why he is here, not just on knowing about everything outside the individual. Today, everything except that is taught.

More positively, Krishna Kumar sees

more and more people and institutions seeking and working on solutions. Indian and foreign companies are increasingly taking the challenge, forming educational and welfare units for their employees and the communities where they operate. There is a steadily growing social awareness.

Some public officials are successfully harnessing that emerging sense of communal responsibility and understand how promoting transparency, good governance and encouraging investment benefit everyone. While a number of communist functionaries have proved adept at little else than commanding headlines, the communist Chief Minister of West Bengal, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, has run a successful campaign for major industrial investment. Indian conglomerate Tata-in addition to numerous other domestic and foreign corporations-is investing billions of dollars in Kolkata and other Bengali districts. ibm is adding 3,000 West Bengal employees to its 43,000 national base, as a key part of a $6 billion Indian investment program during the next three years. Historically one of the poorest states in the country, West Bengal currently ranks second only to Gujarat in attracting foreign investment.

But the private sector cannot maintain India on its march to balanced development alone. Unfortunately for progressive governance, the country's two leading communist parties are members of Manmohan Singh's ruling coalition, making progress a stop-and-start affair. This serves as a drag on efforts to modernize and upgrade multiple facets of the country's economy.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the desperate need to reform India's educational system. There is no disagreement among leaders across the society: The country cannot continue its growth without significant overhaul and expansion of academic facilities and curricula from the elementary through the university level. To do so will require extensive investment, and therefore support of and some sacrifice by well-heeled urbanites.

The country has some noteworthy institutions, including the India Institute of Technology, India Institute of Science, and Delhi and Hyderabad Universities, but there is a serious lack of facilities and quality learning at all levels. Domestic and foreign companies alike find filling more than menial positions increasingly difficult. Newspapers run pages of vacancy announcements, regularly publishing special editorial features on the need for skilled manpower.

The state system through grade twelve is in shambles, providing such bad education that although millions of children are unschooled, buildings are closing for lack of students. Scant heed is paid to student attendance and teachers take their salaries but are themselves truant. Most educational materials are sub-par, one English text for Hindi speakers that I looked at was functionally useless. At the same time, independent, privately operated schools abound and an uncounted number of families do without other necessities to provide their children a basic education at these institutions.

Higher-education requirements are somewhat better served by the state, but supply of seats at public and private institutions is far less than demand-despite there being some 18,000 colleges and universities, all but a few are pedagogically deficient.

English fluency and cricket are two of Britain's great legacies, and although India retains its numerical lead in English, regional competition abounds. The call-center business, formerly dominated by India, now significantly includes the Philippines, with its strong English-speaking base. A greater challenge, with a major impact to be felt by 2020 and thereafter, is China's decision to make English a compulsory subject. Should China surpass India in English fluency, observers concede that India will be hard-pressed to successfully challenge the giant to its northeast, economically or politically.

Educational reform, in short, cannot come soon enough. Professor Gautam Desiraju of Hyderabad University has sounded the clarion call: "Remedial measures in our science and education sectors need to be taken incisively, swiftly, and almost ruthlessly. Our fatal attraction for incremental changes and consensual thinking has been our undoing." Dr. Desiraju believes "developing 20 good universities with funding at the Chinese levels is not beyond us."

Most debate focuses on each of 17,500 mostly mediocre colleges affiliating with one of the 350 universities, plus accreditation of foreign institutions. While the latter could provide some relief to a chronic shortage of qualified teachers, curriculum restructuring must also be addressed.

Moreover, the first twelve years must be completely restructured. Prime Minister Singh has called for mandatory education through the sixth year, a laudable goal that can only be achieved if facilities, teacher and content issues are solved. "The education system needs to be expanded rapidly at all levels", Dr. Singh believes, and predicts that "the success of our educational initiatives at the grassroots level, along with India's favorable demographics, will ensure that a far greater number pass out of high school each year."

The prime minister, like virtually all informed observers, does not question that jobs will be available for the qualified. The question, rather, is "Can India actually provide sufficiently qualified workers to fuel the ever-expanding demand in the marketplace?" A retired Indian-American professor at a major U.S. university put it this way when visiting his fatherland: "There is no downside to improved education. It is in some ways comparable to what so many countries have learned about lowering taxes. In the case of education, the more and better educated the Indian population, the greater will be India's economic growth and, ultimately, its strength as a nation."

The Ayes Have It

THERE IS much to be done if India is to continue on its path to progress. That said, there is an undeniable, palpable sense of progress in India.

On my first visit forty years ago, the Indians I met were strikingly calm, courteous and resigned to the languorous, if stultifying, pace of their lives. Today, despite a geometrically faster pace, most seem outwardly calm and so positively involved that one imagines their energy and enthusiasm can be the deciding factor in keeping the economy, and the society as a whole, on the upswing.

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