The year 2019 has been an unsurprising mixed bag for India, with both encouraging pay-offs on the technological front and unimpressive outcomes in socio-economic sectors. As the celebrated Canadian cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker posited, human lives overall are much healthier, wealthier and freer than in the past. Likewise, India too had its achievements, which include absence of or reductions in epidemic casualties, famine deaths and extreme poverty conditions. Global Innovation Index, 2019, acknowledged India’s upsurge by 29 positions in comparison with previous years. On a positive note, India continues to be the world’s leading outsourcing source of international technological firms apart from being home to start-ups, the record capital of which touched the highest in 2019.
India’s agricultural scene has made headway in food crops production, supported by advanced agricultural technology. Increased yield capacity helped India surge a little up on the World Food Security Index from 76th rank in 2018 to 72nd place in 2019. Indian accomplishments in space challenge also attracted global attention for its spectacular performance. Besides launching many pathbreaking satellites successfully, India made its first attempt to put Vikram lander on the moon, which has been a stupendous leap in space engineering except for a last minute error that unfortunately led to the lander’s crash, just about two kilometres away from the lunar surface.
There has also been perceptible, though slight, progress in the status of women by way of empowerment through legal, economic, political and social measures. Gradually, the number of women who have become aware of their potential is increasing. They have realised the power of their productivity and learnt how to make use of their innate strengths. Many Indian women have donned top positions as CEOs, lawmakers, social activists and also as civil servants. Even in rural areas, they have started embracing modernisation by busting the chains of irrational traditions, customs and cultural practices.
India has registered some highly encouraging gains in the medical field. The fact that India has completed more than five years as a ‘polio-free-nation’ is a testimony to the immense confidence and honest work on the part of stakeholders in the health sector and the whole initiative is a remarkable feat. The number of people living with HIV/AIDS has declined due to consistent efforts in the area of raising consciousness, hygiene promotion and safe sex practices. The average lifespan is on an incline owing to an upswing in nutritional standards and advancements in diagnostics and treatment.
Imperatives to Note
At the same time, it is imperative that India needs to acknowledge its failings and take lessons from 2019. Despite worthwhile results in medical and health fields, India has not yet been able to come up to the extent of bettering its human capital. As per the World Human Capital Index, India’s productivity is very low at 158th position out of 195 countries surveyed. Productivity is determined by human capital, which takes into account the quality and quantity of health and education. Sadly, India has not been able to invest sufficiently in them, as a consequence of which the desired level of socio-economic output could not be attained.
On the other hand, India’s place on global indices of equality, peace, happiness, goodness, anti-fragility, honesty, climate, etc, has been assessed to be at a low ebb in 2019. On the overt political front, the state of the common man’s participation has not been encouraging. The democratic system opened its doors for all to become part of the process but the necessary evil kind of majority rule suited more favourably to the educated rich. Though the electorate comprises more of the masses, the winning candidates belong to the group of elites.
Despite largesse provided to the economically and socially disadvantaged sections of society in the form of limited earmarked positions of legislators and parliamentarians, they have formed only a tiny minority in the Assembly, Parliament or Cabinet. That too, the small number of such lawmakers could not assert their share of political power in policy-making due to fear of and domination from the domineering elites.
The so-called ideals of modern secularism and traditional religiosity could not deliver the expected outcomes regarding equality, fraternity, liberty, and freedom. The rights and privileges of the marginalised groups do not yet look to be secure. The lack of respect for tolerance towards individual rights continued to drag the overall little progress down. The wrong prioritisation of the budget allocation made the developmental process upside down.
Though there was an exodus of around 7,000 millionaires from the country by mid-2019, the remaining rich have become more productive and the poor have become more impoverished. The widening disparity could be attributed among other things primarily to a lopsided formulation of plans.
India has always boasted of its secular credentials. Indian policymakers seemed to have forgotten that individual rights assume primacy over other factors like namesake secularism, ritualisms, democracy, nuclear energy, space technology or industrialisation. When personal freedom is secure, the people are naturally able to achieve true democracy and its derivatives. Otherwise, as is the case in India, the weak and the poor are not fully able to enjoy their rightful opportunities, as a result of which there is neither social equity, economic parity nor national unity in the real sense.
Poor educational levels of the masses have also adversely affected the national economy. Whatever the goods produced for sales, the market could be found only in the middle and upper class, leaving 70% of the total market potential untapped due to falling purchasing power of the average citizen. An illiterate poor person has no need to read, hence books or pens are not required. An ignorant youth has no idea to update knowledge, hence news channels are not a necessity. Apart from functional illiteracy, digital illiteracy is much more rampant among the people. Though India takes pride for being one of the fastest growing mobile markets in the world, its digital literacy is only 10%. It lags behind in terms of internet connectivity. Hence, computers are simply irrelevant for 90% of the population, though the world is almost taking on to AI technologies in a big way.
Policies of Concern
Policymakers, as 2019 reflects, hardly seem to pay attention to such glaring indicators of a limping economy. They often undermine the pivotal linkage between functional and digital literacies. Knowing alphabet and numbers makes literacy functional that, in turn, becomes a means to enhance various skills, including that of computers. Education means awareness and ability to make use of functional literacy so that the newly gained knowledge and past wisdom could be applied productively. Therefore, any skill development initiative without promoting and realising functional literacy is not gainful. Because, it will affect inculcation of infotech skills negatively in the rudimentary stage itself due to the absence of education. Lack of promotion in the literacy enhancement of the vulnerable masses has weakened the economic foundations of India. This is due to the simple fact that most of the population, especially the jobless rural youth, have turned unskilled and unproductive in the current days of knowledge-digital-attention combine economy, which is sweeping across the world.
As long as the disadvantaged groups are ignored in this respect, the socio-economic entity of India remains endangered as the disgruntled masses tend to act like free radicals. As the British cosmologist Stephen Hawking feared, a great divide is ensuing between the haves and the have-nots due to increased application of automation procedures. The same widening gap has since long existed in Indian society due to deprivation of means of livelihood to the poor. Automation will further add woes by usurping manual jobs hitherto held by them.
On the other hand, the rich who own or invest in AI technologies will grow much richer. Hawking’s idea of sharing the resultant wealth looks like a distant dream as the ethical inculcation and compassionate approach have hardly been adhered to due to the age-old practices of inequalities and indignities that are still in vogue. The rich owners of automation firms would rarely allow corresponding high wages to their own workers. Therefore, whatever the benefits that technology would bring in, will be cornered by the rich and the powerful. Same way, the advances in biotechnology and medical sciences would be solely at their own use. It is good that the rich continue to progress but they should not simultaneously undermine the poor from coming up to better standards of living.
Poverty and Prosperity
History is replete with glaring examples of those events wherein the progress of the haves was hampered due to the persistent backwardness of the have-nots. In 1944, the ILO Declaration of Philadelphia stated that, “Poverty anywhere is a threat to prosperity everywhere.” On similar lines, Martin Luther King Jr stated in 1963, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Much earlier, Karl Marx instigated the proletariat to unite in their struggle to win the world as they have nothing to lose. If the Israeli thinker Yuval Noah Harari’s predictions come true, the divide between the rich and the poor will extend to many more areas like health, talent and creativity. The economic edge, which the rich have been enjoying, would facilitate them to achieve the unimaginable.
With unprecedented advances, the field of biotechnology will enable the affordable to prolong life span. Highly specialised doctors can perform body transplants at exorbitant rates, which the rich can only bear. Already being accessible to AI, the rich will further develop their infotech skills. More knowledge, more skills and more affordability will hone their creativity. Such opportunities seem to diminish for the poor, who lag behind further.
The government must understand that the laws alone can never address the problems completely. Too many non-essential and fearsome rules, as enunciated, for instance, in traffic enforcement or tax administration will not yield requisite dividends. On legal and policymaking front, the government may have succeeded in implementing its pyrrhic regulations but the damage experienced in ground reality situation in 2019 has clearly made its success a futile attempt, as the current downslide of economic growth rate clearly indicates. Behavioural interventions through confidence building mechanisms can redress the crises to a large extent.
Way back in 2015, the World Development Report pointed out that the developmental policies became more effective when combined with insights into human behaviour. The report found that policy decisions supported by behavioural economics delivered impressive results in healthcare and education. India must also appreciate the fact that its power, potential, progress and peace lie in its unity. Divisiveness only weakens it. While presenting the draft of the Constitution in the Constituent Assembly about 70 years ago, Dr Ambedkar had already warned the nation to abstain from schismatical politicking tactics. He enumerated various instances wherein India suffered at the hands of alien rulers due to diminutive fraternal bond on the part of Indians themselves. With the proliferation of social media usage and widespread post-truth phenomena, there is a visibly increasing trend of disunity and hence the need for prioritised heed to build up the spirit of fraternity through constructive and inclusive measures.
Targets for 2020
In a nutshell, what I propose is that India’s outlook in 2020 ought to be more towards a handful of basics at least, on a preferential basis. Hundred per cent literacy and education, both functional and digital, will not only empower everyone, including the downtrodden to face current and future challenges with confidence and reason and explore opportunities with skills and creativity but also enable them to get healthy by keeping avoidable illnesses at bay through awareness of hygienic care and sanitised environment.
As we know, one of the main factors for being poor is the costly treatment of diseases. Also, rationality-oriented education will help the ignorant masses unshackle the fetters of self-imposed restrictions of superstitious mindset so that they can keep their mind and heart open for realising socio-economic and political possibilities.
Emphasis on inculcation of goodness through socialisation and sensitisation processes will ensure the spirit of oneness and integrity of the nation. Research studies have shown that creativity when coupled with goodness orientation led to overall commercial productivity.
Destructive modes of creativity like weaponry and warfare have always resulted in economic devastation and human tragedy. Facilitating a fearless environment will boost economic ventures as well as free pursuit of life choices. The American developmental biologist Bruce Lipton found in his studies that it is the perception that makes the individual decide either to grow or to be safe or either to fight or to flee, depending upon the environment in which one is. Hope such a congenial atmosphere will usher in a new society of vibrant economy and judicious politics. These few action plans will certainly help the nation fare well in 2020.
(The author is former DG Cyber Crimes, Bhopal)