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Change must be a revolution from below, it involves every one of us

It is not enough for a revolution that policies and structures keep getting changed from the top. A million persons must be doing a million ...

It is not enough for a revolution that policies and structures keep getting changed from the top. A million persons must be doing a million new things. Indeed, they must get into the habit of tinkering with and improving things — spontaneously, every day, forever. When they get into this habit, a habit exemplified in the American case by a magazine like Popular Mechanics, things that require to be changed for the better will get improved, of course. The even greater gain will be the change that would have come about in the way we look at things. We would have got into the habit of looking for solutions, of doing things, of doing things by ourselves. The air will change. Instead of being afraid of the future, we will embrace it, and busy ourselves to bringing about the Reforms that will equip us for it.

There are two excellent initiatives that show the way — the Honey Bee initiative that was begun by Professor Anil Gupta of IIM Ahmedabad, and the National Innovation Foundation that Dr Mashelkar and his associates steer. In Honey Bee students are encouraged to spend time in villages and locate inventive solutions that have been developed by ordinary folk for problems they encountered. The Foundation sifts such innovations, bestows awards for the best ones, and provides assistance for multiplying innovativeness. These are the kinds of initiatives that we need to spread to every part of the country.

The second project requires deployment of the organisational capabilities on a much greater scale. As Reforms have unleashed productive potential in sector after sector, they cannot but be benefiting the ‘‘average Indian’’ too. The data itself shows that the period of Reforms is also the period in which there has been a faster reduction in the proportion of people below the poverty line than any other period. So, I am not fazed by the hectoring, ‘‘Reforms have not helped the poor.’’

But there are two points of an altogether different kind. First, all change dislocates. Buses and three-wheelers come. Those making tongas, those driving them, those who were rearing horses for them — all go out of business. SMS wipes out the paging industry. Ever cheaper mobiles hit the custom of PCO operators. The usual counsel is, ‘‘The country must develop adequate social security nets for workers who are liable to be dislocated by change.’’ That is easier said than done: we just do not have the resources to weave nets of the order that would be required to deal with the kinds of numbers that, say, China has reportedly to handle today — anywhere up to a hundred million are said to be floating from city to Chinese city in search of work. We have neither the resources nor the political and administrative structure to contain that kind of dislocation.

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The other consideration comes into view when we consider the by-now well known figures about the IT industry: six lakh youngsters are producing seventy thousand crores worth of wealth every year. By every count that is a fantastic achievement, and it helps the country in a dozen different ways. The other way of looking at the figures is, ‘‘Creating wealth of seventy thousand crores absorbs only six lakh persons.’’ In a word, the new knowledge-based industries in which India is set to excel — and for which the Reforms vastly multiply our comparative advantage — will not create that order of jobs that we require.

The only way therefore is to go in for projects that will engage millions: bio-fuels, organic farming, medicinal plants, infrastructure projects of the kind the Prime Minister has initiated — the rural roads programme, the Golden Quadrilateral, the East-West Highway, the inter-linking of rivers. These schemes are vital in themselves. They are necessary also for the success of Reforms.

Three vital agents

But for reasons that we encountered earlier, for any of these things to happen those outside the political system have to ‘‘give history a helping hand’’. Three communities can play a vital role — intellectuals, the media, and entrepreneurs.

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One of the regrettable facts that are brought home to one assigned economic portfolios in Government is how little guidance he can garner from books on Economics and economic policy, from journals and newspapers. I have three portfolios at present — privatisation, Information Technology and Telecommunications. Each of these is an active arena, and two of the three are areas of vociferous contention. Every step is a policy issue. Each choice involves a host of considerations. In privatisation and even more so in telecom there are intense corporate battles over every tiny step. How one longs for the sober, detached, detailed, in a word for academic analysis. But I confess: I have scarcely come across a piece which enriched my colleagues and me, which made our decisions better informed.

By contrast, I learnt a great deal from discussion, even from fleeting exchanges with leaders in the political arena — say, from a person like Mr Yashwant Sinha. None of them would claim to be an economist — and yet their remarks even on the details have been far, far more instructive than those that we encounter in books and journals and from editorial commentators. I have learnt a great deal from some of the civil servants with whom I have had the chance to work. I have learnt a lot even from a simple rule that I have had in regard to businessmen. Every businessman has been welcome to my office — even those who have a direct interest in the policy options that we were considering at that moment. But upon entry, each must first pay a tax: before I hear him on the matter in which he is interested, he must give me one useful idea relating to my work. That simple rule has brought me — free! — many innovative, shrewd ideas.

But from academics and their writings, from commentators who people the editorial pages, I can scarcely source a suggestion that had not already come up in our day-to-day discussions. And yet, academics and commentators would be the first to say that the governmental structure is so ossified that it cannot generate a fresh idea!

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There was one exception. And that came from Dr Roddam Narasimha. Mr Arun Singh mentioned his work to me. Once we established contact, Dr Narasimha sent me a paper on no-frills airlines. That paper, and my distaste for financing buildings, is what led to our stopping what had long been the rage as far as civil aviation in the Northeast is concerned — the construction of new runways and airport buildings. Instead, the money was allocated as a subsidy to Indian Airlines for it to hire four 50-seater aircraft and start a taxi service connecting all capitals in the region. That excellent idea has borne rich fruit: where a person wanting to travel from Silchar to Guwahati — both in Assam — had earlier to go first to Kolkata, spend the night there, and then catch another flight the next day to Guwahati, today the entire area is knit together by those four planes flying from airport to airport throughout the day.

Of course, this is just one person’s testimony, mine. But it is the testimony of a person who is naturally inclined to look for guidance to writings of academics and commentators, of one who is reporting the experience of running three active ministries. We can set personal testimony aside and look just at what is available in the public domain. Look, for instance, at the way judgments of American and British judges are analysed by academics and commentators, and contrast that with the fate judgments of our courts suffer — there is hardly any scholarly analysis of the latter. This single contrast explains a good part of the distance in the quality of the respective judgments.

Remedying this situation is entirely within our hands: I would, therefore, plead with academics to do much more to analyse policy options, decisions, judgments.

I would urge the same thing of the media. Sometimes mere neglect by the media is enough to make a lamentable situation worse. How is it that the media has completely neglected to awaken the country to the consequences that 15 years of Communist rule has had for industrial investment in West Bengal, and therefore for employment? By treating the antics of the rulers of Bihar as just entertainment, are we not papering over the alarming consequences such malgovernance is building up for the security of the country? How come the journalists reporting out of Madhya Pradesh during the last decade never awakened us to the condition to which infrastructure had fallen?

The first thing, therefore, is to remain focused. Please do not let these new fads — ‘‘life style journalism’’; do not let the new theses — ‘‘we are in the infotainment business’’; do not let the new catch-phrases — ‘‘a newspaper is a product, it has to be marketed as a brand’’ — distract you. Great opportunities beckon the country. It also faces life and death issues. Our job is to keep the reader’s eyes glued to them, to research options, to dissect the choices that governments make. Not to divert. Not to entertain.

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And that is very different from, it is the exact opposite of just regurgitating what X or Y alleges.

Even in the context of the sorts of specific items that have come up for mention above, the media can do a lot to prepare the ground for reform:

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Document the uses to which PSUs are put — from cars and hotel rooms to not depositing mandatory dues in the Provident Fund Account; from the time it takes to arrive at a business decision to cost and time over-runs in implementing it, and whether anyone has ever been brought to book for such dereliction; from the consequences of appointing senior executives by seniority to whether the enterprises have kept up with advances in technology; and if they haven’t, is it not the private entrepreneur in that sector — the very one to be a counter-weight to whom the PSU is being kept around — is he not the one who reaps a rentier’s windfall?

Document the reality about subsidies — who reaps the 45,000 crore that are spent on these every year?

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Nail the corporate interest that has been dressed up as national interest.

Enforce the rule that no party shall block where it is in opposition what it is doing where it is in power, that no party when out of office shall denounce and block the very measures it took when it was in power.

Professionals and businessmen too can contribute a great deal. As a result of the reforms that have already been implemented, the balance of power — and even more so, of legitimacy — has shifted from Delhi to Mumbai, to Bangalore, to Hyderabad — industrialists do not stand around in corridors of government offices the way they had to five-ten years ago. Quite the contrary: governments look over their shoulders to see whether their latest announcement has had the desired effect on industry.

We must press ahead in this direction through every available device: be it ever so little as outsourcing a particular function, or more substantial — privatization of governmental units, fiscal incentives that would make it worthwhile for corporates to set up the kinds of foundations that have been so vital in the transformation of the US and Europe.

Professionals and entrepreneurs are the ones who are affecting changes in their spheres today. But these changes are confined to specific spheres. They cannot survive if the state structure disintegrates: howsoever sturdy the buildings we construct, when the earth on which they stand itself subsides, how can the buildings survive?

The first thing that professionals and the business community need to do is to realise this truism. And act on it. Businessmen still suffer from a hangover from the license-quota days: their preoccupation is not that the apparatus of governance improve; their aim — and their skill — is to use the apparatus to strike a private deal for themselves, to advance their interest, or, better still, to derail a rival. Shed this habit, attend to the general issues of governance, of society, join hands to ensure those policies and changes in procedures etc. that will help not just you but all to advance faster.

But to do this, there is one pre-requisite. They must shed timidity. Journalists write of businessmen as ‘‘Captains of Industry’’, as ‘‘Tycoons’’, as ‘‘Mughals’’, as ‘‘Media Barons’’. But I have had occasion to see them fawn and cringe before sundry politicians. Captains? Tycoons? Mughals? I am led to ask myself. Power and legitimacy have shifted to professionals and entrepreneurs. Seize them, put them to work for the common well.

Address the issues of our time. Finance intellectual effort, create the enabling eco-system for rigorous, detailed research on these issues. And make the results of that effort, the solutions that emerge from it, the dominant constituent of discourse in our country. True, the Constitution Review Commission has sunk into oblivion. But why should leaders of society wait upon Government to set up such a Commission? They should analyse, to continue the example, or they should enable others to analyse, the country’s experience on different Articles of the Constitution. They should inject the results into discourse throughout the country.

The most important task

But the most important task is to improve the type in public life.

‘‘Why is India in the condition we see around us today?’’ Professor P. Indiresan asked me one day. While I was fumbling for an answer, he pronounced, ‘‘Indiresan’s Law’’. ‘‘Indiresan’s Law?’’ I asked. ‘‘You don’t know Indiresan’s Law?’’ he asked in mock astonishment. ‘‘You should, It is: Second-rate persons select third-rate persons. You do that for fifty years and you get to where we are.’’ An almost complete explanation.

Nor is it enough to ensure that truly competent persons are at the helm. Even the Prime Minister who has unapproachable authority has to heed the notions and declamations of the general political class. So, the general level of the class itself has to be raised. The forthcoming elections are yet another opportunity to do so. The stakes are as high as they can be: whether the plane that has just taken off will continue in flight will depend on the outcome. And all of us have a responsibility in this regard.

We often blame voters for the deterioration in the quality of persons in our legislatures, and thereby our governments. But other sections — businessmen, for instance — can scarcely escape the blame: they finance and patronise many of these persons and their parties. Why not make your support conditional on the party fielding a better type of candidate? Why not make it conditional on the performance of the elected person in legislatures, in governments?

Can journalists escape blame — the disintegration of governance in parts like Bihar has been aided by the way media has lionised many ‘‘a man of the masses’’. Media can reverse all this. It can play a significant, direct role. It must continue nailing malfeasance, in mercilessly exposing, in hounding the corrupt and inefficient. Done truthfully, such effort cannot but serve the country. If the politician or party is thereby ousted, the media would have removed a tumour. If in spite of the facts having been nailed, the person and party continue, the political class would itself lose another ounce of legitimacy. In turn that will help transfer power and legitimacy — from the state to society. And that will accelerate the change that has commenced.

The point of it

The moral is simple and familiar:

A great deal has been done.

A great deal remains to be done.

Each of us can do much to ensure that gets done.

The point in public life, as in life itself, is to do one’s bit.

Concluded

Based on the Fourth M. N. Srinivas Memorial Lecture delivered by the author at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore

First published on: 07-02-2004 at 00:00 IST
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