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Sunday, September 26, 2021

New India’s challenge is Old India

One of the greatest changes I saw during my six years in government was the rising level of ambition in a section of our businessmen. Benchm...

Written by Sudheendra Kulkarni |
September 25, 2005

One of the greatest changes I saw during my six years in government was the rising level of ambition in a section of our businessmen. Benchmarking with the global best is no longer a mere aspiration for them, but an accomplishment. Here are a few startling facts that a friend of mine who works for a global consultancy firm in Mumbai told me recently. Today there are at least 35-40 Indian companies absolutely world-class, acquiring firms abroad with an air of self-assurance unthinkable a decade ago. When an Indian auto components company wanted to acquire an American firm and went there to carry out due diligence, it was pleasantly shocked to see that the Americans were years behind in design and manufacturing capabilities. In some areas of hi-tech manufacturing, India is today ahead of every country in the world except Japan, which is still a few notches higher.

My friend continued: ‘‘A section of the Indian industry has restructured itself so fast and adroitly that it is simply not deterred by the threat of Chinese competition, apprehensions about tariff reduction leading to our markets being swamped by cheap imports, rising oil prices — by nothing. It feels good to be an Indian as the Indian success story unfolds.’’

I felt proud seeing the patriotic hue with which he was painting today’s facts and tomorrow’s possibilities, that feeling enhanced by the spectacular view from my friend’s office at a Nariman Point skyscraper. Of the Arabian Sea bayed in by Marine Drive which at night becomes Queen’s Necklace, its semi-circular seafront lit, the highrises of distant Malabar Hill forming a fairytale chandelier at the other end of the bay. It’s a view, whether by day or night, that is designed for dreamers, for achievers, for all those who want to go for the impossible.

A lot of Indians, especially well-educated young Indians who are empowered by economic reforms, are now dreaming even higher and raring to achieve even bigger successes. Many of them are first-generation entrepreneurs. They live not only in metros, but also in smaller cities and towns. What is common to all of them is their desire to see the government act as a facilitator of their plans and not as a controller of their destinies. They constitute the ‘‘New India’’ that is being born in front of our eyes, one filled with amazing self-confidence and possessing both the resolve and capability to overcome the stiffest of challenges.

But, alas, how small still is the territory of this new challenge-busting India compared to the other India that is overwhelmed by challenges, the vast ‘‘Old India’’ that you encounter as you travel around our impoverished villages and the squalid slums in our cities. As you meet hundreds of small-scale and cottage industry entrepreneurs whose dreams are shattered, and whose employees thrown to the streets by a system where the Inspector Raj still survives. As you come across farmers — as I did recently during my visit to Andhra Pradesh to study farmers’ suicides — who tell harrowing stories that add up to a scenario of a gathering agrarian crisis. As you see municipal schools and hospitals in a worsening state of neglect, where ministers and officers make money even in the appointment of teachers and purchase of life-saving medicines. As you read reports of almost a thousand dying of encephalitis in Uttar Pradesh and of nearly 2,000 tribal children dying, yet again this year (for they have been dying for several years now), of malnutrition in Maharashtra.

We have grown used to the Two-India imagery being presented, traditionally, in rich vs. poor, city vs. village, capitalist class vs. working class and India vs. Bharat terms. In my view, the real contrast, and the only one that is useful in any transformative agenda, is between the new problem-solving India versus the old India groaning under problems due to vested interests of various stripes.

Most of these corruption-breeding vested interests reside in our governments and political parties. Exceptions apart, they are neither able, nor even are they trying, to enthuse the people and tap their limitless energy in problem-solving. Which is why, from businessmen to school establishments to charitable organisations, just about everybody who is driven by the zeal to aim higher feels that they would do better — and India would do better — if governments and political parties stopped being a part of the problem and started being a part of the solution. For wherever they have been a part of the solution, they have helped old India’s mutation into new India.

This column will be a modest attempt at thinking aloud on how all of us, united by the bonds of inclusive and integrative nationalism, might together accelerate that mutation for the greater good of every Indian.

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