Indulging one of my hobbies of listening to great speeches, I turned the other day to Martin Luther King’s immortal “I have a dream” speech, where he talked of the “fierce urgency of now” to address the tribulations suffered by the “negro seared in the flames of withering injustice”. I feel “the tranquilising drug of gradualism” is not good enough to allow Indians a fair chance if we do not address five major crises enveloping India. My own dream for India is one where it has addressed the crises in:
Water: The government has undertaken a multi-faceted mission mode approach that has three parts to it — revitalising rivers and fresh water lakes, harvesting rain water and changing the incentives in agriculture. A nationwide mission has been undertaken to restore our rivers ravaged by widespread encroachment and interference in their natural flows. Measures have been taken to address the colossal scale of sewage polluting the rivers. City sewage systems have been revamped and a big focus has been put on increasing the number and maintenance of sewage treatment plants in every city. At the same time, urgent measures have been taken to ensure rain water is better harvested during the monsoon so that ground water levels are managed up. Indian urban conglomerations that have become like plastic sheets and do not absorb rain water have taken firm steps to address this.
Finally, the plea of Ashok Gulati and others has been heard and agriculture has been freed from misdirected intervention. There has been a stop to the supply of free intermittent power that led to water pumps pulling out and wasting ground water and allowing for perverse cropping patterns to get established. Minimum support prices have been replaced by direct benefit transfers to farmers and the export of water (T N Ninan’s evocative phrase for rice and sugar exports from water-starved regions) has stopped. A more sustainable framework for water has led to a palpable increase in ground water and rivers have become cleaner and flow stronger.
Smart cities: One hundred smart cities have come up to absorb the out migration from the rural areas in UP and Bihar. These cities have affordable houses, piped water, power supply and toilets linked to the city sewage systems with well-developed waste sites. The cities minimise travel between residences and work places because work places are in close proximity to residential colonies. All work places have charging stations for electric vehicles and streets are lined with trees and broad walking pavements and cycle lanes. Taxes have been imposed on private car use in city centres to prevent congestion. Public toilets are plentiful as are trash bins so public areas stay clean. Training facilities have been established for training poorly educated people for low-skill service industries. The population of metros like Mumbai and Delhi are not growing. There are reports of out-migration from large metro aggregations to newer smart cities.
Digital apartheid: All Indians are provided with smartphones and cyber clinics have been funded to encourage ease with a digital environment. Citizen convenience has become a government mantra and most services can be accessed digitally. Services like police verification, getting an election card, obtaining a driving licence, making payments to government can be done remotely and all applications can be submitted through a digital interface. India has also joined the group of cyber-capable nations that can defend the country from cyber attacks and has the capability to inflict damage to other countries in the same way.
Health: All health records in India are digitised and are centrally stored. Privacy laws have been established and patient’s records can only be accessed with individual consent. People anywhere in India can call in to centres that deal with common concerns with ease. The primary health centres have all been transformed, digitised and linked to 30 specialist health centres for diagnosis and care. The PHCs are staffed by qualified nurses who engage with specialist’s centres by video and advise their patients. Patient visits have reduced and convenience has increased. The district hospitals are not crowded and it is easy to access the specialised hospitals in smart cities.
Education: The government has introduced a school voucher system where municipal schools are run by the private sector. All Indian children are enrolled in school. A strong accreditation council has been set up by government that maintains and publishes school outcomes widely. Parents can use their school vouchers to choose to send their children to schools within five km of their residences. Paid fully, private schools are fully residential and located out of the cities. Teacher training institutes have been set up and all teachers need to spend one week a year learning from each other on teaching methodologies and new course work. The ratio of teachers to students in primary schools has come down from 46 to 25. All schools are equipped with TVs, computers and phones and powered by renewable sources of energy. Digital penetration in education in India has taken off and a variety of models are being used — instructors joining over phone with the material presented via computer, over video conference or just by providing digital access on computers with drop down menus for further inquiry and more advanced learning. Teaching outcomes are better and the productivity of the Indian economy is showing improvement.
Yes, I have a dream that kids will be judged by the “content of their character”, not denied opportunities due to the lack of basic services. I dream that as a nation we have realised that “now is the time to make justice for all of God’s children” a reality. Yes, I have a dream that all Indians have an equal shot at pursuit of their own happiness.
This article first appeared in The Indian Express under the headline Imagining a New India
The writer is chairman, Boston Consulting Group, India. Views are personal