Is Economic Progress Enough?
17 Dec 2020
India urgently needs social reforms more than economic progress
The recent Hathras alleged gangrape-and-murder case has brought back in focus the gross degeneration of our society. INcidents such as these stand in utter contrast to the image of a hallowed India that our rishis and scores of responsible men and women created over millenia. The last few decades seem, unfortunately, to have eroded a great deal of that image.
While such ghastly incidents, covered widely by the media, are a blot of humanity, and question our claims to be a progressive (or progressing) country, the rot in our society is not only represented by them. The decay is visible everywhere. In our daily life…People spitting, littering, urinating, abusing, bribing, stealing to support unmerited material ambitions, abound.
Contrast this incident with India’s image as a resurgent economic power, fueled by its technocrats. Newspaper columns and television programs are replete with discussions on how to grow the country’s economy, match it with China’s, and so on. Use of terms like our position among the BRIC nations, double-digit growth, the demographic dividend, our frequent references to our ancient, luminous heritage, are commonplace. We are already a 2-trillion dollar economy, and grew impressively till the Coronavirus struck. We are likely to be the world’s third largest in 15 years! Sooner or later we would–and must–sit at the high table of the UN Security Council.
Our unemployment has been steadily coming down, cast aside the recent damage due to the pandemic. Our per capita income, at $2400 , has improved considerably over the last fifteen years. We are selling two million new cars and almost 8 million two-wheelers a year. Our teledensity has increased from from less than 5 to 75%. We have 90 million cable TV homes. Add to all this our achievements in science and space (not to mention that the richest Asian is now an Indian), and we seem to be doing pretty well.
So? All izz well? Can we be called a developed nation even 20 years from now in spite of our economic and scientific progress?
No chance in hell! Because money alone doesn’t mean progress. If it did, then most of the Arab world would have been called ‘developed’. Our rich are as raucous as the poor. Money, without real education, leads to a depraved society. Lalit Bhanot, former athletics administrator, famously put his foot in the mouth when he said that our standards of hygiene are different from those in the developed countries. Earlier the Home Minister had to face the flak of the Delhi’ites when he said they must behave! But the bitter truth is that we Indians are an unruly, uncivil lot. Look all around you: The way we drive! There is utter mayhem on the road. If you reach the destination safely, it is only because Lord Brahma willed you to! Lane discipline? To many those white stripes only mean employment to casual labourers, if not to favour some paint company who may have bribed some authorities! While speeding people even open the door to spit paan masala. If you ever see a driver stopping at a zebra-crossing to allow pedestrians to cross, you are allowed to faint in disbelief! Such niceties are against our culture!
Have you observed how we behave when we see a queue? The chances are we won’t join the queue. Instead we would walk straight to the head of the queue and then lean over the counter to talk to the clerk! In most cases we have more than one queue at the same counter! Our honourable political leaders and babus think queues are not for them. Urinating on roads for us is as common as defecating is for our bovine cohabitants!
Ever since Independence we as a nation have focused our discourse on removing economic poverty, but have done nothing to make the society ‘civil’. ‘Garibi hatao’ is deeply-etched in our psyche. As a society we have always measured our success in terms of the money one has. This inspite of the fact that our ancient traditions valued good behaviour more than the material wealth. There is no doubt that the country is well on its way to economic progress and is likely to be a superpower by 2030. But with all this progress we are still not quite ‘there’ in the world order as yet. We continue to be viewed as a backward, decadent society.
In fact, our indiscipline is also a drag on our economic progress. Indians living in the developed countries know that the life there is more hassle-free and they get done a lot more with the same effort. Here, nothing works without reminders. The daily existence is like an obstacle course. Whether you call an electrician or a plumber you would be lucky if he comes on time. Indian Standard Time has even seeped into some Board rooms. Even at wedding receptions, where hundreds are invited, often the bride and groom are the last to reach the venue!
The criminal lack of responsibility is exemplified by people, led by many honourable leaders themselves, move about freely without face masks during these Covid times. Worse, often those wearing the mask remove it while talking! It is another matter that some world leaders have been glowing examples of such carelessness and stupidity.
The problem is, this lack of civility and responsibility is not part of our discourse. India needs social and edcucatinal reforms—fast. And they must begin at homes and schools.
What should we do?
A case in point is Singapore. One of the most developed and cleanest city-states, it wasn’t like this at birth. It was more like India. It had a huge population of Indians, Malays, and Chinese…They were unruly and uncivil. The first prime minister, Lee Kwan Yew, is reported to have painstakingly, and often ruthlessly, disciplined a whole generation of people in civic behaviour. Every instance of littering the road would invite quick and severe punishment. It is said that when young kids saw their parents being whipped, they grew up to be disciplined! So?
-Provide Value Education. Introduce responsible Behaviours as a compulsory subject in schools. The subject should not be taught in a text-book format, but in a demonstrative format. Teachers must be selected and trained to be role models. And Adult Education in right behaviors should be started. Evening community classes should be run in all schools where a minimum level of participation by adults should be made compulsory.
-Invest in Value Education. Invest in teachers. In teachers’ training. Behavior and Value education need not be a separate “subject” like “Moral Science”. Teachers should exude the right behaviors regardless of the subject they teach. The students must (in fact they do!) learn by observing their teachers and elders. It cannot be any other way.
-Let us set up a Centre for Monitoring Indian Society (CMIS) a.k.a. Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy. Let us lay down expected public behaviours, and then develop an index that will track city- and state-wise scores. Start with the cities and then go to villages.
-Set up a helpline where anyone can call and register instances of aberrations (this helpline is likely to be the largest employer as, literally, lakhs of complaints are likely to come!). Then publish these scores at all prominent places. Let the citizens of a city know how they are doing.
-Create a Civic police force employing fresh school and college pass-outs. The force should be empowered to book offenders with on-the-spot monetary penalties. The amount thus collected would go to a Fund that would provide for civic education and improving civic amenities.
-Air creatively-produced advertisements on civic and social behaviours on popular radio and TV channels. Airing them on Akaashvaani and Doordarshan alone is no good.
-Improve civic amenities such as toilets, drinking water. The Indore municipal corporation results under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan (where the city has won three consecutive Cleanest City recognitions, prove that leadership and persistence work.
-Mandate a certain spend by corporates under CSR on Value and Civic Education. The success of Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan has raised hopes that this would work.
-Create a robust mechanism for issuing driving licenses after thorough training on traffic rules, and for enforcing them. Act tough on cops who themselves flout the rules and don’t even wear helmets! And we would have to stay the course for a couple of decades if we want the world to accept us as an evolved society. In short, WE MUST LEARN HOW TO BEHAVE!
-By Mahesh Ranade