Step back, look again. 2011 won’t appear as bad as it is made out to be. It may have been a year of scams and scandals that eroded the credibility of our institutions of governance and democracy, but the unraveling of the misdeeds also brought in its wake a louder campaign for stronger laws against corruption. Even as the fate of the Lokpal bill hangs in the balance, one could argue that the campaign — which saw millions of Indians, especially the usually apathetic middle class and the youth, take to the streets with Anna Hazare — only strengthened the nation’s democratic fabric.
Political squabbling kept parliament from doing any business, leaving the country in the throes of a ‘policy paralysis’. But that hasn’t stopped the Indian entrepreneur from showcasing talent — the world’s cheapest tablet, Aakash, rolled out from an Indian lab.
The India growth story paused alongside spiralling inflation that might have pushed millions back into poverty, but we have yet to see the mood of despondency that is playing out in other countries hit by the global economic turmoil.
2011 was a year of relative peace along our national border; also a year that saw a sharp decline in terror attacks and Maoist violence. What more, we won the world cup in cricket after a gap of 28 years.
That said, it would be naïve to ignore the challenges that have compounded through 2011.
Challenges on hand
Despite the much exalted growth of the broader economy over the past decade, we are still a country that is home to one-third of the world’s poor. Millions of rural homes have never had electricity and a third of the population can’t read or write. Health and education indicators have stubbornly shown no signs of improvement. The UN Human Development Report, 2011 ranks India at 134 out of 187 countries — in the company of countries such as Ghana and Equatorial Guinea. Even as the prosperity earned by a
300 million-plus, and growing, middle class has made India a top destination for global investors and manufacturers, a majority of its population has been living on the margins. Such growing inequality and unfulfilled aspirations of a vast population will not necessarily always manifest in peaceful protests, as it did the past year.
A weak government and a weakening economy only make it worse. India’s limited dependence on the global market — exports account for less than a fifth of its GDP — and a well-regulated financial system somewhat insulate it from the precipitating crisis in Europe. But should the world economy slip into a recession, as many experts fear, the ripples will be felt harder. Unlike 2008 when the government stepped in with large doses of fiscal stimulus and helped the economy revive in less than a year, this time the exchequer has no money for a bail-out.
A bigger concern, as Bharti Enterprises chairman Sunil B Mittal points out in his essay in this year-ahead special, is that the political consensus that backed the government’s initiatives in 2008 is missing this time. This was evident in the way the government was forced to roll back its decision to open multi-brand retail to foreign investment. On the other hand, the ever-widening net of the 2G scam probe has unnerved the bureaucracy and made the government indecisive at a time when it is expected to make bold decisions.
In all likelihood, the country is headed for a slowdown that will be prolonged and a political crisis that could only get worse in the time to come. But if there is despair, there is also hope. And India has shown in the past that it has the resilience to pull out of the worst of crises. The new India that we celebrate today is, in fact, a product of the foreign-exchange crisis we faced in 1991. So the current crisis could well mark the starting point for India’s second coming. If we could do it then, we can do it again.
Searching new faces for change
Much has been written, including the essays from our guest writers that appear in this special issue, on India’s strengths and weaknesses, and what the leaders of the country ought to do to steer it through choppy waters.
It is, perhaps, time we shift our faith beyond the political leadership and icons of the business world for ushering in the change that India must embrace to emerge a winner in the year ahead. The Anna Hazare-led campaign, which saw unprecedented resonance across the country, demonstrated that change is not always top-down. More so at a time, when India is witnessing its people’s aspirations grow at a pace that the imagination of our leadership can barely match.
It is time to look up from the bottom. It is time to search and celebrate new faces that will make, or are making, change happen.
Toward this end, Hindustan Times is rolling out a new editorial project — India Empowered: Agents of Change — that will showcase such inspirational stories that hold out a glimmer of hope amid a gloomy outlook. These will be stories of ordinary people with extraordinary achievements, stories about initiatives that turn adversity into opportunity, stories of exemplary entrepreneurship and stories of changing mindsets in new India.
The series kicks off today with essays and views from business leaders and young achievers on the change they would want to see India embrace in the year ahead. Through the following weeks, it will feature other change makers from across the country.
Join the journey.