In the early days of January, I thought that consumerism, communication and the desire for instant gratification were going to be some of the important game changers in the coming year.
Now, in the dying weeks of 2011, as I look back at the world arena in the year gone by, I am surprised by the realism of the prediction and perturbed, because I had not foreseen, nor imagined, that a combination of the three would produce a virtual Molotov cocktail, with communication as the driving force and catalyst, bringing the mixture to boil.
We are witnessing event upon event that can be put down to a backlash against unbridled and irresponsible consumerism; against a misuse of privileges; against the blatant and in-your-face conspicuous consumption by a large number of people in "power"; that has a strange callousness about it.
The corruption bred by a heady sense of absolute and unaccountable power of governments, despots and corporates is being systematically exposed through mass means of communication. And electronic and social media have ensured that copious amounts of information are available instantaneously in far-flung corners. Even the common man is now armed with knowledge- from prices of land or luxury, spending habits to corruption and the fights for justice everywhere. These are fuelling the resolve of others also to stand up against perceived malpractices and injustice.
So, the number of protests and the number of protesters are increasing rapidly. Add to this, the desire for instant gratification and we seem to often have a mob like frenzy in the demand for action NOW. No longer content with the slow process of law, and sceptical about its honesty- with the credibility of our tallest institutions at an all-time low-there is a certain restlessness in the man on the street. The feeling that one was being exploited so blatantly has shaken the foundation on which their tolerance rested. They want to see change and they want it in real time - as the Jasmine revolution a few months ago and the recent Libyan liberation that saw the end of the mighty Gaddafi proves. Our anti- corruption movement, the Occupy Wall Street and such like are all offshoots of this.
Communication has exposed those leaders who were entrusted with power but betrayed the people and have been driven by greed and dreams of self aggrandisement. They have been shown to be gods with feet of clay, and so we are witnessing a rise of a peculiar lack of sympathy, an 'unforgiving' sentiment, a deep rooted suspicion that everyone wealthy and in power has somehow attained that status through ill-gotten means and out-of-turn favours. (Whether it is the politicians involved in the 2G scam or top Wall Street honchos like Raj Rajaratnam).
A strong desire for justice and punishment to be meted out, regardless of their high position, and the symbols of their power and wealth-their villas in the sky and fancy wheels, which probably cost more than an average man's house-are triggering resentment.
There is an increasing affinity to regulate and legislate in areas where enforcement is easier. Easier because there is more adherence from those subject to these laws. Taxation, capital markets and corporate law are good examples. In other areas where the common man seeks reform- matters that concern his or her rights and quality of life-there is very little being done. The old restrictive laws prevail, the ones that demand more from the citizen, not from the authority. Or at least, that is the perception.
Another important factor is that there are a large number of educated youth and the numbers are increasing every year. The manufacturing sector is still the largest employer. However, with a view to increasing efficiencies and through modernisation of plants, the rate of growth of employment in the manufacturing sector is slowing and is not enough to absorb the supply. The growth in the software sector helped absorb some, but how much more can the service sectors take? There is bound to be pressure on employment. When that happens people will rebel. It is necessary to think ahead on how best to deal with the issue.
Young people everywhere are asking basic and important questions about equality of opportunity, the existing disparities and the contribution of different people to society. It is time for us to hear these whispers before they become more strident and take steps to redress the glaring problems that beset us.
Harsh Goenka is Chairman, RPG Enterprises