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We are all in this together

What is well known is that we are a nation of 1.2 billion people growing at among the fastest rates in the world, with an economy of $1.2 trillion.

india Updated: Jan 01, 2011 09:51 IST

What is well known is that we are a nation of 1.2 billion people growing at among the fastest rates in the world, with an economy of $1.2 trillion. What is less well known is that, of these 1.2 billion people, fewer than 20% have an income in excess of $2 (about Rs 30, using a purchasing-parity exchange rate of Rs 15) a day and that the poverty line in India is set at approximately $0.80 (about Rs 12 in purchasing parity) a day while the developed world defines it at over $10 (about Rs 150 in purchasing parity).

This 80%, meanwhile, continues to struggle with very poor, if any, access to quality primary healthcare, elementary education and basic financial services.

It’s not like we haven’t had any successes — our life expectancy at birth, perhaps the most important indicator of well being, has gone from just over 35 years at Independence to over 65 years today and there are states such as Kerala where this figure has crossed 70 years.

However, it is sobering to acknowledge that over the same period, China, an equally poor and equally large nation, has reached almost 75 years in life expectancy across the nation and is several steps ahead of us in almost all the other social parameters as well.

Also, sadly, almost all our experiments with inclusion, including the nationalisation of banks in an attempt to deliver financial inclusion, have failed to reach even a small fraction of our fellow citizens and the massive capacity-building programmes by the government to bring health and education to our people have been found to be highly inadequate. There are only a few notable exceptions, like Kerala, that have had a measure of success at least in addressing their people’s healthcare and education requirements. Given this dismal record, do we have any reason to believe that the next 10 years will be any different from the last 60 as far as inclusion is concerned?

Inclusion will hit the mainstream
It is my firm belief that the next decade will be the one in which we as a nation finally make a dent in the inclusion challenge. And, in my view, this will happen not because a few people sitting in Mumbai or Delhi decide that we now need to get on with the job, but because the people have decided that they have had just about enough and they will not wait any longer. Let me share some ‘signs’ that have led me to this optimistic view.

There is a strong desire for change
The most promising development I see at the start of the decade is that there is, for the first time, genuine electoral uncertainty and the politician is in a state of panic. There is palpable anxiety about what tomorrow will bring. The puzzle of our democracy thus far has been why a government ‘of the people and by the people’ was not delivering ‘for the people’. Why were people electing, time and again, politicians who were obviously incompetent? Happily, this puzzle is slowly starting to resolve itself and people are starting to speak up and demand change.

Interestingly, cries for accountability and delivery are also coming from the politicians themselves, who want to be sure that the elaborate plans they dream up to deliver value to the people do not get so distorted by corruption and leakage and special interests that all their efforts come to nought and they fail to get re-elected. There is a new eagerness among them to understand what works — if the public distribution system is working in Chhattisgarh, there is a long line of politicians, junior and senior, wanting to study it; if Nitish Kumar has won a big victory, everyone is craning their necks to try and see what is happening in Bihar; and if the public health system is working in Mizoram, people are eager to know how. Clearly, the desire to bring about real change is getting stronger.

We have the necessary tools
The tools needed to bring about this change are either already here or soon will be. For example, after waiting forever for the promise of technology and telecommunications to deliver on the development front and for the government to wake up to the fact that genuine development is something the people will achieve on their own if allowed to do so, this is finally starting to happen.

As a country, our faith in the ability of the people to map their own destiny is growing stronger and we are now focussing on building “soft” infrastructure like the Unique Identification Project and automated agricultural spot markets — both technology-based solutions that will remove some of the severest constraints in their respective sectors and help the average Indian make the best use of his/her talents and opportunities.

We have taken forever to build broadband networks that reach deep into the country, despite having had the resources to do so for years, but we are finally now achieving this too. Connectivity brings with it the promise of smooth price discovery, sharp improvements in quality and dramatic reductions in the cost of basic services such as healthcare and finance.

The right leadership
Along with the desire for change and the tools to bring it about, we are also now seeing the right kinds of people step in at the right levels of leadership to undertake initiatives that will have a systemic impact. While genuine brilliance appears unlikely to emerge from within the political sphere any time soon, individuals such as Nandan Nilekani and Arun Maira have stepped up to the plate and put national interests ahead of their own comforts and convenience.

Individuals such as Azim Premji have declared that they will not wait any longer for the government to find solutions on its own to complex problems such as basic education. Instead, they are combining their money and their talent, scouting for innovators and problem-solvers wherever they may be, and getting to work on driving change in these vital sectors. No longer are they content to merely talk the language of financial value creation and extraction. Instead, they are now making real change happen — and are taking on India-sized problems. And I am confident that, inspired by them, more such senior leadership will emerge from across the country.

New operating models
We are also seeing some powerful new operating models emerge, which are using these new tools for the delivery on a large scale of critical services that we have long struggled with. For example, the LifeSpring hospital chain is showing that a high quality normal delivery can be done for Rs 3,000 and a Caesarean section for Rs 9,000; the IFMR Trust, which seeks to broaden access to financial services, is showing that it is possible to deliver well designed wealth management services to the poorest households in Uttarakhand and still offer loans at half the rates prevailing in the market with no subsidies; and Educational Initiatives, which works in the field of assessment, benchmarking, teacher training and curriculum services, is showing that it is possible to test at scale how well children have actually learned the underlying ideas as opposed to just mechanically memorising what they have been taught in school.
All this makes me hopeful that the next 10 years will be the decade of inclusion.

The views expressed by the author are personal