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Opinion | Build on glorious legacy to forge the future we want

Reimagining a new India requires us to grow faster, but differently, by harnessing the power of tech.

analysis Updated: Sep 28, 2018 14:33 IST
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When Khilji destroyed Nalanda in 1193, Oxford was barely settling down. (Parwaz Khan /HT PHOTO)

Reimagining India entails both nostalgia and quest. One of the greatest periods of Indian history was when India was the intellectual and knowledge capital of the world. The ancient Nalanda University was a centre of global excellence till the 12th century CE. Nalanda had attracted scholars from different places in Asia and beyond. Detailed accounts about the ambience,architecture, pedagogy, and scholastic pursuit, have been extensively recounted. Many hundreds of its books were later translated into Chinese, quite a few at the Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi’an, the old capital of China. It also brings to my mind that Hiuen Tsang, the Chinese scholar when provocatively asked by the monks in Nalanda why he was going back to his country,a land of the “Maleech”, replied with humility, “who would be so unfortunate that after receiving light and knowledge would not want to share it with others?”

During the period when Nalanda was being destroyed by Bakhtiyar Khilji in 1193,Oxford was barely settling down. Did this represent the transit and transfer of intellectual power from Asia to the West, and more importantly, from India to Europe? In a sense,India was both an economic and knowledge powerhouse. Not surprisingly, according to Angus Maddison’s calculations, around 1000 CE, India, and China contributed 50.5% of global GDP. Even much later, in 1603 when the English merchant John presented himself at the court of Akbar, the Mughal emperor — clutching a letter from the Queen—mentioned India as the world’s richest nation comprising a quarter of the global economy.

When we reimagine India, the least we can seek is to regain and recreate its lost intellectual and economic leadership. How do we realise this natural quest? First,we must accept that this cannot just be by more of the usual. Our teaching methods and pedagogy have for long remained frozen.Education methods and institutions need greater synergy between societies and institutions of learning. There can be no better example than the case of Nalanda since we are on that theme.Few remember that Nalanda was supported by its two-hundred contiguous villages. There was synergy between society and educational pursuit.

The new pedagogy and teaching methods or employment structures need congruence between users and creators. Technology, big data, artificial intelligence, and robotics make them increasingly possible. The recent initiatives in emphasising meritocracy,according greater autonomy to educational institutions, fostering competition and allowing some play for market forces are encouraging.

Tinkering with the existing structures which are outmoded and misaligned to our needs would be grossly inadequate.

Second, we must grow faster,but grow differently.Growth is a necessary condition but inadequate for balanced, equitable and acceptable outcomes. The Sustainable Development Goals centre on poverty elimination. The recently released UN report suggests that over 270 million people in India moved out of poverty in the decade since 2005-06, halving the poverty rate from 55% to 28%. This has happened when we have grown roughly at 7%. We need to get to a sustained 8% plus growth for a long period and also invest more aggressively in enhancing the quality of human capital.

Third,on improved health outcomes, the recent initiatives on Ayushmann Bharat,which was launched by the Prime Minister a few days ago,can overcome the financial constraints which hobbled the poor in seeking healthy lives without a debt trap. The 1,50,000 Wellness Centres are congruent to this staggering initiative. But where are the doctors,nurses,paramedics, and gynaecologists and anaesthetists? The debilitating impact of the Medical Council of India’s regulatory regime stymies market forces even in a country with abundant human resources. The powerful lobbies that cluster our health regulations can negate these decisive moves.

Fourth, urban expansion in India remains messy. Almost 75.5 million Indians live in urban slums. We need a fresh approach and a regulatory structure with a genuine delegation of administrative and financial powers to the third tier. Why can’t a higher percentage of overall revenue from the Centre and the states be made available for urban local bodies?

Fifth, we need to find ways to achieve a sustainable trade balance. Export competitiveness needs more than a competitive exchange rate by the way of more dependable transport structures,flow of credit and technological upgradation.

Finally, maintaining the hard-won macroeconomic stability, a solution for twin balance sheet syndrome, regaining the momentum on the unfinished structural reforms, remain central to sustained long-term growth. Going by the words of the late Atal BihariVajpayee,“India has the sanction of her own past glory and future vision to become strong — in every sense of the term”.

NK Singh is the chairman of the 15th Finance Commission

First Published: Sep 28, 2018 14:31 IST