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A new direction for a young nation

Dynamic leaders, equitable growth and governance reforms are needed to fulfill the aspirations of a young India. Sanjoy Narayan writes. Leaders at the summit

india Updated: Dec 27, 2011 16:04 IST
Sanjoy Narayan
Sanjoy Narayan
Hindustan Times

It may seem smart to build a slick piece of correlation and say that some of the unprecedented changes that have been happening elsewhere on the globe are being mirrored in similar developments in India.

It may be tempting to correlate the Occupy Wall Street movement or even the relay of uprisings across the Middle East that saw several regimes fall with Anna Hazare's campaign against corruption here. Or, to link the precarious situation that the euro is in, on account of the profligacy of some of the European Union's constituents, to the alarming fall of the rupee in recent weeks. Or, even to find a link between the slowdown in the developed economies to the state that the Indian economy finds itself in - with annual growth rate sliding below 8 per cent amid high inflation and interest rates.

Drawing such parallels between what is happening in India and the upheavals that are shaking up the world would, at best, be simplistic and, at worst, patently wrong.

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Although India is more integrated with the world today, the linkages with developments elsewhere are complex, and often highly nuanced.

Moreover, the trigger for anything that happens here remains predominantly domestic, and, therefore, the answers or remedies to the problems and issues confronting this nation of 1.2 billion people may be unique or differentiated from what works in other parts of the world.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is a manifestation of disenchantment with inequality and fat cat investment bankers; India's populist uprising against corruption is focused on getting laws that allow for autonomous interventions to apprehend and stem the rot of corruption and not for toppling an oppressive government as it was in the nations that recently saw their regimes topple.

Unlike in the US, the one symbol of greed or the common economic enemy exists less in India. Here it's more about people's disenchantment with the government and public service agencies. The campaign for equity in the world's richest democracy may have struck a chord with its people because of anaemic growth and rising unemployment, both of which do not exist in the Indian context.

Our economy is still growing respectably and we are adding new jobs every day. Yet, it would be an understatement to say that the world-and that includes India-is changing.

In India, for instance, the campaign against corruption may have been peaceful and not triggered the kind of violence that rocked some of the Middle Eastern nations, but its resonance across the country was unprecedented.

The big India story that dominated much of the past decade, replete with tales of growth and the rise of its young and voracious middle class consumers seems to have paused. The economy, while still growing at an enviable rate purely in percentage terms, is showing signs of strain; prices, particularly of food, have soared; an aggressively regulatory monetary policy has resulted in interest rates that are among the highest in the world; and as a result, investment and job creation have sputtered. And what about that growing breed of young people - 58% of India's population is under 30 - with high hopes? Their eyes reveal a growing disenchantment with those who govern the country.

India's 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. The health of the economy and that of its people, it seems, aren't correlated.

From the size of the Indian economy to the foreign investments we attract to our large untapped market, all have been used to make the claim that India is emerging as an economic superpower. The irony is that we are still a country that is home to one-third of the world's poor, where millions of rural homes have never had electricity and a third of the population is illiterate. A majority has been sitting by the sidelines watching the buildings grow taller and the roads get wider.

It would be naïve to think that growing inequality and unfulfilled aspirations of a vast population will always manifest in peaceful protests and not rupture the nation's democratic fabric that we often take for granted. The unravelling of a series of scams, involving high-level politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen, has significantly undermined the credibility of institutions of governance and democracy. It has also affected decision making in the government at a time when global economic woes threaten to cast a longer shadow on India than they did in 2008.

The challenges are many: from balancing growth with equity to reforming politics and governance in line with a new India's aspirations. And all of that calls for collective resolve and fresh thinking from tomorrow's leaders.