The Indian economy seems adrift. Growth is declining. Yet, the government asks citizens to have faith in its judgement that the economy is bound to recover soon. Clamour for bold reforms is increasing. Very soon the finance minister must present the budget. Revenues have declined. What must be cut? Without any reliable X-Ray of what is going on in the economy, essential muscle rather than dispensable fat might end up being cut.
An integrative vision has become imperative of the many things that must be done together to restore the health of the economy as well as restore citizens’ trust in the government, too. Bold fixes, without understanding how the system works, can backfire. Demonetization, whatever the intention was, was clearly a surgery that went bad.
Indian citizens’ socio-economic home needs repair. It’s a bit like when many experts are required to fix many things in the house, but unless they have an overall architectural plan to guide them they may make the house more unlivable. There is no point in installing a great electrical system if the roof keeps leaking. In much the same way, smartening cities up with technology will not improve quality of life if governance is not improved at the same time. Free-trade evangelists are disappointed the Indian government has paused before joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. However, more free trade before fixing the health of Indian enterprises, especially small ones, would have made things worse. Citizens need incomes to grow to afford all the imported goodies that free trade may bring to them.
“Nations without vision will perish,” the Bible says. The government is offering a vision of a $5 trillion economy. Numerical goals of size, no matter how ambitious, are never sufficient to guide strategies for growth as business leaders know, especially in uncertain and competitive conditions. Strategic questions must be addressed: What will the shape of the company be, what will its core competencies be, where will it invest resources, and what will it not do. Countries are more complex than business corporations and require even greater imagination to enable sustainable growth. A vision of the desired shape of a country’s systems provides a reference to check what should be high priority reforms. As Babe Ruth, the baseball star, said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you will end up somewhere else.”
India, the country with the largest number of young people in the world, must have a people-centered vision to guide its growth: How they will be engaged as producers of growth, while earning better incomes, must be at the core of the vision. Accompanying this should be a vision of equal opportunities to all citizens to participate in growth through better and equally accessible health-care and education. Diversity of cultures and religions is India’s strength. A national vision on how to nurture and strengthen this, both on ground and in the public imagination, is vital. Indian cities are some of the most polluted in the world. NITI Aayog projects that by 2030, India’s requirement of fresh water will be twice its availability. A radical new vision for the growth of India’s economy, which reduces the impact on the environment is needed, for it is a matter of life and death for the children. There are no universal solutions to complex systemic problems of environmental degradation, combined with persistent poverty and inequality. Local system solutions are necessary for global systemic problems. Therefore, capacity for local governance must be improved in India, down to its towns and villages.
A vision for India’s future must comprise these five elements: inclusive economy, universal human development, social harmony, environmental sustainability, and democratic governance from the grassroots up.
One thing is clear. The prevalent paradigm of economic growth that has driven governments’ policies in the last 50 years around the world and in India too, cannot provide the solutions India needs. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had a vision for sustainable and inclusive growth. Empowered citizens and communities, mindful of the diversity in their society and environment, was the essence of his vision. Small enterprises owned by the people would enable wealth to be earned at the bottom of the pyramid, he said. His vision had millions of democrats and millions of capitalists too, spread across India’s cities and villages. It was not a romantic vision. It was a very practical one.
Arun Maira is the author of Transforming Systems: Why the World needs a new Ethical Toolkit. The views expressed are personal
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