A talk that i gave recently on KIN (Knowledge, Innovation & Nationalism) that was organized by ‘Think India’
A friend and reader of my blog sent me this quote of Sri Aurobindo a while ago. Since it pertains to Inequality, about which i have also written recently, i thought i should share it. This statement has helped reconcile many a confusion in my mind and has given me a pragmatic blueprint for the way forward.
” Absolute equality is surely neither intended nor possible, just as absolute uniformity is both impossible and utterly undesirable; but a fundamental equality which will render the play of true superiority and difference inoffensive, is essential to any conceivable perfectibility of the human race.” – Sri Aurobindo
“If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And, if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when? If not me, who?”
- Hillel the Elder, In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers)
The country is getting younger and everyone seems to wishfully want the demographic dividend to start paying off. We see more and more young achievers today and one is able to feel and sense the sociological and economic transformation that is occurring all around us. But when one scratches a little deeper and starts to observe and study what is happening more intently, we can notice that all is not as well as what one thinks. One can then see the frustrations and the emptiness that many of the young are today experiencing. Despite the individual attainments and the material comforts that surround them, there exist an unexplained restlessness that is very troubling. They seem to be suffering the consequences of the irony of having everything material but still finding themselves missing something unexplainable. A discontent that is not explainable or articulated in terms that they can currently comprehend. And in seeking to fill this emptiness, they turn to either drugs, or more transient pleasures or seek out the ‘instant’ gurus or in desperation commit suicide. It is as though, we have a generation of people who have trained themselves well cognitively but seem to be woefully inadequate when it comes to their emotional, social and spiritual competencies. We seem to have a generation of people who are unable to manage their inner conflict and tensions and unfortunately have no role models to look upto and learn from, in solving these problems. In our enthusiasm to imitate the consumerist cultures, we seem to have become experts in managing external environments and adapting our selves well to it, but have lost the ability to look inwards and learn to manage our own inner selves. Many young people I interact with, not surprisingly have no idea of what their existence means or why they are doing what they are doing – it is as though they are continuing to live with absolutely no meaning to life itself.
Imagine what such a rich talent pool could achieve if there was someway of getting them to seek a meaning for their lives, a meaning that not only gives them personal fulfillment but is also able to make them feel worthwhile and awakens their inner evolution. While looking inward may not come easily, would there be some way of using the means of looking outward to go inward? Will living for others give our lives the meaning that one is hungry for? Will the desire to make a difference in this world without seeking any personal reward or incentive drive our emptiness out? I believe that this is not only possible but is necessary. And it is here that Swami Vivekananda’s message of personal spiritual growth through selfless service finds relevance and utility.
Swami Vivekananda was not only a visionary spiritual giant but also very pragmatic when it came to matters of national reconstruction. He not only appreciated the energy and restlessness of the youth but also the problems of the toiling millions. He knew that bridging the prevailing inequity couldn’t be possible without making the ‘Self’ think of the ‘others’. He had to find the delicate balance of getting people to re-focus on matters spiritual without feeling unsettled and overawed. And he did it in the most practical manner possible. He inspired young people with a new meaning of finding themselves in the service of others. His method of personal spiritual evolution through unconditional and unselfish service to others is possibly his greatest message to mankind. He saw the ‘means’ of serving society leading on to the ‘end’ of spiritual growth of the person doing it. And he so beautifully advised us to ‘Serve God in man’. All his philosophy so elegantly and simplistically packed into one statement. In such simple and lucid language that makes it at once achievable and attractive to everyone. This ideal not only looks within the reach of each one of us but also makes it so emotionally appealing and motivating to undertake. And he simplified the pursuit of spiritual seeking into internalizing our own inner divinity and in seeing this divinity in everyone else.
Traditionally spirituality has been defined as a process of personal transformation in accordance with one’s religious ideals. The Random House Dictionary of the English Language defines ‘Spirituality’ as “the experience or expression of the sacred.” ‘Unselfishness’ is traditionally understood as the willingness to put the needs of others before one’s own. It is about giving generously and having or showing more concern for other people rather than for yourself. Combining these two powerful abstractions into a practical way of life is what Swami Vivekananda showed this world. His statement that ‘Unselfishness is more paying, only people have not the patience to practice it’ also shows that being unselfish is easier said than done. Man is wired to be centered on himself. He is biologically and psychologically tuned to ensure his own survival and this usually leads one to stay focused on issues of interest and benefit to the personal self. Today’s demanding materialistic world only amplifies these tendencies and it is indeed challenging to go beyond oneself and focus on others around us. Only when one appreciates the higher reason for one’s existence and sees the benefit of personal evolution, can the focus shift from the ‘personal’ to the unselfish ‘other’. We need to seek liberation by giving ourselves fully to the task of the welfare of others. Redefining ‘success’ from the non-materialistic perspective is also critical for ensuring this shift. Unselfish work done for others can be a very constructive and a practical way of approaching spirituality.
While the practical benefits of societal transformation is clearly evident in selfless work, there is an increasing body of literature and evidence showing how such activities also enable our own inner change. Research in the leadership sciences shows that a effective and inspirational leader is filled with compassion, mindfulness, hope, ability to create a meaning for life for himself and those around him, and Faith and self confidence. It is no co-incidence that such leaders are the ones who have also found meaning in not their personal welfare but in the service of others. The higher the degree of this unselfish attitude, the higher is their effectiveness and the ability to influence those around them. The world of neuroscience also indicates how a truly unselfish man constantly seeking to serve others has better developed pre-frontal cortex in his brain. We also need to see this in the perspective of similar evidence being reported in people who are spiritual and spend long hours in reflective and meditative practices. The coming days will surely expand this neuro-scientific interconnectedness between a life led for others and spiritual existence.
Unselfish work can also be a practical way of practicing Self-enquiry. It provides a good platform for looking and exploring outside us in our search of the missing ‘equilibrium’ in our lives. Analyzing the state of people around us, the problems that they are enduring, the endless suffering of mankind are all excellent starting points. In the pursuit of these questions is the beginning of seeking solutions and trying to become a part of the solution with no personal stake in them. The next higher step would be to gradually transcend this sense of duality of ‘self’ and ‘others’ and move on to experiencing the ‘oneness’ that Advaitic philosophy talks about. Seeing god in all beings including oneself is a good starting point to experiencing oneness and going beyond the feeling of interconnectedness. Unselfish work is a practical means of achieving the higher objective of understanding our true self; it is about going beyond the illusory limitations of our body and mind and being liberated once and for all. This is undercurrent that runs throughout the life and message of Swami Vivekananda. And this is succinctly captured in his statement of ‘Atmano Mokshartham Jagath hitayacha’.
Large hoardings stand out prominently on both sides of the road that leads to the Kempegowda airport from Bangalore city. The large numbers of flats and villas that are advertised on these hoardings leaves one impressed. What struck me were the prices advertised? Words like ‘prices starting from 4 crores upwards’ leaves one wondering at how many people actually buy them. A friend of mine who is in the real estate business told me that I would be surprised by the number of people who are keen on buying such upscale property. And many, he said buy them not to stay in them but to have transit homes in Bangalore or see them as ‘good investments’ to be encashed at a later date.
As a boy growing up in middle-class Bangalore in the 70’s, I could recollect eating out in restaurants on the rare occasions when my mother had to travel away from home or when she was sick. Today, it is an accepted fact that most middle and high-income families plan on eating out at least once a week. An evening of eating out for a family of 4 in a not so expensive restaurant in Mysore usually ends up with a bill of around Rs. 1000.
A few weeks ago, I was in conversation with some of my students doing their Master’s program in a reputed business college. They were sharing their experiences of the campus interviews that they had recently faced and the negotiations that it involved. A few of them felt insulted that the average salary offered was less than a million a year. And most of them grudge paying their domestic helps Rs. 2000 per month.
A woman toiling away in half a dozen homes as a maid once narrated to me her trial as she set about building a 250 square foot house in a suburb of Bangalore. Running from pillar to post to get the corporation officials to grant her a license, to negotiating with the many moneylenders for loans at unimaginable rates of interest, to paying the high labour costs to the construction workers were all nightmarish. But in the end, what was gratifying was the fact that she now had her ‘own’ house to live in. That, she mentioned was worth all the trouble she had been through.
Though each of these incidents appears to be discrete and unrelated, what disturbs me is how visible the gap between the rich and the poor in India has been expanding. We are all happy to celebrate the announcement of bullet trains in India or the high speed rail corridors linking Bangalore to Chennai or Ahmedabad to Mumbai; but what about the abysmally poor public transport facilities to the millions of villages which are excluded from our economic mainstream? If the Airport at Bangalore, Hyderabad or Delhi makes you feel proud to be Indian, one feels ashamed to see the way our citizens cope with minimal or no facilities in the many thousand bus and railway stations across the country. Family of a person dying in a plane crash gets a compensation of a million rupees whereas those dying in a road or rail accident end up with only a lakh. Few seem to feel disturbed by these many expressions of inequality and the manner in which the voices of the toiling millions gets drowned out by the rush to catch the ‘growth’ train. In fact, people have become so used to the social and economic inequalities, that they are either indifferent or fatigued by it, feign ignorance, or are simply helpless in doing anything about this growing gap. Many today, especially in urban India fail to even notice this gap.
While the growing personal incomes and the billionaires that we hear about is something to cheer, what is worrisome is the fact that India is one of the worst performers amongst emerging economies in Inequality in earnings. This has doubled over the last two decades, and the top 10% of wage earners now make 12 times more than the bottom 10%, up from a ratio of six in the 1990s. Moreover, wages are not smoothly spread out even through the middle of the distribution. A recent IMF report cites that the net worth of India’s billionaire community has soared 12-fold in 15 years – enough to eliminate absolute poverty twice over in the country.
Wage inequality has driven more general income inequality in the country. India’s Gini coefficient, the official measure of income inequality, has gone from 0.32 to 0.38, with 0 being the ideal score. In the early 1990s, income inequality in India was close to that of developed countries; however, its performance on inequality has diverged greatly since then, bringing it closer to China on inequality than the developed world. There is also evidence of growing concentration of wealth among the elite. The consumption of the top 20% of households grew at almost 3% per year in the 2000s as compared to 2% in the 1990s, while the growth in consumption of the bottom 20% of households remained unchanged at 1% per year. In comparison, the income of the bottom 20% of households in China grew at double the rate in the 2000s as compared to the 1990s, while the increase for the top 20% of households was much slower. In Brazil, household incomes have been growing faster among the poorest households than among the richest for the last two decades. We also need to bear in mind the fact that India spends less than 5% of its GDP on social protection schemes as compared to Brazil’s more than 15%.
It is not just incomes and the visible expressions of not having wealth that we need to be concerned about. Economic inequalities bring along with them inequalities in education, health care, gender, access to water & sanitation, infrastructure and other class discrimination too. There are many reasons and forces that have been steadily contributing to this growing income inequality. Post-reform policies like reduction in public investments in crucial sectors like agriculture and infrastructure development, reductions in employment opportunities in most public sector industries, closing down of loss-making public sector units etc. had adverse impact on the income earning capabilities of the working population. Financial sector reforms and the export-import policies implemented in the post-reform period also resulted in growing inequalities in India. Reluctance of banks to lend to the priority sectors has resulted in reduced financial empowerment of small farmers and medium-scale industries. Trade liberalisation is in favour of the export sector, adversely affecting the import substituting domestic production. Labour-intensive sectors were relegated and capital-intensive labour displacing sectors were encouraged. Declining labour share in national income and the failure of wages to keep up with productivity are also among the major causes of increased inequality. The much hyped IT and ITES sectors employed only a very small percentage of the labour force. At the root of the crisis is the skewed distribution of assets including land and capital, access to education, coupled with growth imbalances and slow job creation. The moral indifference towards the poor within our burgeoning middle class has also contributed to growing inequality.
What should the policy response be to rising income inequality? The solutions suggested by Christine Lagarde, the head of IMF for reversing the increase in inequality were limited to progressive taxation, better access to health and education, targeted social programs and increased labour force participation of women. Ironically, some of the policies that IMF has supported in the past have itself worsened the income inequality. In India, the Govt of India had launched several flagship programs like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, National Rural Health Mission and the National Rural Livelihood Mission to protect the poor from the ill-effects of income deprivation and inequality. But mis-governance and poor executive oversight have ensured that most of the programs have failed in bridging this socio-economic divide.
More than a century ago Swami Vivekananda had proclaimed, “Equity in India should be attained not by pulling down the rich, but by pushing up the poor.” In seeking solutions to rising inequality we should go beyond the conventional options like taxing the rich. Taxing the rich can be a disincentive to become rich. Swamiji had written, “It is evolution and not a revolution that India needs.” Keeping in line with this thinking, we need to look at concerted efforts targeting the lower income group. Growth and growth efforts should really be inclusive in line with what the current Union government is thinking. If India has to reduce economic inequality it will have to radically redistribute assets, institute land reforms, and provide universal health care, quality education, food security and social protection to all. Education and up-skilling of labour force are crucial to build an egalitarian society. A more redistributive progressive tax system and transfer policy, ceilings on profits and executive incomes and the introduction of a luxury rate of value added tax could help reduce income inequality. Both the Central and the State Governments should bring in mechanisms to ensure good governance, reduce corruption, increase citizen engagement & social accountability in the delivery processes and avoid crony capitalism. Possibilities of inheritance taxes and taxing amounts received in bequests and gifts should be explored. The government should also conceive programs that go beyond merely helping people to cope with poverty to facilitating the poor to get out of poverty.
The present Government is now riding on a wave of popular support. This is the time to overcome the policy paralysis that existed and move ahead with not just economic and trade reforms, but at facilitating and building the social capital of the nation. What India now needs is a redefined social development agenda – a blueprint of social action that will eventually drive the economic engine of the country.
Sources: Wikipedia, World Bank, UNDP, IMF and Planning Commission of India
Many newspapers and TV channels are discussing the 100 days of the Modi Government. Every commentator on the subject seems to have a view on how the Government should or needs to be run. The byline Achche Din Aanewale Hain (the good days are coming) seems to mean different things to different people depending on who is using it. Very few comments have been objective and based on the context, the reality and empirical evidence. One needs to appreciate that measuring the performance of public agencies is a complex and long drawn process and cannot be ‘oversimplified’ by mere survey questions or dependent on the limited knowledge of professional TV commentators/journalists. 100 days is also too short to actually demonstrate any concrete change or impact. At best, one can only comment on the intent and the direction in which the Government intends to proceed in the coming months. But this being said, it is indeed frightening to understand how ‘vague expectations’ in the minds of the common people are now turning into ‘urgent demands’. A couple of recent incidents highlight how people are extending their own internalization of a personal problem into a larger societal one.
A few days ago, I was traveling by an auto in Mysore and got into a conversation with the driver. He was expressing his anger at the state of the roads in the city and despite the approaching Dasara, how little was done to improve them. He was angry that despite 100 days of the Modi Government, the roads had not improved at all. I was both amused and intrigued at how involved he was in a civic issue, but then how limited he was in analyzing the problem. For him, driving on the streets of Mysore was an everyday necessity, and the health of his auto and himself was directly related to the health of the roads. What was fascinating was how he was seeing this problem and whom he was holding responsible for the solution? My explanation that the local city corporation and in extension, the State Government (being responsible for the Dasara celebrations) were to be held accountable did not seem to make much impact on him. Another good friend was narrating how on a recent trip to Mumbai, he got talking to a taxi driver ferrying him around. The taxi driver was lamenting that the daily traffic jams he encountered in Mumbai showed no signs of easing, despite the Modi Government completing 100 days in office. Both these incidents may seem trivial to a few, but then aren’t they the reality for these people. It is indeed fascinating how both of them were interpreting ‘Acche Din’ and the concept of good governance. Each one of us will have our own ways of understanding and interpreting the change that was assured to the citizens of India, but is it fair to merely transfer these problems to a ‘messiah’ and wait for him to wave his magic wand. Would it be fair to measure the performance of the Central Government and the Prime Minister merely based on the problems that we confront as citizens at a local level and our perceptions of the ‘good days’ that was promised.
Let us take an unbiased look at some of the key decisions taken by the Prime Minister and his Government. These are issues that only the National Government can take, but are the ones the common man cannot immediately relate to on a daily basis. His first prominent step to overcome policy paralysis was to empower bureaucrats to take decisions and to make them accountable. Despite criticisms of centralization, he has taken on the onerous task of taking charge of Government business and is involved in monitoring all ministries. Considering the track record of his predecessor, this may seem gigantic, but this is essential keeping the urgency and importance of demonstrating both efficiency and effectiveness in governance. After a longtime, we saw parliament function well and exceed all efficiency parameters and the keenness to pass key legislations was noteworthy. Launching of Digital India and Financial inclusion reflected the Government’s commitment to not only inclusive growth but also the intent of not being technologically left behind. The improvement in the investment climate, the promised investment of the Japanese and Sensex growth are all positive indicators for the economy. The PM’s intent of his work speaking for itself rather than rely on media releases is also another good development for governance. Attempts to rejuvenate SAARC and the formation of the BRICS bank, firm stand at the WTO without succumbing to global pressures and the dissolution of an outdated Planning Commission are other successes.
But one needs to go beyond all these and into the process of citizen engagement and appreciate how a quiet but visible social transformation is now occurring in the country. With the swearing in of a new Government, the people of India have clearly and consciously communicated this social undercurrent in an electorally decisive manner. It is only natural for the people to seek an expression of their personal aspirations through a public response from the Government. This expectation is further compounded by the fact that they were hoping for ‘fireworks’ and a ‘magical panacea’ for the issues that mattered to them. The current demographics and the economic aspirations of a consumer hungry, restless and impatient young population add to this collective expectation. How can any one person, despite his best attempts be held responsible for all that the citizens face on a daily basis? Can the present Government be criticized for what every political party promises during every election that they face? Should our expectation based on the ‘Gujarat Model’ be extended to the rest of India too? Isn’t running a state government where you are in greater control of the delivery framework different in context from running a National Government mandated by the limitations that a federal structure bring with it? Is it just about Prime Minister Modi and his vision and commitment to the development of the Nation and its citizens or is there something more happening?
One cannot dispute the fact that the election of Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister of India is itself evidence of the undercurrent social transformation that the country is now going thru. Otherwise, how can one explain the fact that an ‘outsider’ like Modi from a very humble background and from one of the backward castes of India and without any ‘dynastic’ connections come to occupy the highest post in the country. The very shaping of the history of the nation today is outpacing the ability of the people to orient themselves in accordance with the established and existing societal values – whether it be caste, class or political dynasty. One needs to recognize that the older ways of feeling and thinking are collapsing and the newer beginnings are seemingly ambiguous and possibly threatening to the traditionalists. The ordinary people are at a point where they are feeling that they cannot cope with the larger worlds with which they are confronted on a daily basis. Their repertoire of solutions is no longer sufficient to overcome the problems that they are now faced with. It is only natural that when they cannot find and understand the meaning of their own lives, they will look to find it by connecting to a person like Modi to find meaning not only for their own existence but also for their everyday problems to be solved.
My own assessment from my conversation with the auto driver and his refusal to accept information about the role of citizens in civic issues and how local issues need to be addressed locally is different. I feel that it is not only information that people need – in this digital age; information often dominates their attention and overwhelms their capacities to assimilate it. It is not only the skills of reason that people need – although their struggles to acquire these in the backdrop of their everyday struggles often exhaust their limited energies. What they need is a quality of mind that will help them to use information and to develop reason in order to achieve lucid summations of what is going on in the world and of what may be happening within themselves. Is this practically feasible? Will this ever happen in this country? I believe that the Prime Minister should be judged not merely by his ‘Governance’ achievements but also by his ability to inspire our fellow countrymen to acquire these capabilities. If his public speeches on Independence Day or his interaction with children on Teacher’s Day are any indication, I feel that he has already set himself to this onerous and more important task. His speeches have the undercurrent of relating to the personal uneasiness and explicit troubles of individuals (unemployment, price rise, cost of fuel, personal learning) and asking them to convert their indifference into involvement with public & National issues (Clean India Campaign, Clean Ganga, societal peace, harmony, moratorium on religious divisions). His conversation with the average citizen via social media and portals like MyGOV, or the engagement on radio that he is contemplating are reflections of his thinking. While he is continually exhorting the citizenry to engage, the people need to learn to shift their perspectives from the ‘personal’ to the ‘societal’ and they need to build their capacities in order to do so. The PM is subtly asking the citizens of India to enhance the width, depth and scope of their capacity to engage with matters concerning their own development. And it is now time to elevate citizenry engagement to this level. Not doing so will be a missed opportunity and we will only have ourselves to blame, but sadly we will end up blaming the Prime Minister and his government. To be able to grow this capacity needs enormous sociological imagination. The Prime Minister seems to be showing this, but are we the common people matching upto this imagination? Only time can tell.