Remembering the Mahatma today – An article that appeared in today’s Vijaya Karnataka, 2nd Oct 2018

Vij Kar Oct 2 2018 Gandhi

Read the English version of this article here…

The entire nation will be celebrating the whole of this coming year remembering Mahatma Gandhi as part of his 150 birth anniversary celebrations. For many like me born in independent India, Gandhi and his life were introduced to us as part of our school curriculum. To us, he was the ‘father of the nation’ whose birthday we celebrated each year and remembered him for securing us our freedom from the British. This limited view of Gandhi is what I carried for a long time till I began to understand him, his life and his message a little deeper.

My life’s work in the space of human development, especially among the indigenous tribals of Mysuru district was inspired by the transformational message of Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi. If Swami Vivekananda asked the youth of India to have Seva (service) and Tyaga (Sacrifice) as our National ideals, it was the message of Ahimsa (non-violence) and Satya  (Truth)that attracted me to Gandhi. I saw in him someone more than the freedom fighter that my teachers had described him as. He was a politician, a strategist, a philosopher a humanist, a spiritual seeker, a scientist, a shrewd manager, a difficult husband & father, a social worker, an activist, a saint and a patriot all rolled into one. It was difficult for someone like me to comprehend the magnitude of his life, his personality and the fact that he meant so much to so many different people. Einstein’s words that people in the future would scarcely believe that such a person in flesh and blood walked upon this earth, resonated with me.

For Gandhi, the ideals of Ahimsa and Satya were not something borrowed from the scriptural wisdom of ancient India. For him, practice of these values was spiritual sadhana on the one hand and political action on the other. The shrewd strategist that he was, he fashioned the practice of them into powerful weapons to be used in his fight against the British. Gandhi’s demanding expression of these ideals that he believed in, made him someone that one could easily admire but rarely imitate. He redefined political morality and public probity to such high standards, that the politicians of today pale in comparison to what he stood for. Gandhi believed that morality was not a fancy aspiration but an essential ingredient for the exercise of political leadership.

For Gandhi, human existence was an extraordinary opportunity not to be wasted in ordinary pursuits. Seeking God was the very purpose of such an existence and he uniquely transformed his own personal spiritual journey into a quest for societal progress. Gandhi understood that ‘man’ was the building block of society and ensuring a value driven existence at the personal level will necessarily transform into a healthy society. He used symbolism to very powerful effect in communicating the centrality of this message. Whether it was Charaka (spinning wheel) & home spun khadi, natural medicine, his concepts of need vs greed, his food habits or daily tasks reflecting self-reliance – he ensured that one needed to start with oneself before expecting any major social transformation. Today, all that we are left with are the symbols bereft of the philosophical message that Gandhi gave us.

Gandhiji intelligently addressed the issue of inspiring people to engage in social upliftment and national reconstruction. His famous quote ‘The best way to find oneself is to lose yourself in the service of others’ wonderfully captures this intent of his. To the more discerning, he made living for ‘others’ a ‘spiritual pursuit’. The transience of human achievement and the impermanence of material wealth were of critical consideration to this thinking. What he attempted to demonstrate by his lifestyle was to show us a higher reason to live and a higher state to reach within the limitations and boundaries of a human existence. He has, in very simple terms given us a higher ideal to strive for and in this striving he found answers to the material problems of the suffering millions too. In doing so, he had assured us that an indomitable power would come to us and we will be able to throw away all our concerns for ourselves and place ourselves as servants of society and use our inner energy and will to transcend the problems of our human brethren.

Gandhi believed that poverty was the worst form of violence and wanted the person in the last mile to participate in the economic well-being of the nation. When we are celebrating India’s growth story, we need to understand that our dream for India should not be mere 8% growth alone, but development that is inclusive, participatory and encompasses India’s rural areas. Without romanticizing Gandhi, we need to understand how rural India has been left out of our growth story and how the Indian economy today has become urban-centric and urban driven. While Gandhian cottage industry has lost much of its relevance, his economic beliefs in ‘small being beautiful’ has not. We now need to integrate his thoughts in making sure that the toiling millions are not left out of the economic bandwagon. His ideas of micro-enterprises need to see the light of the day as Rural Social Business units that are driven by the land based economy. Beyond mere economic growth and creating jobs & business ownership, such enterprises will also ensure improved social status of rural communities, reduce urban migration and enhance the quality of life in rural areas in line with what Gandhi had hoped.

Another oft repeated cliché in today’s India is ‘Satyagraha’ (a form of non-violent protest made popular by Gandhi who used it as a political tool in his fight for independence) and many have started equating common street protests and narrow political dissents to one of Gandhi’s most powerful methods. The essential difference is that Gandhi based his Satyagraha on a spiritual platform and never saw it as an instrument of blackmail or manipulation. Gandhi saw it as a demanding responsibility and not mere sloganeering or waving the National flag. He saw it as a means of moral transformation and self-purification. In Gandhi’s views, a true satyagrahi lived his values deep from within and displayed no hatred or dislike towards any person or system. All that the Satyagrahi has is a deep and engaging love for truth and keeps expressing his views till he can achieve his intended end by not just peaceful means but also by constant self-analysis of his methods and actions. In the Gandhian understanding of peaceful non-violence, there was no space for self-aggrandizement or for the theatrics that we keep seeing in the public arena today. Gandhi was clear in not just the meaning but also the spirit of ‘Satyagraha’ and was always conscious that ‘Satya’ and ‘Aagraha’ went together.

Celebrating 150 years is the time for us to go beyond mere intellectualization of Gandhi and his message or building a Swacch Bharat (Clean India Campaign). Keeping aside petty political debates over who are the natural inheritors of his philosophy, it is time for our politicians and people to pause and reflect on what made Gandhi, the Mahatma. We need to be constantly aware of our commitment to love, peace, non-violence and truth on an individual level and strive to live it in all small actions that we perform. Living his message on a daily basis for all our lives is the only way to realize the India of Gandhi’s dreams. And that can happen only when we awaken the Mahatma in each one of us.

-Balu

GDP is passe, Human capital takes center stage for WB, IMF

This article appeared in Deccan Herald on 27th October, 2017 and can be seen here:

Deccan Herald Fri 27 10 17The article can also be read here –

While the Indian media and political analysts have been talking about how the slowing down Indian economy is likely to hurt the electoral prospects of the BJP and slow down the Modi-Shah juggernaut, a different scene unfolded last week in distant Washington DC. The annual meetings of the Boards of Governors of the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was held then and it brought together central bankers, ministers of finance and development, parliamentarians, private sector executives, representatives from civil society organizations and academics. The core agenda was to discuss issues of global concern, including the world economic outlook, poverty eradication, economic development and aid effectiveness.

Only a few years ago, India’s growth story was being touted as the only shining patch in an otherwise depressing economic world order and experts were quick to offer differing explanations for the same. Equally quickly are the experts again explaining the dip as possible outcomes of the demonetization or the introduction of the GST and poor handling of the nation’s economy by the government. Somewhere in this narrative, human development and the fate of the ordinary citizen on the street does not find any mention. It is in this context, the meetings of the WB and IMF offer a shift in the way these global bodies are beginning to view development.

For several decades, the World Bank and its allied Institutions were seen with suspicion and as mere political instruments with very little appreciation of grassroots development and of being insensitive to local community interests. They have also been accused of turning a blind eye to citizen engagement, to environmental concerns and to mis-governance and mal-administration in the implementation of projects funded by them. They have been working over the last decade and more to shed this image and are now actively soliciting engagement with local community groups, in ensuring social accountability of the projects funded by them; and of looking internally to address inherent structural flaws in their aid and loan processes. But despite all this, their primary focus was on income growth and economic development. This year’s meetings saw a quiet and subtle shift which if sustained, could have long term consequences on how the world sees human development and progress.

While the WB President Jim Yong Kim and the IMF Chief, Christine Lagarde stressed on the relevance and effectiveness of Institutions like the WB and IMF, they also conceded that the Multilateral banking systems need to evolve and become more responsive and accepting of the changing geo-political realities of the day. The challenges of the Globalization backlash, of countries becoming fiercely nationalist and losing interest in multilateralism, technology transforming labour, and the global economic slowdown were some of the key concerns articulated. The newly announced Global Concessional Financing Facility appears to make it more strategic and flexible but one needs to see if the Bank can take it forward with the kind of lukewarm response that was shown by the member countries to a call for increased capital infusion. One also needs to appreciate the challenge that the WB will face keeping in mind the view of the United States regarding the WB funding of middle income countries, especially China. It is to be seen whether the World Bank will truly be a bank owned by the member countries and operate in a free, fair, just and democratic manner or continue to stay as extended political arms of powerful governments in the Global North?

Another major shift that was announced was the recognition of expanding human capital before any meaningful economic development can happen. The WB’s decision to publish ‘Human Capital Index’ reports annually like the ‘Ease of doing business index’ reports will push countries to now reassess how they will begin to view human development. Focus on Nutrition and the impact of stunting on the GDP of countries were highlighted in the discussions.

A call for participation of private capital in WB funded projects sounds like a monster waiting to be unleashed and paradoxical to the call for enhanced social accountability frameworks. With many countries including India already grappling with ‘Policy Capture’ by select corporates, this could result in policies being skewed to the advantage of powerful forces and drowning out the needs and voices of the common citizen. Dr Jim also raised the controversial topic of enhancing ‘sin taxes’ and presented the enormous health benefits by making tobacco products increasingly unaffordable. Though agreeing with him was politically correct for many of the finance ministers present, it needs to be seen how many will walk the talk and take on the powerful tobacco lobbies. Focus on women entrepreneurs and creating platforms to promote them is being spoken about for some time now. But it should gain more legitimacy and momentum, now that these Institutions have provided formal space. This welcome change needs to be reflected in clear and specific policies at the country level and presents a unique opportunity for India as untapped potential in millions of Self Help Groups is waiting to be unleashed.

Going by the past, one is hesitant to believe that all these major shifts will get operationalized immediately or if these agencies will be de-politicized soon. For too long have policy debates been distorted by over emphasis on incomes alone. It is indeed a welcome move for these Institutions to focus on other deprivations like poor health, lack of education, stunting, social exclusion and unemployment which reflect in poor human capital within nations. It is in this context that India needs to present a refashioned narrative and look to building the human and social capital of its citizens rather than get lost in the debate of the state of the economy and mere GDP numbers.

-Balu

 

 

 

An interview of mine that appeared in the ‘Weekly’ published by La Sentinelle, Mauritius

Please read ‘a year’ as ‘a decade’ in this interview.  Sorry for the inadvertent typo in the article.

Mauritius Interview Aug17

‘Indigenous tribal communities: Refashioning Development’ – An article that appeared in Deccan Herald dated 27 July 17

Refashioning tribal devlpt DH July 29, 2017

Find the article below:

A few months ago, the Chhattisgarh government made an announcement that it will now provide 35 kg rice at the doorstep of each tribal family. A thousand kms away, the Karnataka government was grappling with solving the issue of land that the tribals from Diddadahalli had occupied and were claiming as their rightful due. Around the same time, we had Prime Minister Modi announce just after the UP state elections that he would like to see a ‘new India’ arise where the poor and marginalized had access to opportunities and not mere Government doles. While each of these give conflicting signals, one is sad that despite 70 years of independence, the country is still grappling with how to strategize and undertake development of indigenous tribals who constitute a little more than 8% of the nation’s population.

Article 366 (25) of the Constitution of India refers to Scheduled Tribes (STs) as those communities, who are scheduled in accordance with Article 342 of the Constitution. STs are mainly the indigenous population in India that the Government of India identifies as socially and economically backward and in need of special protection from social injustice and exploitation. The tribals are identified by the Govt. based on a community’s primitive traits, distinctive culture, shyness with the public at large, geographical isolation and social and economic backwardness. Tribal communities live in about 15% of the country’s areas in various ecological and geo-climatic conditions ranging from plains to forests, hills and inaccessible areas. There are 705 ethnic groups notified as Scheduled Tribes (ST) in India who live across 30 states and union territories. Tribal groups are at different stages of social, economic and educational development. While some tribal communities have adopted a mainstream way of life at one end of the spectrum, there are 75 Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs), at the other, who are characterized by a pre-agriculture level of technology, a stagnant or declining population, extremely low literacy and a subsistence level of economy

The central government created the Ministry of Tribal Affairs in the year 1999 to give focused attention to the social and economic development of these indigenous communities and has planned to spend close to INR 5300 crores in the current fiscal year on tribal development. While millions of rupees are being spent by Government, NGOS and Corporates under their CSR programs across the country, one finds it difficult to explain why the development of these indigenous communities has not been to the levels expected.

To understand this, we need to appreciate that programs are currently designed by non-tribal people who seem to be deciding on what tribal development should be. It is unfortunate that many of these ‘experts’ and bureaucrats are designing and delivering programs that many a time seems to be disconnected from the ground realities. Across India today, the tribals are at a cross road and are neither able to move away from their dependence on traditional economies nor are they able to integrate with the demands of the market. They are wrestling with change – both at the individual and at the community level and are neither able to let go off the past nor are they able to embrace the present. Programs that are thrust on them are forcing them to accept lifestyles that are unsustainable socially, economically and culturally. Caught between the devil and the deep sea, they are left vulnerable to the forces that continue to exploit them and are living a life of merely coping with the poverty that surrounds them. To make matters worse, most tribal areas are also rich in natural resources and they suffer the collateral damage created by large irrigation projects and extractive industries.

Interventions to develop the indigenous communities needs to begin with an understanding of the tribals themselves. One needs to appreciate that these are communities who have traditionally lived in communes under the leadership of Chieftains and have operated in the traditional economy. Moving from a hunter-gatherer situation to a mixed economy is culturally jarring and can have shocking consequences if not handled sensitively. The state’s planning and executing machinery has little time, patience or competence to understand the dynamics and power structures in the tribal areas and little appreciation of attitudinal and behavioral dimensions. This results in shoddy implementation of schemes and does not provide enough space for meaningful participation of the people. What is further disturbing is that all these schemes are not dynamic or responsive, and seem to be ‘urban solutions’ to ‘tribal problems’. Precious little consideration is given to the skills, knowledge and practices that could help in addressing tribal issues through grassroots perspectives. Seven decades of rapid acculturation and shoddy integration into the mainstream culture has left these communities in confusion. Forest conservation laws that they can neither understand nor find relevance in, has left them at a crossroad with neither a coping mechanism nor an alternate lifestyle. Economic and social demands of mainstream culture and life is forcing them to abandon their traditional methods which kept things simple and sustainable and adopt more expensive, government and NGO driven coping strategies which are neither culturally appropriate nor contextually relevant. These indigenous tribals can neither go back to the past nor have they successfully integrated with the present. The skills that they traditionally had no longer meet the demands of modern existence. All that exists is an insensitive and patronizing system that talks of their development bereft of the dignity that they deserve.

-Balu