Reign of tradition
A traditional society revers the wisdom of the ancestors. In the earliest period of human history, the pace of growth was slow, and traditions- or received wisdom from ancestors - were good pointers on how one should behave. Not all traditions were fair. Some like the caste of system or feudalism were atrocious. But in an era where change was slow, these traditions (good or bad) were persistent. It was difficult to mount a revolution. That is why, we do not hear about revolutions in the ancient past that very much. We hear about the American or French Revolutions in the eighteenth century, or about the Indian independence movement since the nineteenth century, or if stretching to the sixteenth century, we hear about the Protestant Reformation.
Why did revolutions against established traditions become common in the early modern era? It was difficult to coordinate hundreds of thousands of people together to mount a mass rebellion against a dominant group. So, technologies such as the printing press, that emerged in the fifteenth century, became important coordinating technologies, as they could print pamphlets and books for call to action. So, traditional society began to lose its grip only once technological and economic progress began. As lives of people transformed within generations, traditions that were passed down from one generation to the next were no longer good guides of behavior. What replaced tradition in this era of rapid change? It was rationality.
Rise of Rationality
While Asian civilizations were at the helm of progress for much of the human history, Europe began to catch up in the modern age. Economic historian Joel Mokyr says that the key difference between early modern Europe and elsewhere was the lack of reverence to ancestors. As Europeans travelled in the age of exploration, and read ancient books, they discovered the gaps in knowledge of their ancestors. They began to question ancestral wisdom, and began believing that their generations may very well be smarter and wiser than the past. When such a break from tradition took place, something needed to replace the guidance of tradition? In place of tradition people began to think for themselves, individually, and began relying on their rational faculty. The ancient world had no dearth of rational thinkers. In Hindu traditions two of the six schools- Nyaya and Vaisheshika rely heavily on logic to learn about reality. But in traditional societies, such logical schools faced tough competition from schools that relied on rituals and traditions, where testimony was highly valued. In the modern age, testimony from ancient texts and ancestors is given much less credibility than testimony of the peers, and inferences of one’s own mind. Such a system that emphasizes peer and rational learning inevitably gave rise to the scientific method.
It should not come as a surprise that rise of rationality gave rise to an Age of Enlightenment and science in the seventeenth century. Stalwarts like Newton and Darwin revolutionized human understanding of the world around us. But with such “enlightenment” and rationality came dark realities. As Europeans, became more technologically advanced, they left a trail of exploitation around the world. India faced several famines during the colonial misrule. Unchecked power of European technological superiority was especially devastating for ordinary Europeans themselves as they fought two cataclysmic world wars. Nazis, fueled by pseudoscientific ideas of a Darwinian race war, perpetrated unspeakable atrocities including the Holocaust that systematically killed millions of Jews. So, age of rationality, despite its ability to bring rapid technological and economy progress, reached a nauseating conclusion during the World War 2, characterized by devastation, genocide and moral bankruptcy at a scale unheard of in human history. How could rationality culminate in such a devastating end? Because it was devoid of morality and empathy, and especially devoid of a concern for human dignity.
Primacy of Dignity
Consider the founder of modern statistics - Francis Galton. He was a polymathic genius who gave the world regression and fingerprints. But he was also the founder of eugenics, and believed human races were inherently different, and like breeds of animals, each race had unique characteristics that were hard baked by nature. Eugenics, an idea that was further popularized by the Nazis, believed in designing a better race using scientific principles, where the ideal race was the Nordic-Aryan ideal. In name of such improvement of racial stock, “impure” and “inferior” groups like the Jews, or “defective” people like those who were disabled or belonged to the LGBT community, were killed in gas chambers in a highly bureaucratic and organized operation. While the Nazi obsession with a purity may seem like a perversion, but such ideas of group superiority were not exclusive to the age of rationality. Traditional societies were far from egalitarian. Gender, religious or caste discrimination was rampant is such societies for long, with fetishized notions of purity and pollution playing an important role in regulating conduct.
Twentieth century saw rapid expansion in human rights. The second world war could not have been won, without the contribution of armies made of people of color, and of factories run by women. After the end of Second World War, there was a greater reflection on the perils of Nazism type ideologies that failed to acknowledge human dignity. In the 20th century, women sufferage movement, civil rights, Dalit, LGBT and the several independence movements, most prominently in India, brought representation to the marginalized groups. As their voices were heard more, reason in itself was no longer an appropriate guide for decision making. It had to be coupled with the notion of dignity. For example, John Rawls in his pathbreaking book on Justice, provided a framework that combined reason with dignity. He said, we should design a society keeping a veil of ignorance about where we as individuals would be positioned in such a society. If this principle of veil of ignorance gets applied, it is difficult to advocate for lesser rights for marginalized groups, and rights and laws become more inclusive and universal. Consider the notion of “men” in the American constitution, which has evolved from including only land owning white men in eighteenth century, to all humans in the twenty first.
In a traditional society, all people had a “proper” place. Consider the position of transgenders in Indian society. While being a transgender was tolerated in Indian society, and at times transgenders were even worshiped, but the social and economic roles they could take were severely limited. As societies became more rational, it did not spontaneously create an inclusive society. Labeling of “proper” and “improper” humans became common. For example in Victorian England, the rights of LGBT persons were severly curtailed, and anti-LGBT laws and sentiments diffused in other colonies. However, in the modern era human dignity is more important than reason or tradition, and in this era we need to empathize, stand in other people’s shoes and question if it is the job of society to dictate what is the “proper” thing for people to do. This tradition of empathy, and primacy to dignity, gives a simple solution: we must design a society which gives all people the freedom to decide what is proper for them. If a person’s life decisions do not directly affect our own, should we decide on their behalf what is “proper” for them? Similarly, when people’s individual decisions affect others, should some stakeholders take decisions for the rest?
A fully realized society, that gives primacy to dignity, and tests both rationality and tradition on that anvil, naturally offers universal fundamental rights to all people, and develops participative and democratic systems of collective decision making. The ideals of such a society are codified in great constitutional texts such as the the American and Indian constitution. Though these constitutions codify great and noble ideas and are great achievements of mankind, the application of these ideas nonetheless depends on those who practice and apply them in their daily lives. Do we give primacy to human dignity, and test our traditions and rationality on that anvil? Or are we comfortable in defending our traditions or reasoning even when they violate the dignity of fellow human beings? The answers to the questions above will eventually decide the fate of our society in the long run.
Basic income has been a topic of intense scruitny in India over the last few years. 2017 Economic Survey even wrote a report on Universal Basic Income (UBI) and its feasibility. Political parties across the spectrum have been toying with the idea.
A minimum income guarantee scheme like NYAY (Nyuntam Aay Yojana) that has been proposed by Indian National Congress is a difficult to implement but a feasible scheme, contrary to the emerging narrative that its an impossible and unfeasible idea. Middle class in India gets 1% of GDP as yearly subsidies from GoI. Total subsidies by GoI amount to 2% of total GDP, and much of it is subsidy given on food. GoI's social sector schemes cost 3.7% of yearly GDP (not including the 2% subsides). A basic income scheme such as NYAY scheme which covers 20% of poorest households, will cost 2% of the yearly GDP. It is not at all in the impossible terrain.
Funding a basic income scheme that costs 2% of the total GDP is especially feasible in an economy that grows at 6-8% each year. This implies that a fraction of gains that India makes each year go to the poorest Indians. The proposal that 20% of India's population should be guaranteed 2% of India's GDP is not a radical idea. Such a scheme is also inevitable, as cash transfers become easier, and it will not come to me as a surprise if BJP were also mulling over similar ideas (afterall the UBI report came under their government, and they proposed a minimal basic income for farmers).
It is also important to consider that a basic income format of welfare was simply not feasible in a pre-IT era. A basic income based social welfare has become a possibility because of two key innovations that characterize India's development in 2010s: 1) development of a robust framework of universal identity (UID/Adhaar) system and online and mobile banking infrastructure, and 2) significant exapansion in bank access for people. However, NYAY is just one proposal. There are many alternative ways of distributing basic income.
There are three questions that need to be considiered when discussing basic income as a policy:
Personally I am of the view that social welfare schemes should be as universal and unconditional as possible (although not always feasible), because implementing targeted and means-tested schemes open up a backdoor for inefficiency, bureaucracy and corruption. Bo Rothstein has a fantastic book on Quality of Government, which promotes the notion of impartial governance. So, I tend to favour basic income schemes that are universal and unconditional (hence a UBI), and at the same time do not completely substitute some in-kind welfare schemes like healthcare and education. I believe policies targeting the poor, should provide some income relief through cash transfers as a UBI, but other forms of in-kind relief (such as accessible healthcare, education, housing and amenities) cannot be replaced. Social welfare should still be seen as a basket of programs, which aid people in their incomes (yes), but also in their consumption.
Note: If I designed a basic income scheme, it will target childhood inequality by developing a National Childhood Fund. Childhood inequality is a key issue India faces, and a package I would favor will be a universal, unconditional scheme that will provide family assistance to households with children. It will look something like this (let me know your thoughts):
Pegged at 3% of India's GDP, and targeting about half a billion children of India, every child below 18 years of age will get an unconditional yearly cash transfer of ₹ 12000, remunerated monthly at ₹ 1000. As India's GDP rises (if very conservatively at 5%, when realistically we expect it to be @7-10%), then this income will rise too. Today, an yearly income of ₹ 12000, will be equal to ₹ 28900 in 18 years (@ 5%), and a total value of such saving (at 5% interest rate), will be about ₹ 5.2lack (₹ 2.16 lack NPV), that a child will be entitled to once they enter adulthood. A part of this income can be utilised by parents to fund unconditional expenses (which are expected to rise with a new child), but families will be nudged to freeze all the money for 18 years, and use this saving as a collateral for short duration interest free loans (short credit) if they so need. If they fail to return the money, then that amount will be deducted from this pool. There will also be a cap where parents with more than two children will be frozen off from utilising any money from their third child's account. So, families with two children, will get an yearly assistance of ₹ 24,000 (present day value).
Hence, if I were a policy maker, a combination of instruments will be my preferred choice to ensure that an important demography of Indians (children), are better off in the future, and their family members are protected from risks. To this I will also add a comprehensive healthcare scheme about which I have written before. Government's Ayushman Bharat Yojana is an important milestone providing a significant health insurance (a key area of vulnerability) to India's 10 crore poorest households. As Guardian puts it "It's a godsend". To the Ayushman Bharat Yojana and my preferred model of subsystem-specific healthcare, I would also add a specialised healthcare program that provides unconditional healthcare coverage to all children. The money for such a scheme can partly come from the large savings pool that National Childhood Fund will create.
In the three lectures held on 22nd, 26th and 29th October, 2018 in the memory of Prof. Dwijendra Tripathi, we studied the broad historical evolution of businesses and markets. It was a story of expansion of the social circle. We discussed the macro-level implications of who are our friends and what is the nature of networks we make.
In the first lecture we learnt about the two types of exchange: one which is embedded in networks and hierarchies, and another that can rely on arm’s length interactions with strangers. We discussed how embedded systems of exchange like merchant guilds can persist due to a lack of incentives or information, or because of salience of identity in embedded exchanges.
In the second lecture we looked at the factors that can widen the social circle and give rise to impersonal and cosmopolitan social systems. We learnt that strong institutions, a trustworthy culture or “laissez-faire” markets alone can not be the recipe for the emergence of impersonal exchange as each of them are prone to corruption, decay and opportunism. We discussed the importance of incentives and formalization in impersonal exchange, and how trade and information shocks can play an important role in triggering a co-evolution between generalized institutions, standardized business norms, and impersonal exchange. We discussed how this process panned out in Northwestern Europe, and how the same processes may lead to growth in India, as long as the growth remained inclusive.
In the third lecture, we discussed the forces that drive such evolution. First we looked at the role of institutions on development, and specifically looked at formal, legal and local ethnic institutions. Next, we discussed the cultural ingredients that make functioning markets, and discussed the importance of historical persistence and trust, and how "market for ideas" influenced culture and institutions. Next, we discussed how technology influences the market, and discussed the importance of information and transport technology, and the media.
Humans need communities. After all, we are social beings. These communities should be built around our neighbors, co-workers, family members, and friends. But, there should be a scope for inclusion of new people - of strangers - in our communities. Without inclusivity, diversity, and trust, communities become stale, fragmented and suffocating for individual growth and freedom.
People often have a very idealized vision of communities. They think that communities are places of high social capital. Yes, they are, but what kind of social capital? Actual communities (throughout the world) can often look like an Indian village fragmented and stratified by the "caste system," where people adhere to vigorously enforced community norms and are skeptical of outsiders.
After the sixteenth century, "communities" like merchant guilds began to diffuse, and give way for market-based societies in Europe. And so was laid the foundation of the modern, more bourgeois, and more cosmopolitan world. But, in India the caste identity became more salient during the colonial period, which hinders India's rise today as a prosperous and modern society. Hopefully, India is undergoing a bourgeois revolution at this moment. Will all parts of India benefit from this revolution equally?
(Here's a longer Thesis Introduction)
The Hindi speaking provinces of India: Uttar Pradesh (UP), Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh (MP) together make a population close to half a billion . Historically, this region was home to important cosmopolitan cities of the world, like Kashi and Patliputra. Just over a hundred years ago, four of the ten largest cities (Lucknow, Banares, Kanpur and Agra), and eight of the twenty largest cities in India (+ Allahabad, Patna, Bareilly and Meerut) were in the region (1911 census). But today, the region suffers from a “metropolis vacuum”, because it has no major metropolitan agglomeration to attract talent and investments.
The six largest cities of India, Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore, and Hyderabad all lie outside of this Hindi heartland. The other new upcoming urban centers like Pune, Ahmedabad, and Surat also lie outside of the region. Among the ten largest cities none are in the region, while only five cities (Lucknow, Kanpur, Indore, Bhopal and Patna) belong in the top twenty (2011 census). The glaring absence of a major metropolitan center in the region has forced young people to migrate away from the small towns and move to other cities in the West and the South.
Today, India needs sustained double digit economic growth (Financial Times, 2015), to fulfill the aspirations of its highly ambitious and very young population. During the previous decades, India’s growth was primarily centered in its West and the South. But, if today India aims to sustain and accelerate its progress, the Hindi heartland needs to become an engine of growth too. Can such growth happen in the absence of a metropolitan anchor?
Cities play an indispensable role in any region’s economy. If we consider the historical rise of Europe, cities like Amsterdam and London played an indispensable role in its progress. At the end of the fifteenth century, Northwestern Europe was not very different from parts of India or China. Yet the region leap-frogged ahead of the historically dominant economies of Asia, as Northwestern Europe underwent a “bourgeois” revolution (McCloskey 2016) in the sixteenth century. In this region, cities such as Amsterdam, Hamburg and London at the Atlantic coast, established rules-based-markets (Ogilvie 2011), and they attracted trade, talent and capital. This agglomeration helped in the development of a bourgeois city dwelling class that saw investment in learning and enterprise (and not land and nobility) as the path to progress. Eventually, the Northwestern European region developed a distinct culture of growth (Mokyr 2016), as innovation became more frequent (either through invention or imitation) and profit making became more desirable. As rulers found new ways to generate revenue, they facilitated the formation of joint-stock-companies like the English East India Company, which traded overseas, and eventually this process of innovation and commerce (often along with colonization) culminated in the Industrial Revolution, which first was sparked in eighteenth century England.
Nobel laureate Robert Lucas (2018) in his recent research has emphasized the importance of cities in the industrial revolution. Cities match capital with talent. Cities that are accessible (not controlled by a clique of business and political elites) and cosmopolitan (not hostile to particular groups of people) attract capital and bring people of diverse backgrounds and talents together to form productive partnerships. Such cities motivate people from nearby areas to learn new skills and to invest more in the education and health of their children.
In India, we can see this historical process of growth happening in real time, with the meteoric rise of Bangalore. In 1911 Bangalore was only a minor city in India. Today it ranks third, thanks to an environment that is welcoming to entrepreneurs, innovators and investors.
What happens in regions like the Hindi heartland, which lack major cosmopolitan cities? In such regions capital and talent are matched much less efficiently. If people do not expect that their talent will be rewarded because of this mismatch, they have lower interest in investing in themselves and their children. The mismatch creates a vicious circle of low human capital and low growth. Such vicious circle where people don’t have hope for a better future, creates a fervent ground for anti-social behavior, like lynching and vigilantism. The Hindi heartland needs a few major cities, to get out of this vicious circle.
When discussing Indian economic growth, much emphasis is given to India’s central government. India’s central government plays a very important role in pushing for the much-needed reforms, which can make the match between capital and talent more efficient. But India’s state governments and even more locally – the mayors and their municipal councils are key players in shaping the direction of India’s regional development. If India’s Hindi heartland is to grow, it needs state governments and municipal councils that appreciate the importance of large and cosmopolitan cities in economic growth.
India’s central polity, both on the left and the right, understands the importance of cities in economic development. But is it concerned about the metropolis vacuum that is diminishing the prospects of India’s Hindi heartland? Recently, India has made plans to develop industrial corridors connecting its major cities. The Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC) has received much attention in the media, which connects the two cities via western cities like Jaipur, Ahmedabad, and Surat. Such projects offer much potential for future economic growth. Yet, if Indian policymakers are serious about ending the metropolis vacuum faced by its half a billion citizens, they should take concrete and targeted steps to accelerate urban development in the region. The Amritsar-Kolkata industrial corridor is a useful step, and more projects focused specifically on the heartland are needed to remedy this metropolis vacuum.
The good thing about urban growth is – cities grow by themselves – as long as the local governments “facilitate” adequate urban public goods (like roads, water, electricity and public transport) and establish a rule of law, which develops a favourable environment for all enterprises, not a chosen few (i.e. they are pro-market not pro-business, see Rajan and Zingales, 2004). Partly, the stagnation of cities in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar is because of the absence of an unbiased rule of law, which should be blind to a person’s party, ideology, religion, caste or class. Which entrepreneur will like to settle in a city, where the government’s attitude towards you and your business can change as quickly as the climate? It is also important to fix accountability and urban governance by empowering local mayors. Indian cities suffer from severe handicaps due to poor urban governance (Janagraha ASICS 2017). Cities around the world, from London to Chicago have influential mayors, and residents hold them responsible if the city fails to function well. When heavy rains clog cities like Patna, who is to be held accountable? The government of Bihar which represents ten crores (hundred million) people, or a local mayor? The answer to this question should be clear, so that we can stop passing the buck.
Targeted steps to rejuvenate cities of Hindi heartland are a win-win for all stakeholders in India’s growth. If metropolitan cities can emerge in the region, it will relieve the migratory pressures many growing cities like Bangalore are facing today. Here is the bottom-line: Of the 1.35 billion people of India, about half a billion cannot be left behind.
An urban policy that emphasizes healthy growth of cosmopolitan cities throughout India including its Hindi heartland is a crucial ingredient for achieving sustained two-digit GDP growth, which India acutely needs.
 475 million in 2018. (220 mm in UP, 110 mm in Bihar, 80 mm in MP, 35 mm Jharkhand, 30 mm Chattisgarh)
Financial Times 20: https://www.ft.com/content/a44b8f48-be61-11e4-a341-00144feab7de
McCloskey, Deirdre N. Bourgeois equality: How ideas, not capital or institutions, enriched the world. Vol. 3. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.
Ogilvie, Sheilagh. Institutions and European trade: Merchant guilds, 1000–1800. Cambridge University Press, 2011.
Mokyr, Joel. A culture of growth: the origins of the modern economy. Princeton University Press, 2016.
Lucas Jr, Robert E. "What Was the Industrial Revolution?." Journal of Human Capital 12, no. 2 (2018): 182-203.
Rajan, Raghuram G., and Luigi Zingales. Saving capitalism from the capitalists: Unleashing the power of financial markets to create wealth and spread opportunity. Princeton University Press, 2004.
Janagraha ASICS 2017: http://janaagraha.org/asics/ASICS-2017.html
One of most fascinating pieces of global history is this: The modern number system was introduced in Europe by an Italian merchant named Leonardo of Pisa (whom we today call Fibonacci) in the beginning of 1200s. Leonardo learnt the decimal system when he visited Béjaïa in Algeria. He was taught the number system by Muslim merchants, who themselves popularized the decimal system after learning it from Hindu merchants. The first mention of zero has been found in Indian commercial text from 200–400 AD written in Sharada script discovered in Bakhshali, Pakistan (today preserved in Oxford’s Bodlean Library).
For about 250 years after Leonardo, his number system wasn’t well known to most Europeans. Much of Europe until around 1500s used the Roman numbers. Imagine performing division using Roman numbers! It was in 1450s after an inventive German blacksmith named Gutenberg invented the movable type Printing Press in Mainz, that the Hindu-Arabic number system began replacing Roman numerals, and revolutionized mathematics, science and commerce!
We can improve India's healthcare, by fulfilling the specific requirements in logistics, access, staff and funding of three distinct subsystems in healthcare: 1) preventive & wellness, 2) hospital and 3) rare disease & emergency.
Last month we fundraised for a 9-year old boy named Suman who was suffering from Japanese encephalitis, and whose father was unable to afford treatment. Suman's situation and of several others (visit Milaap) revealed the glaring flaws in the Indian healthcare system. What kind of independence is it, when the masses can't afford a treatment that the family and friends of the more affluent, powerful and connected can?
We have to stop looking at Healthcare as one large system, and view it as a collection of several subsystems:
Preventive & wellness healthcare needs to be accessible in close proximity to everyone. The costs of this care are low, and closely linked to nutrition and lifestyle, and the costs can be borne by people themselves. There is a huge scope for the private sector in this area and the government should promote private enterprise in the preventive & wellness healthcare sector. Special emphasis should be given to women's healthcare needs, as the prenatal womb environment can have a significant impact on the future health of children.
Hospital healthcare needs doctors, nurses and advanced equipment, and it serves at one time a smaller number of people in need for medical care. The costs are high, but the middle class and richer families can pay for the treatment, while the poor should be assisted in part by the government. There is a scope for both private and public institutions in hospital care. Managing and improving hospital care has been the emphasis of governments, but without proper preventive & wellness and rare disease & emergency healthcare systems, hospital healthcare is overloaded and inefficient.
Rare disease & emergency healthcare needs specialised and sophisticated care. The number of people served by the system is significantly lower, and the costs of care are very high, especially when they require a rapid response (air ambulance) or rare surgery (transplants). The cost of this care can be borne by the government for all cases. The government should institute a military style health service (MediCorps?) that caters to special needs of rare and emergency healthcare.
By classifying healthcare in preventive & wellness, hospital and rare disease & emergency, and by having special logistics and funding arrangements for each, we can improve the healthcare system. When preventive & wellness care is good, the need for hospital care is lower, and this saves costs for everyone. Similarly, the treatment of rare disease & emergency conditions should work like a national insurance scheme where people by making small investments, insure themselves to get military grade well-coordinated health service.
Any more suggestions, especially from people associated with healthcare, are most welcome.
I do not like to act like a seer, as we often get caught up in bubbles, believing the immediate past trends will carry forward in the future. The number of uncertainties in the world are too many, to predict anything with either precision or accuracy. Anyway, if a pattern emerges that lasts a decade, you need to give it some due emphasis.
Many say the rising inequality is a problem. I agree it is, but I would say the rising inequality, in the long run, is a greater problem for the rich than the poor because it is the rich who will be the greatest losers. The financial crisis of 2008 was an unprecedented event, but the events that followed were more unprecedented. Those who were the direct actors in the creation of the storm, the finance industry, has withered the storm and even taken huge bonuses and public bailouts home, while those who were at the receiving end still struggle to get over the damaging consequences of the great recession. I will not argue the merits of either side but will provide a clinical analysis of what such an uneven growth implies - where the rich got richer and the poor struggled. We can see what it implies all around us, the Occupy Wall Street, the 2014 Ferguson Protest, all of it are fuelled by a perceived sense of injustice, that few wealthy men (mostly) have an unnaturally large level of control on people's lives. I have heard the lobbyists of the Wall Street and the City argue how such perceptions are misjudged. However, you can't change perceptions by giving fat bonuses to bosses! Even if for a moment it is agreed that the agitated public today is merely a victim of misperception, the misperception is too strong.
Maybe there exists a belief in the power circles of the Western world that such sense of injustice will calm down once some fraction of the large wealth of rich will trickle down. Some believe that we should let the 'hard working and smart' rich get very rich and then some parts of their income will eventually go to feed the 'lousy' poor. What explains this patience of the disproportionately rich with the current agitations?
In the past few decades, the social capital in western democracies has eroded. Prof. Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone presents this case, where he argues how the famed civic values of America are under threat. The union membership has declined precipitously in the USA in the past decades. I have my own analysis of why this is happening. I agree with Prof. Noam Chomsky that today media in the developed world closely resembles an oligopoly or even a cabal owned by a few well-connected firms. Although a paper by Mullainathan and Shleifer "The Market for News" at AER (2005), suggests the news media is driven primarily by the slant of its customers, and not producers, however, there also exists evidence how media can impact people's perceptions (see Chiang, Chun-Fang, and Brian Knight. "Media bias and influence: Evidence from newspaper endorsements." The Review of Economic Studies 78.3 (2011): 795-820.). A paper by Maja Adena et al. (see Adena, Maja, et al. "Radio and the rise of Nazis in pre-war Germany." Available at SSRN 2242446 (2013).) showed the impact of media on the rise of Nazis in Germany which provide us a chilling reminder of the power media can wield in impacting our perceptions (remember Mein Kampf?). There are sections of media that constantly attempt to 'entertain' us, or rather distract us, and attempt to mold our perceptions. The 'talking points' on Iraq War where the Bush administration had a preplanned approach on how to influence public perception in support of the war is a good and a relatively recent reminder of that. So is the media campaign to present climate change as a 'green agenda.' It isn't too outlandish to believe that a similar PR exercise is underway to alter public perceptions about inequality that how fat paychecks (even in a recession) to few is 'good' for all or at least completely normal. Such an attempt to distract public opinion, and make them feel restive but silent, has a direct impact on people's ability to come together and take a stand. Thus the elite section of society believes the general public would soon get over their anger and settle for the status quo.
However, there are new trends, the trend of social media, which is disrupting the current media oligopoly. Just recently Disney announced the acquisition of a major YouTube based production company, signaling the rising importance of internet media in the industry. As the media industry disrupts so will the zeitgeist, which leads us to an unknown territory. There is a reason to believe that as new media takes center stage, it will directly improve social capital in democracies, and spurt new civic engagement and make democracy more participative. However social capital can go the other way if in case people are unable to build cross-constituency social capital in time and amidst a zeitgeist of fear they barter freedom for security or violence. In such a setting such new media can promote radical ideas that take society towards the far left or right, directly threatening the democratic ideals of western nations. One should remember that the rise of Hitler too happened in desperate times right after the great depression of 1929-30 and was helped by the negative social capital of homogenous groups. We have also seen the rise of radical right parties in the UK in recent times. Similar is the rise of anarchist and communist movements which have become more vocal and active in the past few years which distrusts the electoral process. There is an increasing antipathy of people towards the Westminster or White House which are considered not edifices of democracy anymore but rather mouthpieces of the City and the Wall Street.
If the first scenario of positive, participatory democracy plays out, there will be redistribution, the public will benefit, and the size of the rich will be cut down and constrained. If the second scenario of fear and retribution plays out, while the public may be ecstatic at the beginning, however soon hysteria will pave the way for oppression. New power cabals will get created, and most certainly the old will be dismantled. The status quo is unsustainable in a long run because it has been here for a long time and the zeitgeist demands change, and it is important that the existing power elite wakes up to this reality. While change is inevitable, the direction is not, but the greater the resistance from the elite to regulate itself, the sharper will be the response from the public. So, it is only prudent that the elite understands this, and as a precaution repositions itself, by being open to redistribution through higher taxes. It must take the lead from figures like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates to champion fair redistribution, and not act as gatekeepers of wealth. Leaders like Obama or Cameroon have no room for future error because they need to push an agenda which does not put the liberal democratic ideals of their nations under threat. They need to reclaim their nations from plutocracy and save their nation from the possible shift towards something worse.
Leaders need to give their country back to their people.
Brief: Development needs just a little push. The problems we need to look at aren’t huge, ambitious, or those that take an entire lifetime solving. Solving these problems won’t bring us fame, or awards or admiration. They may not even change lives drastically. But if some of us can make it a habit, to engage in community building we will be like silent warriors. We meet one of these silent warriors, Dr. Samadhan Patil.
At the stroke of midnight in 1947, when India made its tryst with destiny, I often wonder what was in Nehru’s mind. There is an India that is racing ahead on its way to Mars. There is another India where a poor farmer in Vidarbha can’t even make his way back home; he dies on his way, dehydrated and starved in his journey of 35 kms, just because he doesn’t have a penny to afford transport. Such a stark difference!
Is it even possible for some of us to live at the cusp of both realities? So, let’s meet Dr. Samadhan Patil, a scientist at the London Centre of Nanotechnology, a premier research institute in nanotechnology and a joint venture between London’s two research giants UCL and Imperial College London. An alumni of India’s prestigious Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, for the last 10 years he has lived in Lisbon and London, away from his small ancestral village, Ladli, in the Indian province of Maharashtra. Yet the distance hasn’t stopped him from being connected to his village.
Getting Down the Drain
Dr. Patil’s village isn’t very prosperous. When he was in primary school, he recollects there were only three teachers, and each teacher taught two classes simultaneously in the same room, as the school was made of just two rooms. In regions around Ladli, farmers committing suicide out of inability to pay debt is common. In spite of the limited resources, he says his village has supported him throughout his journey, in the good and the bad times, and it is where he feels relaxed and at ease. This is what drives him constantly, for the last twenty years and more, to be involved in big and small ways in developmental work in his village. His story tells us that change doesn’t need support of an institution.
Just a few years back, during a short visit home, he got down in the village’s drains to clean them up. He was fed up with all the dirt clogging the drains! Though he started alone with a friend, he was soon joined by small children, who were more than glad to get their hands dirty. Slowly more than 20 others joined him, and it ended up becoming a massive clean-up drive in his village of 1000 people. Today, thanks to greater awareness among villagers for cleanliness, and some help from the government, the village is much cleaner than it used to be. His little effort just got the ball rolling.
The Problem of Motivation
Some changes are harder to bring than others. Another time, Dr. Patil took the initiative of tree plantation. He says while once entire regions used to be covered with trees, he was very alarmed to see how rapidly the canopy had dwindled from the region. This time, as he was in London, he instead persuaded his friends in the village to take up tree plantation. After some initial hesitation, they were soon huddled together and he was hoping to see great enthusiasm. However, unlike cleanliness where results can be seen soon, tree plantation needs a much more farsighted commitment. To motivate villagers, he even volunteered to award around £50–100 from his own pocket to every villager who was successful in saving a sapling from dying for two years. Yet, only a few trees got saved. However, the lukewarm outcome hasn’t disappointed him. He says, “We as individuals might be motivated, but when working in groups, the magnitude of certain problems makes us feel paralysed. We have the means to bring about change but lack motivation.” This reminds me of Professor Teresa Amabile, a leading researcher at Harvard who has done some astonishing longitudinal studies documenting people’s work lives. She has something similar to say on how it is not big achievements but small wins that motivate people and push them to be creative. She calls it ‘The Progress Principle’
Dr. Patil’s successes and failures maybe point us towards a simple way towards social motivation- We need to start small, with small problems that can be tackled and won.
We often hear about big bang achievements of social workers, yet how many of us have the time and resources to leave our careers to start an NGO or to make a disruptive social innovation? But should this demotivate us from being agents of change? Maybe it is high time we stopped waiting to make the big splash. Can’t we be silent warriors?Dr. Samadhan makes use of his strong social networks in his village to persuade locals. Back in 2010, Dr. Samadhan’s persistence helped his village elect a leader by consensus saving the village from political factionalisation. While democracy is good and it is nice that his village has a colourful local democracy, too much competition in a democracy can often lead to polarisation. Unfortunately, sometimes such polarisation divides instead of unites people. Dr. Samadhan insists that what villages need first is unity. For the last few months, Dr. Samadhan has been spearheading a local water conservation project. He wants a small dam to be built from the local village funds. He says, the village has the money, however this money would be given to contractors for infrastructure projects, and he is not confident if all the money will be used effectively. He wants the village government to take on the task of building a dam all by itself. He says the dam isn’t too complicated to build, and he is willing to lend his engineering expertise. He says this project, while on one hand give good sustainable jobs to Ladli’s youngsters, will also create a sense of community and lift up village’s esteem and spirit.
Hope and Despair
In our conversation, we keep coming back to the same idea: the need for spirit and motivation. His words here remind me of Nobel Laureate Professor Amartya Sen. In a lecture last year at LSE, he talked of the role played by Rabindranath Tagore, the legendary Bengali polymath and Nobel winner, in lifting the spirit of Asian nations in their fight for independence. Prof. Sen reminded us how many Asians in the late 19th and early 20thcentury used to feel humiliated by the vast disparities between them and Europeans. Europeans appeared to be like a superior civilisation that dominated the world. Was competing against them even worth the effort? Then Japan, as an exception in Asia, rapidly modernised itself, and Tagore was one of the first writers to write about this miracle. Prof. Sen writes “…he (Tagore) saw the need to build the self-confidence of a defeated and humiliated people, of people left behind by developments elsewhere, as was the case in Japan before its emergence during the nineteenth century.” Soon this story of Japan’s nation building was told and heard by many in Asia, and it fuelled a new spirit of nationalism.
An Army of Silent Warriors
The spirit people in our villages need isn’t to fight an aggressive invader. Dr. Patil is hopeful that development in India, and for that matter any nation, needs just a little push from people who are willing to give some of their passion and some of their time to solve problems around them. The problems we need to look at are not huge, ambitious, or those that take an entire lifetime to solve. Solving these problems won’t bring us fame, awards or admiration. They may not even change lives drastically. But then, if some of us can make it a habit to engage in community building in places that have been forgotten, which just need a little push, we will be like silent warriors. Our march towards development is long. If each one of us can commit to a village of a thousand people, then to cover the 7 billion of us we will need an army of 7 million silent warriors in the world!
Where do we find these 7 million warriors? Civic Engagement has been a tricky topic, as while some regions seem to have a lot of it, some others remain paralysed. This is very well described by Prof. Robert Putnam’s authoritative work on Civic Traditions. It is a vicious cycle: despair breeds distrust, which creates more despair breeding further distrust, such that some communities remain in a state of seeming paralysis. However there must be some self-starters in every place like Dr. Patil in Ladli, who keep engaging in some good work just out of habit of volunteerism. Such leaders (although with just a few followers!) have a vast bank of experiences and best practices they are willing to share. If we could bring volunteers like Dr. Patil together, and create a digital community where the best practices are shared, can’t we make a dent and create some impact? Possibly if we could make grassroots related communication (which usually gets eclipsed by political, sports, business or celebrity related news) more effective, we can reach a tipping point where more and more people are motivated to take up small community development projects, and which in return could push the locals to find a renewed spirit and to take development in their own hands.
An army of 7 million silent warriors for 7 billion of us… is that a lot in the cyber age? I leave the question to the august community.
Connecting the Grassroots
Let’s do a reality check. In villages like Ladli, Google may still be a novelty. Internet, let’s accept it, needs literacy, and the poorest of the world aren’t still so literate. Even if the local community leaders are literate, internet access is still either inconvenient or too slow to help us easily reach a critical mass of participation. So here is an idea. There are over 6 billion mobile phones today in the world, covering 87% of human population. While mobile penetration is still low at around 21.8 per 100 in some African countries like Ethiopia, larger developing countries like India (90.47) and China (89.2) are close to fully covered. We may have heard of astonishing innovation around mobile phones like the M-Pesa in Kenya. However it is time that the grassroots activists got connected. We need the mobile phone (not smartphone) to be the tool for social communication.
In developing countries, increasingly the mobile phone is being used as a tool for political participation, and its usage has been widely studied during Arab Spring. Startups like Text-to-Change are using the mobile phone to broadcast useful information to people in developing countries. While different innovations of mobiles have been tried and tested, a coordinated effort to channelize the voices coming from the world’s forgotten backyards, and to create an effective sharing platform is still missing. While Facebook connects today more than 1 billion people, the rest of the 6 billion are still not connected, and usually live in the remotest regions. We need a social network like Facebook that is so primal that it works via text messages, so that local community volunteers can stay connected and engage in a global conversation, highlighting their causes, supporting other’s and most importantly sharing good ideas. There are simple hacks for it that can be easily implemented. For example, Twitter provides tweeting via SMS, and if a convention of hashtags can be pushed, the hashtag can help collate massive development related tweets arising from forgotten hinterlands of the world, where cyber space still hasn’t penetrated. In fact, community volunteers do not even need to register on twitter. They can simply SMS their messages to a national number, which can then tweet these messages on twitter. The idea is to make communication as seamless and less complicated as possible, so that more and more community leaders can join, and we can start a serious and mainstream conversation on grassroots development.
Originally published at www.gsnetwork.org
Personal blog. Views expressed are my own, expressed in personal capacity.