India has seen transformational change over the last three decades. Such a transformation has turned India into a highly aspirational country. Today the country wants better jobs, better health care, better public infrastructure and quality of life, better governed cities and modernization of agriculture and rural economy (see 2018 ADR voter survey). To achieve these aspirations India needs to empower its communities (swaraj) and turn them into producers of high-value goods and services (swadeshi).
Swadeshi: Moving up the value chain
The first priority of Indians today is to enjoy better employment opportunities. This requires Indians to quickly move up the value chain, so that their skills and services can have greater demand in the labor market. Consider the case of Indian IT firms like TCS and Infosys that were once supposed to turn India into an IT superpower. Today they have become stunted giants, while Chinese firms have built competitive global brands (Huawei, Tencent) in the same technology industry. While China has assertively moved from low cost manufacturing to production of high end goods and services, India has not. Indian IT "giants" still continue to do backoffice tasks, and are not providers of high end goods and services like Microsoft.
Moving up the value chain is a principle that is also highly relevant for the rural economy, where it naturally implies more processing at the rural level and cutting away of intermediaries who shave off significant value without generating benefits. India needs Indian products to turn into global brands, not intermediary inputs to production of other companies. At the same time, for certain regions like North India, we need specific interventions to promote urban development as it suffers from a metropolitan vaccum.
Moving up the value chain requires rapid improvement in skill set of Indian people. Without such rapid improvement, no amount of wishing a rise of premium Swadeshi products can make it come true. For example, Indian healthcare needs about 2.7 million doctors (three times the current number) to satisfy India’s healthcare needs, which requires a radical new scale at which Indian education system needs to function. The current system of university degree based education although necessary (e.g for training doctors), has become inadequate for the needs of India’s large young population. Today with help of IT, learning can be commodified, and people can learn specific skills in shorter duration, and upgrade their capability. We need an education system that encourages “constant learning” and we need to reimagine universities not as ivory towers in gated communities, but as open public spaces where citizens can walk in and learn. Moreover, instead of expecting people to gain skills at institutes and universities, we need to link high schools to regional industries where students are taught necessary skills as part of their CSR mandate.
Swaraj: Strengthening community
As Indians aspire for better infrastructure, governance and quality of life, it is important to note that a nation of 1.35 billion cannot be governed from New Delhi. The average size of an Indian province is 45 million which is larger than most European nations. Central governments and Lutyens mandarins can keep proposing policies after policies, yet such top down policies are bound to fail in a country of the size and scale as India. Consider a community of size of an Indian village with a population of around 1400 people each, then each of these 10 lack communities, need to get greater devolved powers. India needs effective and local community governance, which has four characteristics:
1. Citizen accountability, and open democracy where each household is member of the governing council.
2. The council has the power to raise funds and taxes, and to enact regulations.
3. Executive accountability of local mayors who are responsible for their village or neighborhood affairs.
4. Establishment of an independent local press, and a public square, with library (museum), community center etc as community amenities
Of the 25 lack crore rupees the central government collects as taxes annually (which should rise with greater growth and formalisation of the economy), it should return a significant fraction (about 20% of the budget), directly to the local communities. If 20% of central funds were distributed among the 10 lack communities of 1400 people (less than 300 households) each, then each community would get a grant of around Rs 50 lack annually as a corpus to fund public goods within the community, over which a local mayor and the governing council will have full budgetary power. Such a fund can go a long way in establishing a baseline of services and quality of life, that each Indian deserves, and provide real significant but constrained devolved powers to local governments.
When the classical Indian principles of Swadeshi and Swaraj are applied in the 21st century context of a globalized hyper connected world, we can achieve rapid progress by doing the obvious: empowering those at the bottom at the pyramid, and making them the kings and queens of their lives. Along with schemes such as a National Childhood Fund, and a comprehensive healthcare plan, we can deliver to Indians a robust development package that is dignified, and unique to India.
The figure below digramatically represents the ideas of Swadeshi and Swaraj and its various components, which I elaborate in the caption and the link here.
First set of measures (Swadeshi) are fundamental, which help citizens succeed, and are well acknowledged: Without an educated and healthy population base, economic success cannot be broad. Thus the focus on Human Development. Similarly, without a strong economic engine that supports free enterprise and flow of capital/resources, an educated and healthy population cannot be sustained. Thus the focus on Enterprise Development. At the core of a strong economic engine lies the ability of a nation to generate enough innovation, that it can create value in a competitive global economy. Thus the focus on Knowledge Development. However, while these development measures are fundamental, achieving them is dependant on the specific regional characteristics. Hence, Swaraj. We have to empower individuals and free them from social restrictions that bind their abilities. Colonial laws and social mores that restrict the pursuit of happiness of women and sexual minorities need to go. The same way, we have to take the government away, and bring back the focus on communities. Mahatma Gandhi and APJ Kalam both dreamt of autonomous village republics. India had a proud history of Janpadas. These republics were built around voluntary and engaged communities. These engaged communities need to be empowered in the government, through decentralised governance. What is not necessarily the purview of the centre and the state, should be local. There should be stronger mayors and empowered panchayats, that are publicly accountable.