India Economic Progress: Is economic progress enough?

The hilarious, yet disgusting, instances of well-heeled Indian flyers urinating in passenger cabins on commercial flights—at times on fellow passengers!–has brought back in focus the gross degeneration of our society. Incidents such as these stand in utter contrast to the image of a hallowed India that our rishis and scores of responsible men and women created over millenia. The last few decades seem, unfortunately, to have eroded a great deal of that image.

While such incidents, covered widely by the media, are a blot, and question our claims to be a progressive (or progressing) country, the rot in our society is visible everywhere too. In our daily life. People spitting on roads, littering, urinating, abusing, and bribing and stealing to support unrealistic material ambitions, abound.

Contrast this with India’s image as a resurgent economic power, fuelled by its technocrats. Newspaper columns and television programs are replete with discussions on how to grow the country’s economy, match it with China’s, and so on. Use of terms like our position among the BRIC nations, G20, double-digit growth, the demographic dividend, our frequent references to our ancient, luminous heritage, are commonplace. We are already gunning for a 5-trillion dollar economy. We are likely to be the world’s third-largest in 15 years! Sooner or later we would–and must–sit at the high table of the UN Security Council.

Our unemployment has been steadily coming down, save the recent reverses due to the pandemic. Our per capita income, at $2400 , has improved considerably over the last fifteen years. We are selling 3 million new cars and almost 8 million two-wheelers a year. Our teledensity has increased from from under 5% to 75%. We have 90 million cable TV homes. We have over a hundred Unicorns! Add to all this our achievements in science and space (not to mention that the richest Asian is now an Indian), and we seem to be doing pretty well.

So, shall we say, “All izz well!”? Can we be called a developed nation even 20 years from now in spite of our economic and scientific progress?

No chance in hell! Because money alone doesn’t mean progress. If it did, then most of the Arab world would have been called ‘developed’. Our rich are as raucous as the poor. Money, without real education, leads to a depraved society. Lalit Bhanot, former athletics administrator, famously put his foot in the mouth when he said that our standards of hygiene are different from those in the developed countries. Earlier a home minister had to face the flak of the Delhi’ites when he said they must behave! But the bitter truth is that we Indians are an unruly, uncivil lot. Look all around you: The way we drive! There is utter mayhem on the road. If you reach the destination safely, it is only because Lord Brahma willed you to! Lane discipline? Zebra crossings? To many those white stripes only mean employment to casual labourers, if not to favour some paint company who may have bribed some authorities, even as speeding people open their car’s door to spit Paan Masala (which at times they don’t do inside a building only because the building interiors are plastered with pictures of idols. If you ever see a driver stopping at a zebra-crossing to allow pedestrians to cross, you can rub your eyes in disbelief! Such niceties are against our culture!Have you observed how we behave when we see a queue? The chances are we won’t join the queue. Instead we would walk straight to the head of the queue and then lean over the counter to talk to the clerk! In most cases we have more than one queue at the same counter! Our honourable leaders and babus think queues are not for them. Urinating on roads for us is as common as defecating is for our bovine cohabitants!Ever since Independence we as a nation have focused our discourse on removing economic poverty, but have done nothing to make the society ‘civil’. ‘Garibi hatao’ is deeply-etched in our psyche. As a society we have always measured our success in terms of the money one has. This inspite of the fact that our ancient traditions valued good behaviour more than the material wealth. There is no doubt that the country is well on its way to economic progress and being a superpower. But with all this progress we are still not quite ‘there’ in the world order as yet. We continue to be viewed as a backward, decadent society.

In fact, our indiscipline is also a drag on our economic progress. Indians living in the developed countries know that the life there is more hassle-free and they get done a lot more with the same effort. Here, nothing works without reminders. The daily existence is like an obstacle course. Whether you call an electrician or a plumber you would be lucky if he comes on time. Indian Standard Time has even seeped into some Board rooms. Even at wedding receptions, where hundreds are invited, often the bride and groom are the last to reach the venue, often hours after the appointed time!

The criminal lack of responsibility was exemplified by people, led by many honourable leaders who themselves moved about freely without face masks during Covid times. Worse, often those wearing a mask removed it while talking! (Indians, though, were not alone in displaying stupidity with regard to Covid behaviours.)

The problem is, this lack of civility and responsibility is not part of our discourse. India needs social and educational reforms—fast. And they must begin at homes and schools.

What should we do?

A case in point is Singapore. One of the most developed and cleanest city-states, it wasn’t like this at its birth. It was more like India. It had a huge population of Indians, Malays, and Chinese…They were unruly and uncivil, besides being poor. The first prime minister, Lee Kwan Yew, is reported to have painstakingly, and often ruthlessly, disciplined a whole generation of people in civic behaviour. Every instance of littering the road would invite quick and severe punishment. It is said that when young kids saw their parents being whipped, they grew up to be disciplined! So what can India do?

-Provide Value Education. Introduce Responsible Behaviours as a compulsory subject in schools. The subject should not be taught in a text-book format, but in a demonstrative format. Teachers must be selected and trained to be role models. And Adult Education in right behaviours should be started. Evening community classes should be run in all schools where a minimum level of participation by adults should be made compulsory. Invest in time and attention to teachers. Behavior and Value education need not be a separate “subject”. Teachers should exude the right behaviors regardless of the subject they teach. Students learn by observing their teachers and elders. It cannot be any other way.

-Let us set up a Centre for Monitoring Indian Society (CMIS), a.k.a. Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy. Let us lay down expected public behaviours, and then develop an index that will track city- and state-wise scores. Start with the cities and then go to villages. Such intense and methodical focus has delivered results for Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan.

-Set up a helpline where anyone can call and register instances of aberrations (this helpline is likely to be the largest employer as, literally, lakhs of complaints are likely to come!). Then publish these scores at all prominent places. Let the citizens of a city know how they are doing.

-Create a Civic police force employing fresh school and college pass-outs. The force should be empowered to book offenders. The amount thus collected would go to a Fund that would provide for civic education and improving civic amenities.

-Air creatively-produced advertisements on civic and social behaviours on popular radio, TV and digital channels. Airing them on Akaashvaani and Doordarshan alone is no good.

-Improve civic amenities such as toilets, drinking water. The Indore municipal corporation results under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan (where the city has won six consecutive Cleanest City recognition, prove that leadership and persistence work.

-Mandate a certain spend by corporates under CSR on Value and Civic Education. The success of Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan has raised hopes that this would work.

-Create a robust mechanism for issuing driving licenses after thorough training on traffic rules, and for enforcing them. Act tough on cops who themselves flout the rules and don’t wear helmets! In short, WE MUST LEARN HOW TO BEHAVE! If we did, then we would bolster our claim to be a Vishwaguru.

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