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If India Can't Champion Diversity, It Should Forget About Economic Growth

27/10/2015 8:07 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Volunteer caucasian woman giving rice to hungry Indian children. Poor Indian children keeping their hands up and asking for support. Many Indian children suffer from poverty - more than 50% of India's total population lives below the poverty line, and more than 40% of this population are children.

The principal questions foreign investors would ask me until recently were about the health of the Indian economy. Now another question is being asked too: what is happening to India's social fabric? Astute investors know that the condition of a country's society can have salient effects on its economic progress. The concern of Indian citizens is even deeper. For them, "development" does not have only an economic dimension. They fear that the tearing of the nation's social fabric is a price not worth paying for faster growth of GDP.

Too many incidents around the country in the past few months have exposed the de facto denial of the de jure rights of Dalits, women and people of minority religions to be treated as politically, economically and socially equal citizens of India. Spokespersons of the ruling political dispensation point out that such incidents had also happened when the previous government was in power. What is different now, and of great concern to India's well-wishers both within and outside the country, is doubt about the intent of the ruling dispensation. Its organs speak and act with disdain for minorities, justifying their hostility with their own self-serving interpretations of India's multi-hued history.

"Any force that encourages conflicts of 'us' versus 'them' within India is a threat to India."

The potential for greatness in India's society, as well as the risk for its sustainability, lies in its diversity. Any force that encourages conflicts of "us" versus "them" within India is a threat to India. Though it may mask its agenda of hate in a specious nationalism, it is an anti-Indian force. The stoking of differences amongst stakeholders, as well as attempts by those in power to suppress others, destroy the idea of a diverse yet harmonious Indian society. These forces if unchecked will retard India's economic progress too. To "Make in India", we have to make India too.

Many business people have been complaining about difficulties in acquiring land and about the nuisance of complying with labour regulations. They were dismayed when the government could not pursue its executive route to dilute provisions in the land law passed by Parliament that required an impact assessment to be made before acquisition and for consent to be taken of stakeholders. Consulting people is too cumbersome, they said. Similarly, they want the right to hire and fire employees more freely. Otherwise they say they are not willing to invest. On the other side, workers, whether represented by unions or not, are concerned about their rights to safety, dignity and fairness in the workplace. Playing to the business gallery, a senior government official got a thunderous ovation at a convention of business people in Kolkata recently when he declared that the way for India to progress is to demolish all regulations on business!

There will be many contentions amongst stakeholders as India develops its economy and society. The government cannot be blatantly on one side or the other. The ruling dispensation too often appears to be on the side of divisive Hindu majority forces and regressive employers. It is also on a drive to obtain a majority in both houses of Parliament so that it can hammer through changes in laws. India does not need more laws. India needs fewer and better laws, and the ability to implement its laws. Passing more laws that will not be honoured in implementation will only lead to more disillusions with the condition of the Indian state.

The government must institutionalise processes for resolution of differences before making laws. The quality of public discourse must also be improved. There must be more listening to understand other points of view and less yelling at others on TV and in legislative assemblies. Millions more tweets in a "digital India" will not add depth to the dialogue. Millions of followers of opposing points of view on social media will divide society more deeply, not create unity. For harmony, people must listen to those who they oppose and understand other points of view. They must comprehend the complex reality of which each is only a part. Then, together, they can shape a future that is good for all.

"Clearly the priority for the country's leaders must be to build a strong institutional framework for dialogue and for collaboration amongst many diverse stakeholders in India's future."

Two alternative scenarios of India's future can emerge depending on whether or not processes for consultation and collaboration are improved. If they are not, India may improve its GDP for a short while by a dictatorial government hammering down the opposition. The hammering down will increase internal tensions that, like a suppressed volcano, will break out some time in the not too distant future, and will, once again, retard India's development. The better scenario, of sustained and higher economic growth and more harmony in society, emerges with institutionalisation of processes for dialogue and consensus. Such scenarios of India's future, using disciplines of systems' thinking and scenario planning, have been projected twice: once by the World Economic Forum in 2005, and then by India's Planning Commission in 2012. Those who consider the value of a policy only by the effect it has on GDP should note that, both times, economic forecasters estimated a difference, between the scenarios with and without collaborative processes, of 2-3% in the growth of India's GDP.

Clearly the priority for the country's leaders must be to build a strong institutional framework for dialogue and for collaboration amongst many diverse stakeholders in India's future. Without it, India's future greatness will only be a dream.

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