Thursday, 20 August 2015

Sixty-eight years into Independence: Is India still remains in chains?

Devendra Kothari PhD
Population and Development Analyst
Forum for Population Action, Jaipur

Happy 69th Independence Day!

History stands testimony to the fact that as the clock struck the midnight hour on 15th August 1947, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru spoke of India’s ‘Tryst with destiny’. And that was the end of era of subordination/subjugation and the beginning of a beautiful journey of India’s self discovery with independence. Since then every year new expectations are being set and new ideals are being formulated but has India really progressed in the last 68 years? Consider the following two news items which made headlines just few days before 69th Independence Day, and answer the question.

On August 7, 2015, in a press conference, it was    announced that an Indian biographical movie entitled: Manjhi - The Mountain Man, will be released on August 21, 2015.  The film is directed by Ketan Mehta, and it is based on the life of Dasrath Manjhi, a poor landless laborer belonged to the lowest of the low in a caste-ridden society and denied the basics: water supply, electricity, a toilet, a school and a medical centre. His village Gehlor, located in the remote Atri block of Gaya District, Bihar, India,   nestled in the lap of rocky hills for which villagers often faced gigantic troubles for crossing small distance between Atri and Wazirganj, the nearest town to avail health, education and other services since a 300-foot tall hill – Gehlor Ghati – loomed between them and civilization.

First, he approached the local government for help. He knew his voice would not create any reaction in the deaf ear of the government; therefore, Dashrath chose to accomplish the Herculean task alone. Almost five and half decade ago in 1960, he resolved to end the difficulties of his villagers by shouldering a near impossible task of slitting a 300-feet-high hill apart to create a one-km passage. He sold his goats to purchase chisel, rope and a hammer. People used to call him mad and eccentric. Unfazed by his critics’ discouraging remarks, Dashrath hammered consistently for 22 long years to shorten the distance from 65km to 8km between his village and Wazirganj. The day came in 1982  when he stepped through a flat passage — about one-km long and 16-feet wide — to his dream, ‘the other side of the hill’. Manjhi died on 17 August 2007 at the age of 73 and he was given a state funeral by the Government of Bihar, and his legacy is visible on Google Maps.

The Mountain Man at work

On August 10, 2015, there was another fascinating announcement that India-born Sundar Pichai had been named as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the global Internet titan, Google, by the company's founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin. After that announcement, there was a big scramble among media personnel for background information on the man about whom very little was known on the personal side. Pichai, 43, a Chennai native who studied at the government schools and later went to IIT Kharagpur and then to Stanford and Wharton, was from a middle class family.

Sundar Pichai’s elevation is a milestone for Indian-origin CEOs, of whom there are at least half dozen in Fortune 500 companies, including Satya Nadella at Microsoft,  Indra Nooyi at Pepsi, Ajit Banga at Mastercard, and Sanjay Mehrotra at SanDisk.  First two ranked companies are now headed by Indians and there is a good chance that the third ranked Berkshire Hathaway too could be headed by an Indian (Ajit Jain strongly tipped to succeed Warren Buffett).  And most of them are in the early forties.

No doubt, achievements of person like Pichais are a cause for celebration that so many Indians have made it to the very top of some of the world's most valuable companies. At the same time, however, it should make us pause and ask an obvious question - why is it that they make their mark in the US and other developed countries but not in the land of their birth? Clearly, the conditions here are not ripe for the best entrepreneurial and managerial minds to achieve their full potential. And India remains at bottom of global indices in terms of ease of doing business, even as within organizations seniority, age and connections matter for more than merit. Given our demographics, this is an unsustainable state of affairs. What is needed today is a mass-scale politics of equality that is committed to merit rather than mediocrity. If meritocracy ruled here instead of mediocrity – punctuated by a few islands of excellence – India would have boasted a home-grown Google instead of just a home-grown Google CEO, as noted by the Time of India’s editorial.[1]  

Annually around 750,000 Chinese and 400,000 Indian students apply to overseas higher education institutions. The United States is clearly the favored destination among overseas Indian students, with close to 100,000 student-visa-holding Indians in the United States in 2012/13. It is found that a sizable number of Chinese students as compared to Indian students are returning to China to pursue their careers in greater numbers than before. Why do most Indians prefer to stay and work in the US after leaving graduate school, while many Chinese now prefer to return to China after completing their graduate studies?

Is there anything Indian policy makers can learn from this? Here the Modi government needs to play the vital role in creating the enabling environment in which they can thrive and create value for themselves and millions of others. Therefore, recognize and promote merit irrespective of class, caste and creed. Assist everyone to achieve their full potential. Abolish reservations in any form in time bound manner. Only then India will produce more, Nadellas, Pitchais, and perhaps Nobel laureates.

Dasrath Manjhi’s story, on the other hands, is of a man who did not just think. He decided, if those in power would not help his people, he would, so his people could avail basic services in time. Now that he has gone, his people are still poor. There are electricity poles, but no electricity; a tube well, but no water; no real hospital, no real livelihoods, little education. After all these 68 years of Independence, their fate has been sealed by another mountain: poverty, the inability to pay for a doctor, for getting the necessary treatment on time and even education for their children. Here, the system does not help to those who wants to help themselves but in many cases creates obstacles.  Successive governments have promised much on improving the quality of life, but sadly delivered at best a fraction of the promise

In sum, the 69th Independence Day is a good time to pause, extend our circle of concern beyond day-to-day events, and reflect upon our nation`s journey over the past 68 years as a free nation. It appears that the country still remains in chains. We could not promote the enabling environment to make daily life seamless and enjoyable. In India we unendingly, and usually inconclusively, debate the big things – the macro economy, currency reserves, manufacturing and services, the roll out of huge social welfare programmes, secularism, socialism, planning, and the right to virtually everything, as argued by the Kanti Bajpai, an Indian academic-analyst and the former headmaster of The Doon School.[2]    But what is absent is a sense of self-confidence and clarity over the direction we are supposed to be headed. We rarely talk about and deliver the small things that quickly make a difference.


Here India can learn from countries like China, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia. During their initial stage of development, they focused in making life better by delivering smaller, more municipal things like primary education, primary health including reproductive health to stabilize population and sanitation. As such, we need to reassess at the national level policies which have thus far failed to meet the demand of a rising India. Here one would like to read my recent posts: First Anniversary of the Modi Government: Must meet the expectations of voters (Part B) at; Growth with structural transformation: A development agenda for India at; and India: Why population matters? at   

[1] For details, see editorial at: [2] Refer article, at

1 comment:

  1. Given the crisis in the Chinese economy, perhaps we will see fewer Chinese students returning home to seek their fortunes. The next few years might be chaotic in China as they seek a transition to a market economy. In this respect, I'd imagine India has at least gone farther down the road from a command/socialist economy to a free market one. In either case, maybe a fifth of the population sees a rapid improvement in their wealth, but a billion only a small one. But who am I, as an American, to talk about inequality in China or India, when inequality is increasing rapidly here.