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May 12, 2000

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Copycat capitalism or Indocracy? The choice is ours

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Chithra Karunakaran

Look, all you movers and shakers, masjid smashers, child-profiteers and dam-busters, don't we know the deal? India is at the crossroads. We can either be pathetic imitators of the US and become a dumping ground for overkill packaging, processed snacks and untrammelled free market ideology. Or we can show ourselves first and then the rest of the world that we are the largest and the greatest democracy in the making. Let's go.

Needless to say this will take a whole lot of doing. When I say Indocracy, please note that I have carefully avoided the use of 'desi' or 'swadeshi' as workable terms in the new model. An innovative, out-of-the-box approach must necessarily embrace old and new ideas and practices that enable us to be both humane and prosperous. Zero tolerance for poverty, zero tolerance for social inequality, zero population growth, dynamic secularism, educational progressivism, environmental pro-activism, individualism balanced by interdependent collectivism. Enough forward looking 'isms' for viewing through a prism.

The United Nations Human Development Report 2000 to be released on June 29 ranks India (in its 1999 edition) 132nd among 174 nations (China is 98th, Pakistan 138th, Sri Lanka 90th, Bangladesh 150th and Nepal 144th) on indices as wide ranging as underweight children under five, people not expected to survive to age 40, population without access to drinking water and such other measures. In 10 years of the Human Development Report, India has clung to this unenviable position near the bottom of the human development (read social progress) ladder. Obviously a score doesn't capture the complexities of India's transition from colonized serfdom a mere 50-plus years ago to 'take off' superpower- in-the-making by 2010. But the score does point to the laggardly pace of India's social equity undertakings, or their notable lack thereof.

What are the best strategies for a quick and concerted exit out of this crevasse? Why are we fixated on the US model of development? The United States, whether in Congress or in the media, pays scant attention to the impassioned pleading of the human development report(s). For India, the choice to forge an original, innovative and hitherto unchartered path is only as solid as the thought and effort that is put into it. Do we want to become a nation that send ships full of refuse to countries that are too poor to refuse them? Do we want to emulate a society which has the largest prison population in the world? Can we instead benefit from the proven social policies of other economies? Do we have some salutary lessons in social equity to learn from the Scandinavian countries? Denmark had a childcare system when George Washington was still crossing the Delaware. Even more significantly, certain social equity measures, such as economic and political empowerment of women, do not require high income, as some developing countries have demonstrated.

Neither the rigid orthodoxies of political and religious fundamentalism nor the narrow prescriptions of doctrinaire socialism will give us the tools to fashion Indocracy. The path from Ramrajya to Hindutva is strewn with half-baked notions of moral superiority, when in fact poverty is immoral. So it will be helpful if Indians stop pontificating about their "ancient culture" and their propensity for "spiritual" development and come up instead with a national policy implementation for safe drinking water, food and shelter on demand, and public urinals. For a start. Even though there is ample research to demonstrate that 'jobs and justice' (and by this is meant economic and social equity) bring declines in population growth rates, we still don't have a national or state- by -state policy that plans and implements projects tied to social wellbeing for the greatest number of the most deprived Indians.

Ok, enough abstraction. Let's get down and dirty. Here I was, a returning NRI, home on vacation last winter from my college prof job in New York City. In Chennai, a young woman tried to sell me her infant. I ignored the desperation in her eyes and refused her plea for money. I wished I could have placed her child in a daycare facility, found her a part-time job, and tracked down her husband for child support. I saw goats chomping on improperly disposed medical wastes. Traveling second class (how about a one-class train for everyone?) frequently throughout India, I found myself the only person carrying my own stainless cup and utensils, to prevent being served tea and meals in throwaway plastic cups and plates, which fellow passengers heedlessly tossed out of train windows. And again, in Calcutta my sons and I stepped off a madly careening bus almost into an open manhole. We saw lots of open manholes. Guess where their covers are? In New York City and other US cities! Glance down at the sidewalks here in Manhattan and you will see engraved iron manhole covers bearing 'Made in India' markings. Is this a classic tale of 'underdevelopment'? We have our craven pols and fat cat IMF bankers to thank for this cynical disregard for the common weal.

Making Indocracy work will take a whole lot of doing. We have a long way to travel. But can we start with the distance between our ears? Make a few synaptic connections about what it will take to avoid copycat capitalism and implement a home-grown viable Indocracy. Please don't come back with feeble suggestions that I (and others) have lived away from India too long and don't understand the complexities of late post-industrial capitalism. We're here. And there. You're there. And here. Let's fix it. And because many expats like myself cherish India, are concerned for its progress, and prideful of its every accomplishment, expect the most from every NRI. We can't afford to give less.

I hope I've started a dialogue on what we post-colonial sociologists, in particular, call the social construction of reality. In this case, the social construction of an equitable polity. Indocracy or any other name would do just as well as a starting point for thinking about it. And more important, acting upon it.

Next: 'Ray' of hope

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