Destiny of Midnight's Grandchildren

Indians born on or before 1947 account for just about 5 per cent of our population. In the taxonomy of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous speech — 95 per cent of us were all born after the stroke of midnight when India awoke to life and freedom. But our next generation is growing up too. Those who were born in the late ’80s and early ’90s are truly midnight’s grandchildren. They are growing up when our Hindu rate of economic growth is a long-forgotten history. They have not lived in the age of huge food imports. They do not know what PL-480 was and how our generation lived from ship to mouth. They do not know the Cold War era. They take the internet, mobile telephony and social media for granted. Many of them are truly growing up as global Indians.

But, they are also living in an era where income and wealth disparities are widening, values are eroding and some bedrock institutions are crumbling. While institutions like the judiciary, the election commission and regulators, such as the Reserve Bank of India and the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi) have demonstrated remarkable resilience and sa­gacity, the government and political institutions have be­gun to disappoint. Unlike in the pre-independence days, politics is failing to attract the best talent in the country.

Midnight’s grandchildren must grasp the import of some of these critical challenges. First, they have to deal with the issue of poor political and administrative leadership. During our freedom movement, our political leaders were well respected. Many of them would have excelled in their own vocation, profession or trade, even if they did not enter public life.

While we continue attract some dedicated and talented individuals who are both capable and honest, they are outnumbered by people who are at best mediocre and at worst corrupt or both. Politicisation of criminals adds to our woes. Patriotism, Samuel Johnson said was the last refuge of a scoundrel. Cynics may ask if politics is their first or second refuge. The bureaucracy and police have a mixed record. There is not much debate though that their performance has been declining over time for a variety of reasons: the quality of talent and training, interference by inept politicians, dynamic needs of a changing economy and corruption. Wh­at bothers me most is that free market-like economic policies have distorted the allocation of our talent pool away from the civil service, public sector, academics, law enforcement and public hea­lthcare to the private sector, where compensation and rewards are much higher.

Some of us are beginning to believe in the myth that if we have a high rate of GDP growth, we will create wealth that will automatically trickle down. And, as the theory goes, this will lift millions of our countrymen from abject poverty. Without some bold policy changes, that is clearly not going to happen in India. There is a serious problem of disparity. A large part of our tribal and rural population feel marginalised and isolated from the economic and political process. They are seeking solutions outside the democratic framework and choosing the path of violent resistance.

There is a silent economic apartheid underway. The wealthy are opting out of public service delivery systems like healthcare and education and patronising private institutions instead. They have, therefore, no stake or incentive to lend their influence or voice to reverse the continuously falling standards of public services that now are catering only to the poor. Midnight’s grandchildren must vow to work hard to provide fair access and opportunities to the disadvantaged. The marginalised must be br­ought back to the mainstream just as Nehru promised in the his famous independence spe­ech. “There is no resting for anyone of us till we make all the people of India what destiny intended them to be,” he said.

There is also a growing belief that if we can tighten the leash on inflation and fiscal deficits, then all our economic problems will be resolved. Inflation and fiscal deficits are certainly maladies that must be treated, but, we should not lose balance. We are a country of young people and our gr­owth strategies must be tailored to our needs and conditions. We should resist the temptation of mindlessly gr­afting growth models from the mature and slow growth ec­onomies of the west. We sh­ould not, for instance, ad­opt innovations that simply displace labour because we are endowed with plenty of hu­man talent. We should, instead, innovate to improve our productivity and quality and conserve resources that are scarce and not renewable-like water and energy.

The increasing belief in our generation that our demographic dividend is just waiting to be harvested is a myth. We have to impart skills and training to our youth on a massive scale and within a short timeframe to make them market-ready. Unless we are able to provide gainful employment to the millions of our young countrymen who are entering the labour market every year, a demographic nightmare will take away our sleep. Without a trained and educated workforce, our past will shine brighter than our future. India does have a glorious history. But as Oscar Wilde said, “The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.” That is the challenge and tryst with destiny of midnight’s grandchildren.

(The writer is managing director of Deloitte Consulting, India. These are his personal views)