Serial Bus

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Jagriti Yatra: Five point something!

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If asked to recount 5 top events of my life, I will perhaps always include my participation in the Azad Bharat Rail Yatra (Free India Train Journey) in 1997-98. A chartered train with over 200 students cris-crossed India in an exciting journey that celebrated India’s 50 years of independence. The second edition of this journey, called Jagriti Yatra (Renaissance Journey), takes place this winter, 24Dec08-11Jan09.

Jagriti Yatra (JY) succeeds the Azad Bharat Rail Yatra (ABRY) after 11 years. These 11 years have not been a blink in time for the world, and certainly not for India. We have seen a great deal of change in these years. As JY unfolds, we need to perhaps assess our ABRY direction and evaluate where we need an inflection and where an about turn is necessary.

To that end, the JY team has rightly positioned this journey as a forward-looking, future-oriented event focused on India’s need of the hour: Entrepreneurship. As an ABRY participant, I am also in position to point out certain themes & messages of the last Yatra that need to be revised for the consumption of the new generation that will come aboard.

As many participants will recall, we had a 5-point agenda on the train (Population Control, Environment & Sustainable Development, Values, India & the Globe, Agro-Industries & Entrepreneurship) and additionally, a focus group on an Ideal Village and Ideal City (which we named Azad Gaon & Azad Shahar). While certain messages have remained topical and have acquired an even bigger importance, a few themes need repackaging:

a) Population Control: ABRY’s consensus was that population growth is a problem and that we need to control our numbers. This position was heavily conditioned by the state propaganda and our biases. Indians (and people from other developing countries) are sometimes diagnosed as possessing a ‘scarcity mindset’ as opposed to an ‘abundance mindset’ of Westerners. Growing up, one would look around and easily associate the scarcity of resources with number of people claiming them. This thinking expressed itself during events like ‘load-shedding’ (this concept is unknown in the West) or queuing up at the railway station to purchase tickets or over rising prices and while dividing waters. Research (not necessarily recent) has revealed no causation between population and poverty. Thinly-populated countries can be miserable (think sub-Saharan Africa) and heavily-populated regions can be rich (think Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, New York etc). True, larger numbers require more resources but they also accelerate innovation. Innovation fuels prosperity which eventually shrinks the birth rate and populations reach stable levels. To focus on population control as a means of reducing poverty is like rowing against the tide to escape the storm. India needs to focus on creating opportunities for the people, accelerate development and reap what many economists are beginning to term as ‘demographic dividend’. In the process, population will take care of itself.

b) Ideal Village: There was a bit of Gandhian thought that hung upon us like still air throughout the journey, especially after the visit to the Sabarmati Ashram. While Gandhi was clearly a great individual and leader, no serious economist would term his notions of development well-considered. His focus on self-sufficiency may have been good as a tool of civil disobedience, but in post-independence India, it was a recipe for disaster. From that wellspring arose the idea of developing villages (because that’s where India lives, they say). Our well-meaning leaders relied unquestioningly on Gandhian insights and still do. However, this kind of thinking that treats assumptions as axioms is very harmful. Yes, majority of people live in villages but should they continue to live there? A cursory analysis of concentration of world’s wealth (and common sense) reveals that cities are where wealth is. In developed nations, very few people live in rural places or earn their living through agriculture. We can improve the lot of rural India by focusing on creation of cities, not on improving villages. There is a thin line between the two but this difference in paradigm has a powerful impact on how we allocate resources.

c) Agro-Industries: Similar to the Ideal Village discussion, the emphasis on agribusiness was not forward-thinking. In India, we often take agriculture as non-negotiable and then, proceed to think about how we can create more value out of it. It is a sound idea in the interim but our end-goal should be to wean our workforce away from agriculture, as much as possible. Today’s India is reflection of this trend where we have moved away from an agriculture-dominated economy to a services-dominated one. During 2005-06, agriculture accounted for 20 % of India’s GDP while Services accounted for 54%.

d) Values: I was a part of the Values group and remember that we created a poster of a Tree of Values which showed how there are some basic values (the trunk) and how they provide the bulwark for other values (branches) which ultimately help us in achieving success and joy (fruit/leaves). For us, the trunk was ‘Honesty’ and ‘Integrity’, and none of it is obsolete 11 years from then. This is a discussion that requires an inflection since a better understanding of values has assumed a much greater role in assimilating a global world. The more we are joining up, the more we need to learn to understand and respect differences. The predictions of homogeneity (‘global village’) have fallen short and as different regions of the world develop at varying rates, the melting pot runs the risk of occasionally turning into a seething cauldron. Samuel Huntington’s 1993 thesis ‘Clash of Civilizations‘ appears full of prescience as he predicted that Post-Cold War conflict will stem from cultural, rather than ideological differences. At that time, this appeared counter-intuitive to many since ideology was supposedly a more powerful force than culture in modern times. Not many people doubt Huntington’s thesis anymore. 9/11 can be considered a watershed in this development and as an event, it stands between ABRY and JY. The next wave could be based on any other identity, beyond cultural or ideological. Therefore, it is important to widen the scope of the Values discussion and include not just culture/ideology but also gender, sexuality and race as possible fulcrums of the emerging world order.

e) Environment & Sustainable Development: We debated endlessly about how forests needed to be saved and rivers needed to be cleansed. The awareness regarding environment has peaked in the last few years with global warming taking centrestage with war on terrorism, so this presents another inflection point. While ABRY understood the importance of Sustainable Development and also endorsed several local and national solutions, I think JY needs to take this dialogue further and include the nuanced nature of the issues that now beset us on a global level. Some of the recent analyses have shown powerful connections environment has with peace (think Water) and terrorism (think Ivory), going beyond the traditional foil of industrial development. The debate has also taken on a moral shade due to clamor by the developed world that China & India need to rein in their emissions and energy hunger. While the West easily neglected any fallout on environment during its coming-out, developing countries are expected to show restraint when they need it least. This calls into question the fairness & politics of development. JY must explore these issues and present India’s case.

I am sure JY team is crafting a 5-point agenda for this year’s Yatra but if I may throw in my suggestions on which broad areas to focus on, these will be:

1. Role of Government & Civil Society
2. Sustainable Development & Environment
3. Religion & Values
4. Free Market & Regulation
5. Entrepreneurship & Education

I wonder what others think.


Written by serialbus

November 16, 2008 at 4:16 pm

One Response

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  1. I agree with many of your points. None of these points, however, take away from the issue of humans becoming better stewards of the world around us. In order to do that, we need to be more aware and informed about the energy we use, the water we drink, the food we grow and eat and our relationships with others.

    H. Court Young
    Author, speaker, publisher & geologist
    Promoting awareness through the written word

    *Visit my website or email to subscribe to my free ILLUME newsletter and get my free How to Prepare for the Coming Energy Crisis 3-part mini-course*

    H. Court Young

    November 17, 2008 at 3:24 pm

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