Barefoot CollegeSocrates believed that the first step towards gaining true knowledge was eliminating misinformation and realizing how much you don’t know, a state he called ‘Aporia’. The Chinese have a similar saying which suggests that one needs to empty one’s cup before anything else can be poured into it. A look at the headlines across newspapers and magazines over the past decade shows how much airtime and public discourse has been taken up by the growth stories of China, India and other fast emerging countries. Despite all the news bites, headlines and newly coined terms like ‘BRIC’ and ‘Chindia’, the truth about the realities of people living in these societies remains somewhat elusive. Beyond mere statistics, getting some answers to questions about the challenges and opportunities for people living in these societies is important. What are the aspirations and values that guide the next generation of leadership in these countries? What does that mean for the geopolitical climate in the years and decades ahead? These questions are significant because they hold some of the important clues to the puzzle of what future governance systems and economic & social models might look like. It is important therefore to look beyond the headlines, to understand the statistics and get a flavor of the reality on the ground.

On 17th June, 2011 in Toronto, Canada, the Aurea Foundation organized a Munk Debate involving Henry Kissinger, Farid Zakaria, Niall Fergusson and David Daokui Li on the topic: ‘Be it resolved that the 21st Century will belong to China’. In a charged and passionate debate Mr Li made the point that “China’s emergence gives us an alternative model of social and economic institutions different from the west.” One, he claimed, that focuses more on social good than on individual freedom. The argument is an old, but significant, one. It is clear that any country of significant size will share more than its resources and markets with the world - it will also share its own model of growth, geo-politics and social evolution. It’s not merely the economic size of an economy but its ability to present the most progressive and relevant social and cultural ideas that mark out the leaders. This includes the ability to innovate, produce new technologies, solve problems and create a society in which the educated and hardworking middle classes will want to live. Irrespective of whether you like that model or not, China’s emergence implies an alternate to Western models.

The question is equally interesting when applied to India. What are the social, cultural and political structures that a more significant if not more assertive India presents? How do they differ from the political system of democracy India inherited from the British, or the capitalistic and open markets system that America and the major global economic institutions have been championing? Is it merely an amalgamation of those two with a dash of its own version of right-wing politics thrown in? All these are ingredients in the mix, but what comes out of it is something quite unique and specific to India. Something that people outside the country don’t necessarily hear about enough and those within the country aren’t always able to adequately communicate. Aside from call centers, technology companies and the usual political cacophony, there is something far more critical and valuable happening inside India. Developments rooted in entrepreneurship and the advancing aspirations of a young society, powered by social & technological innovation, have a significant impact on the resulting social structures emerging in the country.

The economic crisis, which tested the governance system even in America and forced a closer scrutiny of the political and economic systems in the EU, turns our attention to other models. Consequently, an evaluation of the democratic principles and governance of other diverse populations (sometimes with very divergent views) becomes relevant, and India is a valuable case study. Before addressing the sociological aspects, a quick look at some numbers helps get a sense of the scale and context of any discussion on India. As per the 2011 census, India’s population is 1.21 billion (or 1,210 million). According to 2010 data from the United Nations Development Program, an estimated 37.2% of Indians, approximately 450 million people, live below the country's national poverty line. The poverty line in India is defined as Rs. 32 (0.50 euros) per capita per day in urban areas, Rs. 26 (0.40 euros) in rural areas, and is itself a subject of controversy; the definition is considered by many to be too low to represent actual living costs, even on PPP (Purchasing Power Parity) terms, implying that, based on more realistic living standards, the actual number of poor people in India could be even higher.

Further, according to numbers published after the 2001 Census of India, 29 languages were each spoken by more than a million people, while 57 languages were each spoken by more than 100,000 people. These figures reveal a diverse and complicated society, resembling more the characteristics of a continent than a nation state. India is, therefore, a very large country with an exceedingly diverse population, in terms of language and of race and religion.  So the challenge is to dovetail the aspirations of a very varied population into a coherent strategy that delivers growth to the different stakeholders.

India moved away from a socialistic model towards liberalization at the start of the 1990s under the then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh, who is now the country’s Prime Minister. The accelerated rate of economic growth since liberalization has led to a rapidly growing middle class. According to a report by the National Council for Applied Economic Research's (NCAER) Centre for Macro Consumer Research by 2015-16, India will be a country of 53.3 million middle class households, translating into 267 million people. Currently India has 31.4 million middle class households (160 million individuals).

The expanding middle class and the resulting rise in literacy have created a generation of educated young people with the desire and the qualifications to effect real change. While the population proportions still remain skewed towards a very high percentage of poor households and low literacy levels, the rate of positive change has accelerated considerably. Another major development comes from the leaps made in information and communication technologies. These advances have created entire industries in emerging markets, based in little towns and small IT companies, capable of delivering services to the developed economies from halfway across the globe. The growth in technology education in India is representative of the role IT is seen as playing in the country’s progress. India’s most renowned technology institutes, the IITs (Indian Institute of Technology) more than doubled their branches in the last decade -  from 7 in 2001 to 16 in 2011. The liberalization and expansion of communication and technological innovation is at the heart of India’s recent growth. Although the country has achieved an average annual growth rate in excess of 7% for over 10 years, there are severe challenges to sustaining this growth, not least because of the relative lack of manufacturing in the country where growth has largely been driven by technology-enabled services.

What do these statistics and developments mean for the everyday lives of people? At a party in south Delhi a few weeks ago, I got a flavor of it. In an upper middle class neighborhood, a group of professionals, students, academics and young businessmen and women had gathered for a weekend party. The song and dance that accompanies almost every aspect of Indian society across its vast land was in full display, but in the middle of the singing and dancing, I caught a glimpse of the preoccupations of the youth, and a sense of what drives them, their outlook for the future. Among this dynamic and forward-looking group was a young woman, who had set up women’s empowerment organizations in two cities in north India (Urban Mahila Association and the Maids Company) aiming to provide social security for underprivileged women, often outside the organized economy and therefore outside the reach of government initiatives; there was a social entrepreneur from the organization Swechha who was organizing a festival on the banks of the Yamuna to clean the river and raise awareness of environmental issues among the Delhi slums; there was the owner of an IT and web development firm that also does work with the visually challenged in South India (Society for the Rehabilitation of the Visually Challenged); a fashion designer working on textiles with tribal communities in the northern Himalayas helping to create a market for their garments.

Urban Mahila Association and the Maids CompanyThese are not isolated examples. According to a report in the Indian Express quoting a Government of India study of 2009, India has close to 3.3 million NGOs working in the country. This element of social responsibility in a nascent and newly liberalized capitalistic economy is surprising - corporate social responsibility is still lacking and large organizations face criticism for their low involvement with social issues. However, this element of Indian society is not always correctly and adequately represented in discussions about the country’s economic and social evolution. For example, at the 32nd Jawahar Lal Nehru memorial lecture in London in November 2011, Lord Bhikhu Parekh brought to light some of the issues facing democracy in India. A detailed, thoughtful and critical lecture titled ‘The Crisis of Indian democracy’ spelled out the challenges of governing through democracy, but failed to mention this most central of developments in India – the rise of the young (social) entrepreneur with a changing definition of enterprise. Knowledge sharing, open sourcing and crowd sourcing which are commonplace among software and IT professionals are spreading to other areas of the economy as well. Apart from social media and its role in increasing transparency and mobilizing people, collective problem solving is yet another area in which web-enabled communication systems are increasingly deployed. Such platforms are being built and used in the social sector as never before. This form of entrepreneurship and involvement with social issues is seen increasingly among the upper middle classes as well - people who have traditionally shunned such ventures, seeking instead to look for positions in the public sector or working in family businesses. These social entrepreneurs form a crucial link between India’s capitalistic present and its socialist past. The statistics suggest that the beneficiaries of India’s recent growth have been predominantly the affluent classes, but there are significant improvements for the wider population as well. According to a recent statement from Andrew Mitchell, UK Secretary of State for International Development, India has got 60 million children into school in recent years. By some estimates, India lifted over 200 million people out of poverty between 2005 and 2010. NGOs (although sometimes coming under criticism for lack of transparency or corruption) and the services sector are partly responsible for this positive change.

However, problems remain, especially in corporate social responsibility, graft and corruption in deploying funds for the improvement of public goods and services. Perhaps this widespread corruption is one of the reasons why large organizations still do not come forward enough to participate in socially relevant issues, preferring instead to get cosy with politicians through graft to facilitate their business ends. Smaller organizations and newly established ventures are less able and increasingly less willing to follow this process. Societal recognition through being involved in social issues compensates to an extent what large organizations achieve through graft. Like the people at the party in south Delhi, the aspiration of starting up one’s own business and following an entrepreneurial path, as opposed to working in large corporate organizations, is an increasing trend. The acceptability and pride associated with working in large multi-national organizations is substantially diminished in the middle classes. More and more diverse, smaller and entrepreneurial ventures with increasing dependence on technology seem to be taking hold and guiding growth. There is a greater degree of dependence on vast networks rather than large organizations in meeting business and social ends. Smaller organizations tied through networks are far more able and willing to adapt to and work with local communities to deliver value. Where large organizations have failed to adapt and monolithic structures have failed to evolve, these smaller organizations created by entrepreneurs, enabled by technology and joined by networks spreading over vast geographies and industries, seem to be better equipped to produce the next generation of growth. This to me is the critical development where the challenges and opportunities of the future will increasingly be met. More ideas will be shared and strategies developed in chat rooms, social gatherings and parties rather than in board room meetings behind closed doors. The singing dancing generation of entrepreneurs dealing with the grime and dust of the challenges posed by outdated structures and inefficient practices is deciding the course of the country’s future more than ever before.

These nimble, technically savvy and energetic groups of people working in smaller organizations and coming together across a range of sectors and industries, possibly hold the key to what the future socio-economic structures might look like. In the middle of the song and dance, one can sense a little revolution developing that promises some excitement and perhaps some opportunities for real change in the years ahead.

Read the article of Prof. Amartya Sen on Quality of Life: India vs China.


(Photo in frontpage © Mckaysavage for Creative Commons)

(Photo 1 © Barefoot College)

(Photo 2 © Urban Mahila Association and the Maids Company)