Innovation is most often thought of as “nice to have” and not often enough as “need to have”; as a kind of metaphorical icing on the technological cake. It is also mostly associated with technology, especially computer technologies. The term Innovation conjures images of exotic advances in computing and proliferation of ever more complex consumer products based on computers. It is a term that appears to have been monopolized by the tech industry and rarely appears in any other discourse, especially in India.
I would argue that innovation can happen in non-technical areas too and the latter are a prerequisite for the Indian society to move on from where we are today to a better place with less poverty, more opportunities for everyone, and where wealth creation goes hand in hand with social equity. I would go so far as to say that without serious and widespread social innovation in all aspects of Indian life, the future could be catastrophic for our society, nation, and way of life. Innovation is a necessity and not a mere icing on the Indian cake.
The need for innovation is thrust upon us by developments, many of which are out of our control. Our population, which is set to overtake China’s in two decades, is one such factor. The need for innovation is also a prerequisite for social harmony at a time of rapid and seismic demographic changes. Economic development comes with concentration of wealth, increased inequality and unequal access to resources and opportunities. If this is not addressed imaginatively, social harmony will be put at risk. Our present political and economic system has failed to address this so far, as is evident from the greater concentration of wealth since the high growth era began.
Large and less developed populations seem to be predisposed to governance deficits and political kleptocracy. Is there no escape from this condition? Are we also condemned to wallow in the Hindu Rate of growth in the long term or can we rekindle and sustain China-like high growth within a democratic framework? Can we spread the benefits of such growth more equitably without resorting to the socialist, confiscatory, means that we used to practice? Can we get on such high growth path without letting political classes’ corrupt and rent-seeking behaviour illegally siphon the fiscal resources and benefits to themselves?
In the face of global, standardized consumer culture of fast-food, nuclear families and unfettered sexualized everything, should we seek comfort in the familiar medieval traditions (read khap panchayats, subjugation and objectification of women, caste oppression, etc.), or can we embrace modernity and evolve our own unique cultural identity that combines core traditional values with a modern patina of informed liberalism? Can we make primary healthcare and education available to all and can we deliver them where people are rather than expecting people to come in search of them? Can we stop the present mindless migration to our crumbling cities in search of basic survival or can we make economic opportunities available to people in the countryside?
I would go so far as to say that without serious and widespread social innovation in all aspects of Indian life, the future could be catastrophic for our society, nation, and way of life. Innovation is a necessity and not a mere icing on the Indian cake.
Will we continue to focus on rapid growth led by urban, service-oriented economy requiring high-skills and one which employs a few thousand, or can we innovate enough to bring economic prosperity to the over 700 million low-skilled labour living in the rural areas? Will a dozen metropolises continue to be the foci of our development or will we be able to create thousands of semi-urban growth centres? Can we improve the quality of life in rural areas and thus arrest the urban migration or will we let the migration continue unabated creating sprawling megalopolises with crumbling social services and infrastructure that grab ever larger slice of the economic pie at the cost of the rural areas, thus encouraging even more urban migration?
The list can go on. My intent here is only to highlight some of the pressing social and economic issues and point to a framework for finding solutions.
How can we do what needs to be done? Or can we do it at all? I would posit that the only way we can do the things that need to be done is through innovation: not through innovation in technology, but in the way we govern ourselves, how we feed our population, how we create opportunities for the burgeoning population, how we provide access to civic amenities and safety nets, how we foster comity and togetherness between different sections of the society, how we create economic successes without destroying our souls and even in how we view ourselves. To me innovation is not the luxury coach in the socioeconomic train; it is the very engine that will pull our country well into the twenty first century. Whether India shines or not will depend on how well we innovate our way out of the much-lamented mess we are in, especially in the areas of governance, social harmony, economic progress, and how we create and sustain opportunities for the burgeoning youth population to become productive drivers of the economic engine.
Let us look at some of the areas that cry out for innovation: I am deliberately leaving out technology which, wonderful as it is, is only an enabler. The real innovations have to happen in economic, political, and social sectors of India for it to shine. Otherwise “India Shining” will remain a futile, meaningless PR exercise with only the elite tier benefiting from it.
Innovation in Governance
A country of over 1.2 billion people, of which half is under the age of 16, is ruled by septuagenarians out of touch with the aspirations of masses and whose political acumen consists mainly of exploiting social, religious, and economic divides for electoral gains. Issues are hardly ever debated widely, let alone considered wisely, but decided surreptitiously within party cabals with an eye on electoral arithmetic. In a country that prides itself as being the largest democracy, real views and real issues appear not to have any serious impact on the polity or the society. Electoral frauds and manipulations are also the norm rather than exceptions. It is no surprise that the mass of voters view elections as a one-off source of freebies and the middle class simply does not participate in the process.
Is bad governance a necessary corollary to a large democracy? Is democracy itself unsuitable for a population so large as this? The answer to both would be NO. Despite the lack of China-like homogeneity, India can succeed despite diversity; one can go so far as to say that the very size of India can give it advantages many advanced nations lack. Do not forget that until about two hundred years ago, when we were far more fragmented geographically, socially and politically than we are now, India accounted for 20% or more of global GDP. Others have moved forward even as we slid backwards.
To me innovation is not the luxury coach in the socioeconomic train; it is the very engine that will pull our country well into the twenty first century.
The representative democracy visualized by our founding fathers appears to have morphed over time into a governing class distant from those it governs; it has grown into a rent-seeking monster that has made corruption a huge industry; and it has created a schism between the Centre and the Provinces by seeking to centralize more and more even in the face of greater popular desire for local decision-making. The promised ground-level democracy has largely failed to materialize despite much hullabaloo about Panchayati Raj.
In order for our economy to flourish, our polity has to provide an acceptable level of clean and truly democratic governance which is responsive and accountable to the people it governs. This can only come about through innovative political structures which are not mired in the time-warp of nineteenth century political idealism or in the discredited centripetal socialism of the twentieth century. Instead of getting stuck with one discredited “ism” or another, we have to innovate governance structures which allow billions to actively participate in making decisions affecting them as against selling their votes to the highest bidder once every five years.
Participative democracy may have been born in the compact Greek city-states, but is it impossible to implement in our vast country given current technological capabilities? I would submit not. Direct grassroots level democracy is possible, is within our means, and I would say necessary. Innovative governance structures, implemented using technological enablers, can narrow the distance between the ruled and the rulers and enormously improve not only the governance but also nurture and restore faith in democracy which appears to be waning each day.
Demographic Dividend or Demographic Bomb?
The answer depends on how we decide to deal with it. Half the population is under the age of 45 of which most are under 16. Any time now we will have to find jobs for them all. There are also the issues of educating them, and meeting their rising expectations. Service-sector jobs are too few and require higher skills than what most of this cohort will possess. We do not have the investments to create manufacturing jobs for them all; even if we did manage to do that, can we find markets for what we will produce? I think not. Besides, China is unlikely to yield the ground they have occupied successfully for the last 30 years. On the other hand, we have very poor social and commercial services at the rural level. Can we innovate systems for delivering various goods and services to those areas and could we create jobs for the vast throngs by doing that? Can we create new paradigm using this vast manpower at our disposal? How much and for how long India shines depends on how well we manage to do this. Failure to do this may well result in social unrest and eventual fragmentation of India as we know it.
Instead of getting stuck with one discredited “ism” or another, we have to innovate governance structures which allow billions to actively participate in making decisions affecting them as against selling their votes to the highest bidder once every five years.
What happens fifty years down the road when India begins to age rapidly as Japan did in the last three decades and China is doing right now? Will we have adequate services for the seniors such as geriatric healthcare to name just one aspect? Who will pay for those? Will our intergenerational solidarity hold, with the new working generation supporting the older non-working one, or will it dissolve in acrimony as it is happening in America right now? If not, what can we do? Can we rethink the role of elders or will we think of them merely as idle consumers of services? Can we build geriatric services as businesses? Can we take steps to encourage the younger generation to save for their retirement such that they can become self-supporting in their sunset years or will we let them consume their way into a future of penury?
Education and Health Services
Decades after independence we are still unable to deliver literacy and basic education to the vast throngs of citizens in dispersed rural communities. The problem faced in delivering primary healthcare is depressingly similar. We have been unable to persuade educators and healthcare workers to go where the population lives. Are there ways of achieving the delivery of these two crucial services to where people are without expecting healthcare and education workers to make personal sacrifices in the interest of the larger society? Is it possible that we can create profitable businesses out of such deliveries by employing vast throngs of enterprising youth who would otherwise be unemployed? Can we go further and make the youth themselves owners of such enterprises? I submit that if we can think out of the box and not in terms of established paradigms, we can. We simply cannot afford not to.
For too long politics has seen diversity as a valuable vote bank and has played one community or section against another for their own electoral gains. The so-called champions of the disadvantaged sections have dropped the pretences of helping their brethren and brazenly justify their self-enrichment on the basis that it is now “their turn”, even as their constituency looks on in dazed incomprehension at their lack of progress even under “their own rule”. Does India have to go forward only in terms defined by historical religious and caste divides or can these differences be made not to matter in public life? Can we evolve communication strategies that cut out the crooked middlemen exploiting these vote banks? Traditional thinking has so far failed to deliver. It is clearly time to think differently now.