Sunday, July 18, 2010

Challenges for the future...

Some days back, I received a mail from a senior colleague forwarding an article written by Dr Farrukh Saleem (September 2007) under the series "Capital Suggestion".  This blog post is an outcome of our correspondence on that article. To start with, some excerpts from the article written by Dr Farrukh Saleem.
In 2004, India became the 3rd most attractive foreign direct investment destination. Pakistan wasn't even in the top 25 countries. In 2004, the United Nations, the representative body of 192 sovereign member states, had requested the Election Commission of India to assist the UN in the holding elections in Al Jumhuriyah al Iraqiyah and Dowlat-e Eslami-ye Afghanestan. Why the Election Commission of India and not the Election Commission of Pakistan? After all, Islamabad is closer to Kabul than is Delhi.

Imagine, 12 percent of all American scientists are of Indian origin; 38 percent of doctors in America are Indian; 36 percent of NASA scientists are Indians; 34 percent of Microsoft employees are Indians; and 28 percent of IBM employees are Indians.

Our culture, our traditions and our cuisine are all the same. We watch the same movies and sing the same songs. What is it that Indians have and we don't?


And also to mention: They think of Construction of own nation, unlike other nations who are just concerned with destruction of others...

Simple answer to why the Indians fare better than the Pakistanis - They don't focus on religion all the time and neither do they spend time and money in devising ways to kill their own and everyone else over religion.
To me it appeared to be written by a Pakistani who (probably) feels bad that his country is not growing as much as India.  It broadly highlights some of the positives about India in the recent past. Now, let me state my observations on this article.

India’s leap forward
In my own life time/living memory, we have moved from being a scarcity economy to a surplus economy.  This is a positive development. During the same time, Pakistan has been repeatedly called a failed state.  The failed states index ranks Pakistan as No.10 in their list.  The Economist calls Pakistan the world's most dangerous place.  Thus, from a common (rational) Pakistani perspective, India has galloped ahead - by concentrating on economics instead of religion.  Of course, there are some people who would like to group India too to the list of failed states.

Important challenges
While I agree that India has grown a lot, especially in comparison to Pakistan, I also feel there are some important negatives, which are crying for attention and which if unaddressed can derail the economic growth.  I will list some of them, as I have observed.

Widespread corruption
Widespread corruption is killing the ordinary people who need to interact with government machinery at every level. Every time I handle tax work, my blood boils at the brazenness with which men (and even women) demand money.  There is no shame either.  A few months back, one of the audit firm's articled clerk told about how her friends feel proud that their 'papa' comes home every day with money or things in kind (like new mobile phones etc).  Thus, not only the adults have lost their sense of shame - even children have lost it.  These are the same boys and girls who are going to rule the India of tomorrow.  Such people will not hesitate to even sell the motherland. 

Justice delayed
Winning (somehow) has become important.  End results are everything.  Means can be dumped in the Bay of Bengal.  This is today's India.  The legal system has become rotten.  There is endless wait for justice.  Justice delayed is justice denied.  But with lawyers becoming liars and seeking endless adjournments, the only people who make money out of the litigation are the legal fraternity.  I remember, even during my school days (1970s/80s) the first response of any God loving or God fearing lawyer would be to first find out what is the truth and then advise reconciliation instead of getting into a legal battle.  Today, the first response of a majority of the legal profession is not to find out what the truth is but how to make money – even if it is by cheating the opposite party – never mind if the opposing party is speaking the truth.  This situation has only reinforced my thoughts that even in the worst situation we should never enter courts. 

Cooking books of accounts
We have examples of how Chartered Accountants (CAs) collude with promoters to cook up accounts.  Whether it is the Satyam issue which came out into the open with promoter taking the blame or the innumerable mini Satyams that are all lying dormant (with active collusion of the CA profession), the level to which CAs have fallen has to be seen to be believed.  They have mortgaged their souls, forgotten their commitments and forsaken the principles of morality to make money for themselves (and for the promoters whom they represent).  Today, the dharma for lawyers and CAs is not to stick to truth but to make their clients win (incidentally, lawyers and CAs make their money too in the process).

Will the cream of our society constitute Yama Loka
Mahatma Gandhi said that business without ethics would destroy us.  The so called cream of the society comprising politicians, bureaucrats, engineers, doctors, businessmen, lawyers, judges, chartered accountants, .... you name them - each one of them is proving to be rascals.  Our scriptures talk about hell.  Seeing the things that are happening, I often wonder whether the Yama Loka would comprise only the cream of India.

Damaging environment
I am not sure if the Indian development story is sustainable.   We are busy clogging the roads with more and more private vehicles.   I find it extremely difficult to cross the road.  The footpaths have either vanished or become smaller.  It is impossible to cross the highway.  I have seen road(s) suddenly become one-ways with never ending traffic - it is impossible for ordinary people to cross over to the other side.  Looks like roads are there only for cars and vehicles.  It gives an impression that we have forgotten that there are large numbers of people who don't own vehicles and they also have equal rights over public spaces.  Do we need this type of development which spoils the environment?  I am not too sure. 

Galloping health care costs & doctors as commission agents
Health care costs have galloped beyond measure.  How many people can afford today's costs?  Almost every doctor looks to me like Lord Yama's agent.  Gone are the days when out of sheer faith and trust we used to consume medicine given by family doctor.  Today the trust is gone and we go for 2nd and 3rd opinion. 

You go for any ailment, doctors will prescribe a series of tests to be done – never mind if tests were done very recently.  The relevance of these tests is also not clear.  Costly tests, irrelevant tests, repeated tests…. there is a sense of revulsion and also helplessness today.  I hear again and again from people who feel that doctors get commission for prescribing medicines – giving rise to a strong suspicion that doctors have sold their souls to the drug manufacturers.  .  Strangely, I have noticed that the medicines prescribed by a doctor would be available only in the pharmacy located near his/her clinic. 

I have noticed one more trend and that is doctors becoming members of agencies like Amway and prescribing these product(s) which are not only costly but also to be bought only from them.  There is a clear conflict of interest – but that is not disclosed.  I am not talking about quality of the products of Amway – they may genuinely be good – but the fact that doctors make extra money by selling them is something which they don’t disclose. 

There are instances where doctors act as agents for Hospital chains.  You go for some ailment – they will tell you to undergo some tests and then get you admitted to their preferred hospital and you will end up with some operations (by-pass is most common).  We can make a reasonable presumption that they are getting commission from the Hospital chain.  Commission need not be in money form – it can be in the form of gifts, foreign tours to exotic locations often disguised as international conference(s) etc. 

I remember in my childhood days, we had a family doctor – Dr P. Vadhiraja Rao.  He will charge from rich – but will give free medicines to the poor.  We ourselves were from a poor family and mostly he used to give away medicines free.  Once or twice a year he used to take money from us – whenever we could afford.  We had blind / total faith in him.  If I give you medicine, you simply take it – that’s what he used to tell us and we used to believe him.  Today, where are such doctors? 

If medical college seats are sold for Rs.20 or 30 or 40 lakh, and if students have to take loans to become a doctor, they need to recover / repay the loans.  Then they start charging exorbitant fees, prescribe unwanted medicines and get medical tests done – whether relevant or not… I wonder where the poor would go for treatment.  No wonder, people like Ramdev Baba are becoming increasingly popular – we cannot afford to get treatment in private hospitals – we are afraid of going to government hospitals as it is generally believed to offer a direct route to Yama Loka – so the only alternative is to look for ways and means to avoid getting sick (Yoga is helpful to some extent) and try out home medicines / traditional medicines as the first line of defense.

Unaffordable housing costs
Housing has simply become unaffordable to a vast majority of the people.  Today is it possible for anyone to get a decent 2 BHK flat in Mumbai for anything less than Rs.50 lakh?  Even for this we have to go to the outskirts of the city.  How many can afford to have flats?  The end result is that we end up borrowing to the maximum extent to buy a roof under which we think we can live safely.  But can we build castles on debt?  I am not sure. 

Changing attitudes – right to live… somehow?
Around 2 months back while travelling in an auto rickshaw back to home, looking at a high rise building which we were crossing the auto driver said that when there is an earthquake, this building will fall.  I could see a “glee” in his face – as if he “wants” the high rise building to fall.  This is not an opinion on the quality of the construction – rather there is an expectation that this building should fall.  I could sense from his conversation that he clearly feels “they are rich” and “we are poor”.  While he may be law abiding today, whether he will remain law abiding in future – if he gets an opportunity is something we can’t tell.

Today there is some hope that with some serious hard work, people can make some money.  Whether they are rich or poor, people want to give some decent education to their children.  But the exorbitant price rise is stretching the limits/patience of people.  Around 6-8 months back, I found that one of the regular auto rickshaws used by me was consistently charging higher auto fares than those charged by other autos.  When I asked him, the auto driver said – “Sir, we have families and we also have a right to live”.  He did not dispute the fact that his auto meter is tampered. 

In olden days, people used to restrict their expenses within their incomes.  Today, expenses are taken as fixed, and income is to be increased, if required, by foul means.  This can have serious consequences for the future.  If people, who want to make money legally, feel they are deprived of the same or they don’t get enough opportunities etc., then it is bound to create resentment vis-à-vis those whom they perceive as rich.

Large middle class and conspicuous consumption
In the 1970s/80s we had a very marginal rich class and a huge chunk of the population was part of the scarcity economy.  Thus, almost everyone was alike – we were all struggling together to make a living.  Thus, resentment, if any was only towards the political class.  Today, what we find is that while the liberalization has changed the position a bit better for a decent size of the population (which is now classified as middle class) around 200 to 300 million people are still struggling for their livelihood issues.  The inflation which is raging is killing them.  My worry is that the disparities are much higher now and much more visible today than it was in the past.  This can lead to resentment and anger.

Can we have islands of prosperity in an ocean of misery? 
An entire generation (or two) of people are coming up who have never experienced what is suffering.  Can they sustain a serious economic downturn?  I am not sure. 

From being a country which was frugal, humble and which cared for the poor and downtrodden, we are changing to the other extreme. 

I find serious 'insensitivity' of the ruling class to sufferings of the poor and poor governance issues (incl serious Maoist insurgency across large areas of the country and widespread infiltration by Bangladeshis). 

The huge population can be a blessing and also a curse (if not properly handled).  While India is ahead in the growth curve vis-à-vis Pakistan, we are definitely much behind China and many other countries, in almost all indicators.  And that is a cause of serious worry.

Given all these challenges including linguistic chauvinism, regionalism, unequal economic development leading to migration from rural to urban centres and from centres of low economic growth/opportunity to centres which are doing well economically etc (South and West are doing much better vis-à-vis East and pockets of North like UP/Bihar), I often wonder whether this country will remain united - 50 years down the line?  I am not sure. 

Our rulers (irrespective of parties), unfortunately don't inspire confidence.  It is a mystery, how we are growing, inspite of numerous hurdles.  Sorry for sounding negative.  Sensex @ 18k or 20k doesn't excite me.  Can we have islands of prosperity in an ocean of misery?  When the inequality dramatically goes up, it would lead to riots on the streets. 

Tears of the poor worry me
How long will the meek remain meek?  Tears of the poor worry me.  Today what we see is predominantly tears of the poor and downtrodden who don’t have voice.  But, think for a moment, how much time does it take for resentment to turn into a wave of anger and hatred?  It can wipe out decades of hard work and India can very easily get clubbed with Pakistan as a failed state. 

While this was my broad response to the article forwarded, I got this response back which is quite interesting –
I am not so appalled by the state of the society though all the individual facts may be appalling. Perhaps I may not know or understand the nuances of sociology or building of a just society, but I accept the fact that society will always remain an imperfect one, no matter how much we advance. Good part is we deal not just with society but with individuals too, many of whom bring smile to our face, give meaning to our life and some sense of purpose.

Yes, we can not be at ease given the circumstances, but can we be at peace with ourselves as long as we spare some efforts for making a difference?

I think that's what our Pakistani journalist friend has tried to do.
There are serious challenges to India as a state.  There are serious challenges to families in our society – irrespective of community / region / class.  Joint families are breaking and these are leading to new sets of problems.  The mindset required to adjust to others is vanishing.  Tolerance for differing opinions/views is going down.  People are living longer, living alone but facing the challenges on account of inflation and high health care costs.  Today, apparently there is wealth creation.  Everyone seems to have money - if not everyone atleast a good chunk of the population is having money.  But unfortunately, even as I see glitter outside, I see hollowness inside the core.  The development and growth structure appears brittle and is based on weak foundations of poor governance.

In his article, Dr Farrukh Saleem is giving example about the Ambanis.  Should we emulate the Ambanis or the Tatas?  I for one would believe that following Tatas would be a more appropriate way and would be in line with our Indian value system - atleast the one that got us independence.  One or more or many or most or all things can go wrong or right depending upon our luck.  We all feel getting rich (somehow) is most important.  The ends are important - but the means to the end are also important, if we want to have an equitable and just society.  I agree it is impossible to have full equality.  But atleast the gap between the rich and poor can be bridged to some extent.  

It is difficult to even visualize a situation where the common man and woman of this country are going to actually have a voice where in they can be heard and some course correction is done by the rulers.  Till then, it appears that we have no choice but to be at peace with ourselves and also bring peace to people around us by sparing some efforts for making a difference to their lives.