Why India is one of the greatest miracles of contemporary history
Happy Independence Day. May India always prove its detractors wrong.
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Many British politicians and commentators believed, or perhaps fondly hoped, that India with its “primitive people” would descend into chaos once they left and its squabbling politicians would be unable to reconcile their differences. How wrong they were.
Our tallest leaders at that time debated for 11 sessions over 165 days to give us a Constitution we can be proud of. We are the only country of the erstwhile British empire that has survived as a united democracy in spite of our immense diversity, multiple centrifugal forces and the great challenges we faced after 200 years of colonial rule. I regard it as one of the greatest miracles of contemporary history.
In 1947, India, with a population of 345 million, had a per capita income of Rs 249.6, a literacy rate of 12 per cent and a life expectancy of 31 years. Seventy years on, despite fears of the chaos we would descend into, there have been achievements — a population of 1.2 billion has a per capita income of Rs 74,920, literacy is up to 74 per cent and life expectancy is a robust 70. A lot more could have been done, but much has been achieved.
India recovered from the bloodletting of Partition, the displacement of 12 million people and the deaths of one million. It got to work with Jawaharlal Nehru’s exhortation to labour and to work hard, to give reality to our dreams. It wasn’t easy. India had two radio stations, a mere 82,000 phones and a handful of industrial houses. Nehru, who was prime minister for the first 17 years, had the enormous task of building India afresh and he did so by constructing dams (Bhakra-Nangal, Hirakud, Chambal); erecting steel plants (Bhilai, Rourkela and Durgapur); creating five IITs and four IIMs, the Punjab Agricultural University and the GB Pant Agriculture University, among several other institutions we claim proudly as being of global standard.
India Today cover story, Icons of Modern India, for August 21.
In a speech in 1954 while at the still-under-construction Bhakra-Nangal dam, Nehru had called it the “biggest temple and mosque and gurdwara”. These temples of modern India include institutions imparting quality education and healthcare; that have built infrastructure; sparked revolutions; expanded markets; connected people and created brands that have stood the test of time. These range from Amul that pioneered the White Revolution to ONGC which anchors the country’s domestic oil production; from the largest commercial bank in the country, the State Bank of India to the National School of Drama that has produced generations of fine actors. Seventy of these institutions find a place in this celebratory issue, acknowledging their immense contribution to the country’s economy and society.
They have some things in common. The visionaries who built them ensured they outlasted them, by creating a second line of leadership. Vikram Sarabhai is a perfect example. A serial institution builder, he created both the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, as well as Space Research Centre, a forerunner of the Indian Space Research Organisation, and left them in able hands. The private sector followed the lead given by the public sector and created iconic organisations like Tata Steel, ITC or Hindalco, which served the community, mostly in far-flung areas, by building schools, hospitals and other infrastructure. These companies have found opportunities and created markets where none existed. HDFC, for instance, under its founder HT Parekh, introduced the novel concept of housing finance in India in 1977. Apollo Hospitals’ Dr Prathap C Reddy created the first private healthcare system which was listed on the stock exchange in 1983. More recently, IndiGo made no-frills flying a viable option for many middle-class Indians. Taj Hotels and the Oberoi Group introduced the gold standard of hospitality in India. There are many more such shining examples of pioneers.
In these 70 years, India has travelled a long and hard road. It is a good moment not only to reflect on the past but to also clear the way for a new future.
In just five years, India will be 75 years old. Many of the public institutions have become ossified or irrelevant or, simply, the private sector does a better job. They need to be jettisoned. The saddest part is that even after 70 years of Independence, our mentality and our regulations suffer from a colonial hangover. It still seems the government exists to be served rather than serve and laws exist to control rather than enable.
It is time for India to move into a new paradigm of governance. It is time to shed old shibboleths, remove the dead hand of the state, discard ancient prejudices of caste and religion, harness the enormous energy of our youth and embrace true nationalism like our freedom fighters did. Only then will we realise the full potential of this great nation.
We could learn from the institution builders, many of whom are featured here, who battled and won against great odds. When the then chief commissioner of Indian Railways, Sir Frederick Upcott, heard about Sir Dorabji Tata’s plans to make steel in India in 1907, he said, “I will undertake to eat every pound of steel rail they succeed in making.” That must have been a lot of steel to eat.
On that note of thumbing your nose at those who mock us, Happy Independence Day. May India always prove its detractors wrong.
(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for cover story, Icons of Modern India, August 21, 2017.)