Sunday, February 18, 2007

Reforms -- a means to an end

It’s been 30 months since I moved from the United States back to Mumbai to start my first real job. So it was with much excitement that I was looking forward to visiting the United States again.

The America I left in 2003 was swaggering and strutting, buoyed by the confidence of a rebounding post 9-11 economy (concerns about being "Bangalored" notwithstanding). It was also the America that had, with impressively little effort, pulverized the Taliban that had successfully kept the Soviet war machine busy for over a decade.

Against that memory, America 2007 felt palpably different to me. The swagger had given way to a shuffle –The war on terror in Afghanistan still lingered and continued to add to the body count. Worse, the invasion in Iraq had gone horribly wrong, costing billions and killing thousands of troops. Scanners, metal detectors, x-ray machines and ID checks were everywhere, constant reminders of the here-and-now nature of terrorism.

America had also suffered multiple domestic body blows. Katrina had severely shattered America’s confidence. As New Orleans plunged into sub-saharan African style anarchy, the world saw the soft underbelly of the sole superpower.

America’s vaunted healthcare system also seemed to be misfiring – with medicare bankruptcy within the next 10 years a real possibility.

Was this it, then? The beginning of end of the American century? The end of Pax Americana as we know it?

My guess is probably not – for while the damage was visible, what was also starting to show was an acceptance of the problem and a resurfacing of the “we shall overcome” spirit.

A store clerk in LA quipped to me that “The climate is changing, we’ve done something wrong and it aint what it used to be.” Another man noted how in his home town in Colorado, they had snow in February for the first time in over years.And it was not merely in words – for the first time I was seeing words like hybrids, low emissions, green housing and sustainable buildings in American newspapers. In general, the focus had shifted from an analysis of what is broken to what is needed to fix it. On healthcare too, the debate was rapidly shifting to systematically controlling costs and ensuring coverage. America seemed to be waking up and smelling the coffee.

I had noted this behaviour during my days in Boston in 2001-2003. Those were the days when Americans were afraid of being "Bangalored" -- their jobs vacuum cleaned to Indian shores. I remember Wipro’s Azim Premji having to take some tough questions at MIT in late 2003 (he dispatched them with panache).

The breast beating lasted all of a few weeks. The American people accepted it, hunkered down and began reskilling to live in an outsourceable world.

And then it struck me. America -- and Americans are a resilient lot.

They see change -- and adapting to it -- as a pre-requisite for continued prosperity and growth. For instance, America has taken to green technology not because it is "good for mother earth" but because sustainable energy usage is vital if America has to continue to enjoy economic growth and security.

It is this resilience, this willingness to change to reach a higher goal that has made America a leader among nations.

So what does all of this mean for a resurgent India?

Should a nation that is only just learning to sprint slow down to a shuffle again, as she was shuffling under the weight of the Nehruvian Penalty*?

Hardly. Like America, India too needs to realise that reforms are necessary to ensure future prosperity and security. There are plenty of "bumps" in the road India has chosen -- bumps that can prevent india from getting into her stride. It is in her best interest, therefore to remove these bumps.

One of the biggest bumps facing India are her dismal education system. If India has to leverage her much touted “demographic advantage” over China and continue growing for the next 50 years – her education system needs to be nursed to fitness pronto.

Murli Manohar Joshi may have missed the point by asking for IIM fees to be dropped, but Arjun Singh’s "Mandal 2" crusade and re-establishment of an educational license-raj, with the government as lord and master, can potentially nuke it to the dark ages.

To fix this problem, Indian education needs radical surgery. As a first step, we should shutter (ideally nuke) the Ministry of Human Resources. Second, we should liberalise education delivery and allow any player -- private, public or charitable -- to start educational institutes. Finally, to ensure standards are met and enforced, an independent regulator should be established. This regulator should be staffed by experts (not babus), and may be funded by levying nominal charges from all institutes and users to ensure impartiality. A supporting framework to finance education for the 'meritorious poor' will also be required to ensure that no one is left behind.

In addition to fixing the system, the content our system imparts needs to be reformed as well. Education needs to be freed from the clutches of the 4Ms (Marxists, Mullahs, Missionaries and Macaulay-followers). Issues like Article 30 of the Indian Constitution that exclude Hindus also need to be scrapped. All that is another story, for another entry.

Such educational reforms will not come without pain -- Indians have grown used to the concept of "nearly-free" education paid for by someone else's money. Migrating to a system where you have to pay for the education you get is not likely to be an easy transition. The biggest opposition is not likely to come from the sadharan Indian -- he already pays for sundry coaching classes and "donations". It is likely to come from the Marxists and the JNU types.

They should be ignored.

In sum, if India wants to become prosperous, she needs educated professionals. Paying for making those professionals is a key means to that end. Like the Americans say, there aint no free lunch!

With India going through ebullient times, then, reforms need to be hotfooted (not backpedalled as MMS and co. are doing) – the pain will be easier to bear.

And seriously, good times or bad, will anyone really miss Arjun Singh?


* Incorrectly known as the “Hindu rate of growth”. India's poor rate of growth from independence to the 80s is attributable to Nehru and his policies, neither of which were Hindu. The term is © Shadow Warrior; see for more.


Soniya said...

Absolutely. And educational institutes should not be restricted to the much vaunted higher education institues like the much vaunted IITs, but start at the grassroot level with primary and secondary education

Atanu said...

Very well said. Thanks.