Need for 'Change Agents' to Change India
Date: Tuesday , July 01, 2008
When I was 11 years old, my parents had to shift between two small towns in Uttar Pradesh and I had to change my school, mid-session. So I was sent to my paternal village, in Sitapur district, and was put in the local village school till my admission in the town school got finalized, which did not happen for the next 15 months. Two teachers would teach for about 3-4 hrs before they returned to their agriculture or cattle chores. We wrote on ‘Takhtis’, wooden writing pads that were made to shine with a mixture of soot chalk solution. This may sound like a nostalgic story from early 20th century, but this was 1975. After my schooling I joined IIT Kanpur and, following the trends of IITians those days, upon graduation went abroad for my higher studies and settled down with a well-paid job. Later I started my own entrepreneurial ventures and worked in both Japan and the U.S.A. I moved to India in 1995 and founded 2 Internet and telecom ventures with successful exits.
Over the years, I had provided monetary support for the development of my village and one day while visiting the village school I was struck by what I saw. Though there was a brick building, notebooks, pens, and pencils and kids looked happy as in the good old days, the number of hours spent on teaching remained the same; quality and means of education had not changed at all. This bothered me a lot. How can we think of competing with the best in the world when most of India is still primitive in imparting basic education?
The realization dawned upon me that if I wanted change, I had to be a part of it. Hence, in 2005, at the age of 40 I gave my corporate life a rest and moved on to do something that would bring a socio-economic change in India. The result is the Change India Movement.
Today I work with several state governments and central government as a public policy advisor towards the development of both rural and urban India. The industrial policies and liberalization have drawn much investment in the urban areas, making them the growth centers while increasing infrastructural chaos. In these urban centers, which are the wealth creators and employment generators, the essential need of the populace is not finding a job but rather reaching the place of the job. The need of the hour for sustainable urban growth is the infrastructure and forward-looking industrial policies.
India’s GDP is growing at close to nine percent and is expected to reach ten percent. India overtook Japan this year in the number of billionaires, with 36 billionaires worth a total of $191 billion, while Japan's 24 billionaires were worth $64 billion. This is a good news! But it is also important to note that the majority of our population lives at less than Rs. 20 per day, mostly in rural India. Benefits of growth and prosperity are not reaching rural India and it is spiraling towards increased poverty. The question we need to ask is ‘why is rural India poor?’ Majority of our rural population is dependent on agriculture for its livelihood. While the contribution of agriculture to India’s GDP has declined from 59 percent in 1950-51 to a mere 18 percent in 2005-2006, number of people in rural areas dependent on agriculture has grown three fold in the same period to more than 700 million now. Agriculture can no longer provide sustainable livelihood for our rural population. The result is that the villagers are migrating to the cities (urban areas) in large numbers in search of a better living. Once in the cities they may start earning a steadier income, ensuring they do not go hungry but are unable to afford the basic requirements like shelter, safe drinking water and sanitation. The result? Formation of slums that add more chaos to the already choked urban areas.
The government has failed to see this vicious circle. They still focus on agriculture subsidies and farm loan waivers, which is a futile exercise. It needs to provide non-agricultural jobs and self-employment opportunities in rural areas. Local skills based self-employment in industries such as dairy, poultry, food-processing, handicraft and related cottage industries should be encouraged through Public Private Partnerships (PPP) to ensure forward integration where farmer gets ready markets and fair price for his produce. Micro-finance is very effective in promoting and sustaining such initiatives.
Even with the high economic growth and proliferation of service industries—telecom, retail, finance, security, and other support services—our cities are starved of trained manpower in skilled and semiskilled categories, while our rural youth is unemployed and frustrated. The solution is to fill this demand-supply gap.
Vocational training to the educated and semi-educated rural youth in collaboration with industry with reasonable assurance of job opportunities will bridge this gap. Such an initiative has already been embarked upon in Rajasthan under ‘Rajasthan Mission on Livelihood’ using the PPP model and involving local industries.
In one such PPP project, the villagers have been provided with a loom at a subsidized cost. Yarn (input) is provided by the company, which also takes the finished product, the carpet. It is akin to local outsourcing where a farmer does not need to leave his village and supplements his income by working on the carpet weaving during his spare time. Today every family easily earns an extra income of Rs. 2,000-3,000 a month. This initiative has shown a good promise and needs to be replicated.
A similar project is in progress in Sitapur (UP) where farmers are provided with micro-finance to buy cows and participate in a community dairy project. Since farmers had no skills (such as weaving in the above example), dairy business was found suitable for this village. Community dairy also helps as collective insurance, medical care and modern dairy technique are beyond the reach of individual farmers. Plan is to integrate primary health, hygiene, primary education and family welfare aspects of village life in the same project to ensure integrated development of the village.
One can see from the above example that my only role in bringing this change is being a ‘catalyst’. If you want to bring a change all you have to do is becoming a ‘change agent’.
Politics and Policy Formulation
I know most of us, especially the younger generation, dislike politics and politicians. But being the largest democracy in the world, we cannot choose to ignore them. Over the years we have witnessed the repeated failure of governance mechanisms and inefficient delivery systems under successive governments both in the states and at the center. Something is fundamentally wrong. No government or political party can be so naive to knowingly plan and work towards its removal at the end of its five-year term. So it may be argued that despite good intentions and best efforts (exceptions notwithstanding), governments in India repeatedly failed to deliver on their promises. Could there be systemic problems and inefficiencies which are so entrenched that a complete new thinking and approach is needed to bring efficiency, transparency, and accountability in our governance and delivery systems? I believe so, and the reason behind this is the so-called ‘middle class’, which has the means and wisdom to bring about the change but has chosen to sit on the sidelines. This middle class consists of the majority of population with people like us that earn well, have time to vacation abroad, have about two-three properties as assets, but do not have the time to go out and vote once in five years. Why?
My discussions with the top leadership of our national parties have also confirmed this view. During our dialogues we discussed about the need for a ‘new thinking’ and ‘approach’. We also agreed that our youth, educated working professionals, and the middle class are disillusioned with the political establishment and extremely frustrated with the repeated failure of governance and delivery mechanisms. They have lost faith and as a mark of protest they have disassociated themselves from the political process and have even stopped exercising their franchise. This number is now around 20 crores and growing. Of the total 67 crore registered voters, only 38 crore voted in the general elections in 2004.
As the nation produces more and more educated, affluent, and working professionals, the voting population reduces. Political parties are concerned about this fact as their vote bank is shrinking and they cannot afford to let this growing population move away from the democratic process. Since they do not know as to how to engage and motivate this section of the population, they tend to ignore, also because it is more vocal and has opinions on the issues and asks uncomfortable questions.
Our nation is at an inflection point of long-term growth and prosperity. We need to put appropriate policies, delivery systems, and monitoring processes in place to make sure that we reform our political and governance systems and do everything right to achieve this long term growth resulting in prosperity for all.
The question is how to reach this large populace of students, working professionals, and middle class families who have a longing but no means to collectively voice their views, opinions, and concerns and take-up what we call ‘Social Entrepreneurship and Political Change Initiatives’. They are groping with ‘How to make a difference?’ and ‘Where to start?’ kind of questions.
One can simply start by becoming a ‘change agent’. I do not say that to become a ‘change agent’ one must leave his or her job and plunge into politics. If each one of us understands and follows our responsibilities, a lot can be done for the country’s development. One can simply start with a community service and engage with local authorities and elected representatives. This will bring together the ‘doers’ that will later lead to the creation of a self-sustaining eco-system. Once they realize that their views and opinions have a logical destination and are reaching policy makers, they will be encouraged to register as voters and potentially exercise their franchise.
As they say ‘charity begins at home’, the most important aspect of being a change agent is every citizen pledging to bring changes within oneself and be accountable for his or her actions as an individual, a society, and as a nation.
The author is a successful entrepreneur and the winner of Lead India initiative. He is also the founder of Change India (www.changeindia.in) that works to create a new generation of social entrepreneurs & ‘change agents’ who will aid in the sustainable development of India.