ByÂ Satheesh Namasivayam:
Twenty two years ago when Bill Clinton won his first Presidential election, he instantly did two things, one of his close advisors — who was later my professor — would tell me. First, President Clinton sent some of his senior advisors straightaway into action to plan for winning the next election that was four years away. Second, he began questioning his advisors on how to shape his legacy as a President. The outgoing Prime Minister of India does not seem to have planned ahead for either his party’s re-election or his own legacy. The incoming Prime Minister, however, has tremendous opportunities to do so.
Mr. Modi’s legacy has been defined so far by what he did, or did not do, in Gujarat. Now, he has an extraordinary chance to write a new history for himself, which could obscure everything that has been said about him till date. To create a lasting legacy as Prime Minister, Mr. Modi can begin by establishing three new ministries that none of his predecessors ever considered.
First, Minister of Cleanliness. In the last few years, we have seen intense protests against lack of clean hands in public offices; but an equally deep matter of shame is the lack of cleanliness in our public places. We don’t need data to prove that we are living amidst unimaginable filth and unfortunate levels of public defecation. For example, during Mr. Modi’s campaign, there was a debate on which should get governmental priority — temples or toilets? But, why should it be an either-or, could it not be temples-with-toilets?
Countering public defecation on the walls of their private spaces, people throughout India deploy a known strategy. They place a series of images of gods and goddesses on their walls, which quite effectively deter most from peeing or pooping near these walls, for they fear inviting the wrath of those gods. Similarly, the surroundings of most temples are normally spared from public defecation. An inclination to keep the surroundings of a place of worship clean is universal – not just confined to India or Hindu temples. In Adrar, a remote village which acts as an entry point to the Saharan desert in Mauritania, the cleanest, free toilet at the bus stand is adjacent to the ablution place of a mosque. So, the answer to wiping the streets clean from public defecation, in a multi-religious nation like ours, may lie in building temples-with-toilets. These could really be small places of worship — temples, mosques, churches, gurdwaras — in every street corner, which could also double-up as toilets for the neighbourhood. For Mr. Modi, whose secular credentials have been under attack, a ministry promoting construction of places of worship — for all religions— would help him accomplish something very significant. In one master stroke, the PM can achieve two seemingly unrelated goals— a clean image and a cleaner country.
Second, Minister for Innovation. About a decade ago, I visited the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, whose then Director walked me through a large room full of technical innovations developed by reputed scientists at the institute. With much admiration, I asked him, “How many of these innovations made it to the market?” Without much thought, the Director replied, “We are scientists. We do not have expertise to take these products to market”. I was baffled because the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, which I presumed would have some expertise in taking products to markets, was just a few miles away. I left the meeting realizing how even the premier institutes of India are utterly deficient in understanding the inherent value of ideas.
For a decade and a half now, multinational companies have been setting up research facilities in India, employing thousands of PhDs at far lower salaries than the west, to create patentable ideas. Ideas beget ideas and new businesses; ideas are the primary engines of wealth creation. But, we are a country with an ingrained outsourcing culture. We outsource our marriages to our parents. We have even outsourced our rituals such as cheerleading for Indian Premier League teams to those who may know nothing about cricket. No wonder we are blithely outsourcing our valuable ideas to others for them to create wealth. By not having a policy on, or monitoring mechanism for, receiving India’s share on ideas that originate from Indian shores, we are simply becoming a nation of educated idea-slaves. Like slaves of earlier centuries, who were forced to labour for cheap, our young, brilliant minds are creating fortune-making ideas for cheap.
Ministry of Science and Technology is old-school thinking. We need a Ministry for Innovation, which can nurture an ecosystem to support innovators in taking their ideas to market. There are innovators of all kinds in every corner of India, whose innovations — if developed and scaled right — could generate millions of jobs for Indians; bring benefits to billions of people across the world; and create trillions of dollars of wealth in India.
Finally, Minister for Rural Youth Travel. Developed countries have long recognized that supporting their young people travel globally is critical to periodically regenerating vitality in local thinking. Thousands of young adults from Europe, Australia and the US are annually taking “a gap year” to travel and volunteer abroad.
Currently, German government invests Euro 40 Million annually — in a program entitled “Weltwarts” — to send young Germans, who have just graduated from high schools, to travel and live in another part of the world for a year. The German government realizes that the country cannot sustain its growth, if young Germans do not see the alternative realities of the globe. For last 50 years, US federal government has funded over 200,000 young Americans to travel to, and live for a year in, about 140 countries. Started by legacy-focused President Kennedy, Peace Corps sends young US volunteers to these countries both to learn and to act as soft-ambassadors of their country. German and US programs were modelled after Japan’s travel program, which catapulted the country to global prominence. After being defeated by US in 1868, Japan sent about 4000 young Japanese to numerous countries, just to “see” and “learn” what was happening in the world. When these young Japanese returned, they were the change-army that transformed their country. Meiji restoration, as history now calls it, is an effort that revolutionized Japan for ever, and enabled it to defeat Russia three decades later.
Unfortunately in India, we are yet to realize that travel itself is another form of education, may be far better than schooling confined to four walls. Mr. Modi, however, should not have difficulty in relating to the criticality of travel-based education. Vivekananda would not have been who he was without travelling all the way down south to Kanyakumari and then to Chicago; or Aurobindo without travelling to London; or the new Prime Minister himself without spending a couple of years in the Himalayas. Now, India should create an army of young travellers from rural India — by supporting them to travel for travel-sake both within and outside India— so that they can discover self; enhance national integration; and elevate India to sustainable global pre-eminence.