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India: The Untapped Potential

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Jim O’Neil, in a paper (2003) written in Goldman Sachs titled Building Better Global Economic BRICs propounded that Brazil, Russia, India and China would drive economic growth in the years to come. Neil even went on to say in 2003 that these economies wouldn’t just go great guns but also eclipse western domination by 2039.

About 2 decades later, in 2021, Mr Neil wrote an article for Project Syndicate in which he expressed his disappointment by the group’s performance, but he hadn’t lost hope entirely. China’s GDP today is double the amount of combined GDP of the rest. This economic disparity and ideological divide among the group has raised questions about its raison d’etre.

Learning From Others Can Help Us Realise And Tap Our Potential Better

xi jinping and modi
Representative Image.

Whenever there is a debate of what India can learn from other countries, there is a major chunk of people who say that no learnings or comparison between Indian institutions and American (or Western) institutions should be drawn. “U.S. is the U.S. because it got independence in 1776, so it has been able to overcome its colonial past” is what the chunk argues.

The same individuals also argue that If India has to achieve its potential, it must first obviate “too much democracy”. They have this belief that democracy encumbers India’s growth trajectory. This same chunk also heavily scorns China about its totalitarian attitude, no freedom of press and power concentration in just one party.

It is often said that too much spite for someone might result in you becoming one like them. Therefore, the very same people have no issues when Indian authorities behave in “The China Way”.

Some arguments do have some value as every country’s sociology, politics, culture is different. Also, comparisons (ignoring the principles followed in the respective country) make growth hollow and given India’s diversity, our institutions have a greater task on their hands. This diversity has its own merits and challenges, which has been evident from time to time.

Experts draw comparisons between India’s military asymmetry or India’s growth trajectory vis-à-vis China to appraise where India went wrong and how India can correct its actions by learning from its “belligerent” neighbour. The lessons which can be learnt have an immense value attached to them — since the time difference between radical reforms in both economies is short and geography also proves the merit in comparisons.

China opened its economy to the world in 1978 under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping and India about a decade later in 1991 under the banner of “Liberalisation, Privatisation and Globalisation” which was met with an end of “license Raj” in numerous sectors.

Our current Minister of External Affairs, who possesses the credential of serving the longest tenure as India’s ambassador to China, also makes a similar argument about learning from Beijing.

China has a problem-solving mechanism — those who solve problems and bring new ideas to the table are quickly rewarded and incentivised. In India, those who bring new ideas are often met with — “come rain or shine, people won’t stop putting things on ice” — because they challenge the fundamental articles of faith to bring about a positive change.

Also, the “kick the can down the road” mentality ubiquitously seen here pulls us back.

“Unless a society has the mindset to decisively address its current issues, you are not going to go up in the world or you are not going to go up in the way you can go up.” – S Jaishankar.

When we deliberate about India not being able to tap its potential or not going up the ladder at the catalytic speed it is meant to, our “status-driven society” can be seen as a major stumbling block. Some might consider it as a “fly in the ointment”, but in my opinion, it has handicapped our education reforms, economic growth, shaped the way we see religion and democracy, behave with curiosity, gargantuan inequality, our intolerance towards failure and to acknowledge our mistakes and the absence of accountability factor.

Status-Driven Society

Aayushmaan Khuranna’s 2-minute conversation with his subordinates from the cinema, Article 15, would gobsmack anyone — how caste is deeply ingrained in almost every institution: police to marriage. However, caste isn’t the sole cause for India’s tag of a status-driven society.

A story about Indian crabs beautifully summarises the state of affairs. The crabs from different countries were put into different boxes so that transportation becomes easy. But one box was kept open and when asked about it, the crab transporter said that those are Indian crabs. Even if one crab tries to make its way out, others feel so envious about its success that they will fight tooth and nail to pull him down.

Status drive societies basic mechanism is that they don’t like anyone going up the ladder, so they keep pulling others down. But in wealth driven societies, everyone focuses on how to climb, and thus, they have a society where they cooperate, coordinate and collaborate for the nation’s growth.

Now obviously, when you collaborate, some people reach higher; therefore, a wealth divide is created. But no one pulls down the other because the overall wealth of everyone is increased. Whereas in status driven none is bothered about the wealth creation. All they care about is whoever is sitting at the top of the ladder must be brought down. And unlike wealth, status is a zero-sum game.

Since wealth-driven societies are more cooperative, they also comply with rules and regulations rather than invest time and energy in finding loopholes in the system. The Indians who litter in India don’t do so abroad because society there has a congenial atmosphere for cleanliness — people there nurture their country the same way they treat their own.

The feeling of “collective responsibility” can aid Bharata to command soaring heights.

Infatuation For Premium Institutes

IIT Delhi
Representative Image. Source: Wikimedia Commons

India’s status-driven mentality is also discernible from Indians infatuation about the IITs or why they see Civil servants as “elite” class even though not very often do IITians or Civil servants portray themselves as idols.

“Please don’t think for a moment that any officer here is doing you a favour. It’s our duty. Please don’t thank profusely, please don’t use ‘please’ too much. It’s your right that you are asking for.” – Naveen Kumar Chandra.

We idolise (and not value) IITs and civil servants not because of their work or the communities they help build or the humans they are but because they get through an examination that has the lowest success ratios in the world. This trend is similar in a reversible way. Many aspire to become civil servants or get into the premium institutes not because they have a strong “why” to get into such an arena but majorly to massage their ego (which people often misapprehend as self-worth).

“In our country, a young man of 25 years of age gets more respect and recognition just because he has got into IAS or IPS than a 60-year-old entrepreneur who has created a wealth of crores along with hundreds of jobs. This needs to change.” – Arun Bothra.

No, I don’t have any personal grudge against these institutions. But for a nation to prosper, we have to acknowledge and appreciate the good work done by all professionals rather than idolising professions. Unfortunately, in our country, we are more interested in treating individuals as “Gods” rather than valuing them for what they are and learning from them.

That is why everyone worships women and rivers in India, but hardly will you find a country where both women and rivers are unsafe to the extent as in India.

“In India, the manufacturing of heroes and Gods surpasses that of steel and cement.” – Harshad Mehta (in Scam 1992)

This mentality hampers our growth. How many inventions of Indian premium institutes were implemented at the highest scale? IITians came up with awe-struck inventions during Covid, like a low-cost ventilator. But how often do you see those very Indians who once were or are lunatics about IITs share these good inventions on social media or discuss them?

We don’t incentivise good work and that is why we see less of it. Our focus is directed towards individualism rather than holistic growth. We just want our wards to get into these premium institutes because we are not driven by innovation but status. Even after completing almost 75 years of independence and 30 years of ending the “license era”.

As per the search engine giant Google, Indians search more for government jobs than anything else. One would find a nanoscopic amount of people in the U.S. who graduate from the Ivy League Schools and join any government job. The primary reason for this is because the U.S. is wealth driven and not status-driven.

Another reason is that in the U.S., every profession is treated with dignity and seen as adding value to their country. Whereas, in our country, taxi drivers, delivery boys, plumbers, waiters aren’t treated with respect because we see them lower in the status game.

We have to accept the fact that the wealth divide does create jobs like carpentering and ask ourselves that can the economy sustain if we don’t have people involved in such professions?

We should get inspired from the Indians who aren’t just admitted into these institutes but those who, despite all the shortcomings of our country, have showcased that “I” in India stands for “India can”.

Culture Is What We Are, Civilisation Is What We Have

Image provided by the author.

For a nation that boasts of its thousand years old civilisation, very few are civilised — a lamentable anomaly.

Priyanka Shukla, a Chhattisgarh cadre IAS officer, who has helped tribal Lids and trafficking victims script a success story, was a doctor before joining IAS. During her medical work, she reached a slum in Lucknow for a check-up where she inquired about a woman and her child drinking unhealthy water. The woman replied“Are you a collector?” This response shocked the doctor, and thus, she decided to become an IAS officer.

Only in India would you find such a brilliant talent pool from IITs or IIMs or AIIMS or MNCs join bureaucracy. Some do it for greater job satisfaction which diversity in bureaucracy provides them with, some do for contributing their bit to the betterment of India — which is a paradox because as a doctor, you could do more for the society — but in India, doctors have close to zero decision-making power even in their field, evident during Covid times.

A doctor’s advice is less heeded in comparison to a bureaucrat. In fact, such ghastly is the situation in our country that many doctors had to encounter abuse and beatings when patients died at a juncture where it was almost impossible to save them given the country’s dilapidation of medical infrastructure during the second wave.

“Assaulting our doctors, more so amid a pandemic, is like attacking our own troops in the middle of a war.” – Naveen Kumar Chandra.

“No one listened to the scientists and the doctors. They pulled science and medicine into politics.” – Svetlana Alexievich (voices from Chernobyl disaster).

Why don’t the same people who are so upfront in demanding accountability from doctors in such precarious situations not demand it from bureaucrats or at least the politicians they elected? Possibly because they feel they are powerful and sit at such high tables that their voices won’t even reach them.

Effort Must Be Put By Both Sides To Change Perception

Image provided by the author.

“With Great power comes great responsibility.” – Peter Parker principle.

It’s a glaring fact that the majority sit for exams like UPSC-CSE for “power” and not “service”. Sardar Patel, the man behind the “steel frame of India”, would be turning in his grave. In fact, it has become Indian youth past time after graduation to sit for government exams. So we can’t expect to leverage demographic dividends if the majority have a proclivity for government exams.

I am not vouching for curtailing the power of bureaucracy because with the same amount of power that corrupts people, many have also turned the table by doing phenomenal jobs, through which not just fellow civil servants but also the private sector draws inspiration.

What is perhaps needed is greater accountability. Today social media has been leveraged by “citizen journalists” where their infamous acts in the form of videos are circulated. However, this also has a negative side.

We Indians come to a very fast conclusion saying that whole of Indian bureaucracy is corrupt, incompetent, power hoarders and whatnot. This is because our trust in these institutions is based on a frail foundation, i.e. since they are the ones who crack the toughest exam, they deserve to be trusted or at least respected. The trust erodes easily in such cases.

Many civil servants and other government professionals laid down their lives in the “line of duty” during Covid-19. Some public-spirited officers even went beyond their work profile. But how many were appreciated at a public forum?

We are steadfast in complaining but not appreciating. And this is a major cause why we don’t have a meritocratic society. You can’t expect exponential growth in an institution by just complaining when it underperforms or doesn’t perform but not giving it its due recognition and appreciation when it outperforms.

“Mindless glorification of one’s work that is supposed to be their duty towards Nation and Society is a serious anomaly prevalent in Bureaucratic circles.” – Mohnish Digra.

The speed at which bad news circulates, good should also be circulated. Perhaps the government can come up with Radio and YouTube channels dedicated to highlighting pioneering work done by civil servants. This mindset that bureaucracy has eaten India like a termite should change.

Bureaucrats should also not project their “duties” as “pious tasks” and restrain themselves from being a part of “VIP Syndrome”.

Given these crevices in Indian society, a fair number of Indians have shown from time to time that “good” can be done if one has the determination and fire to do it. The Swatch Bharat Abhiyan and National Rural Drinking Water Program driven by Parameswaran Iyer are some of those “good”.

Image provided by author.

Little would anyone had thought that someday a country like ours, where children under 5 die because of diarrhoea, will be recognised globally for its campaign against open defecation.

Doing “good” also means, in another context, that you don’t need to join bureaucracy to serve as the Indian economy develops and embraces technology. The PM aptly described this decade as India’s techade with Digital India Mission covering 6 years. Many avenues to uplift and serve society are evolving and Indians are indeed cashing in those opportunities.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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