Saturday, January 5, 2008

Tuning the Nation's Theme

Last week I was reading the business magazine, Money Today; it had summed up the year 2007. The columnist Dipen Sheth said that in the year gone by, you would have made a lot of money if you had invested in the market in tune with the national theme. He went on to say that the national theme in India in 2007 was “Build India” and so infrastructure was the key. So if you had invested in infrastructure-related companies, be it infrastructure financing, companies involved in construction of roads, bridges, airports, power plants, telecom, ship yards and what not, you would have made some money. He went on to say that the thing to do now was to see if the national theme for 2008 was going to be the same or different; but whatever the theme, hitch your wagon to it and you won’t lose out.
The columnist wasn’t wrong. Apart from the impressive gains I have made myself on my modest investment, the signs of nation-building are everywhere. The current ‘Building India’ is far removed from the abstract notions of nation-building you were taught earlier at school. This is an in-your-face experience - you cannot move around most of the country without seeing airports upgrading, railway stations modernising, highways widening and what not. The thrust on hard infrastructure is very important and rewarding, as a good and sound infrastructure is the foundation of all development.
After finishing the Money Today, I turned to a current affairs magazine which was doing its own summing up of the year. It talked about the jailbreak in Chhattisgarh, the escalating violence in Assam, the school shootout in Gurgaon and the Chartered Accountant who killed and stuffed his wife’s body into a suitcase.
The inescapable contradiction between a booming economy and a rotting society was too jarring to be missed. Is it possible that in the race to put the hard infrastructure on the fast track, we have forgotten to take cognisance of the nuances of the soft infrastructure that a nation needs to thrive? Is it enough to build roads and highways and put money into people’s pockets so more and more people buy cars without our simultaneously providing for educating people about driving norms? Is it enough to put money into people’s pockets without educating them about its proper use, so that someone uses it to buy guns and someone else uses it to kill? Simply put, is infrastructure without education an adequate enough national theme to sustain a nation?
If education is an important complement for the proper use and understanding of infrastructure, that it is not enough to have a road and a car but also the underlying understanding that I am not alone on the road, then whose job is it to educate and highlight these values?
There are three players who have typically and traditionally taught values and consideration to one’s fellowmen; because all these three are limping, may be they ought to come together. There is the family, the earliest educator, but often the influence of the family is waning. There is religion, the church, the mosque and the temple; but in a bizarre twist of tale, the religious establishment is the place, which is viewed with the most suspicion today. Then there is the State, which concerns itself with primary education, secondary education and higher education; but most of all, it is concerned with the conduct of examinations.
In the midst of all this, value education has taken a beating and has become an orphan. But a nation with dollops of hard infrastructure but only a few soft ones lacks the lodestar that may act as a compass. If this continues for long, the nation will eventually get shallower on the inside and that will be a colossal tragedy.
Meanwhile, I am reminded that ‘Building India’ will perhaps be the national theme this year too since we are dealing with decades of delay and backlog. The tack then is to be able to tweak the national theme of Building India so it is more inclusive – that it is not just about airports and bus-stands and railway stations though all these are important; it is also about the other building blocks - loving mercy, acting justly and walking humbly; in short, the ethics and values that shape people’s lives.

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