By Aman Gupta
As thought leaders with diverse political leanings debate the economic agenda India must adopt – against the backdrop of the rising Maoist menace – one point is beyond debate or doubt: India’s growth and prosperity must include the poorest of the poor.
Like the rest of humankind, India today stands at the crossroads of history. Climate change and terrorism now dominate the daily headlines and the lexicon in one form or the other. The path that we choose to finally take can either condemn our future generations or redeem their future. This is why all the stakeholders involved – the Government, the private sector and civil society — need to join hands and work for the common good.
Rapid industrial growth and globalisation may have indeed lifted millions of Indians, Asians and others out of poverty. Yet, the price paid in terms of environmental degradation and economic disparities has been alarmingly high. This has created a deficit of trust among common people when dealing with the Government and the private sector. The Tata Nano drive-out from Singur was just an undercurrent of this nationwide malaise. Posco, Vedanta and Reliance are some of the other corporate entities experiencing the painful bite of this harsh reality.
The global economic slowdown further aggravated these public misgivings and fears. In India as well as worldwide, systemic weaknesses in marketdriven economies stand thoroughly exposed. This is the best time, though, to pause and ponder. Ponder how to best integrate the interests of the people, the planet and the profit motive. Ponder how to facilitate inclusive, qualitative development for those at the bottom of the pyramid. And, as management guru C K Prahalad has enunciated, catering to the bottom of the pyramid pays its own dividends.
There is no doubt that the market-driven economy has afforded multiple benefits and conveniences (longer life spans, higher literacy rates, faster mobility, greater connectivity etc.) for many Indians. Yet, the fact remains that these benefits have not trickled down to large sections of the populace. The disparities between the haves and have-nots have only widened. Consider the tribal areas in many parts of India — here sunlight is the only beneficial element touching the lives of poor villagers daily. More than six decades after Independence, the poor in these forgotten jungle zones lack basic amenities such as drinking water, electricity, roads and healthcare. Given this scenario, it’s easy to understand why the Maoists hold sway over large swathes of land comprising as much as 40% of India’s landmass.
Unless the Government makes certain basic amenities and meaningful development reach these tribal zones, Maoists will continue to attract new recruits and attack all forms of authority. Unless programmes such as the NREGS (National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) reach impoverished villages in the Red Zone (without the proverbial leakages), the hearts and minds of these villagers can never be won over to turn back the tide of Naxalism.
Besides the human angle, we must consider the impact on the environment due to unplanned industrialization. Global climate change is no longer environmental scaremongering, as some of us once believed. It’s now a fact of life – and one that we need to address as quickly as possible. Today, we must focus on two issues. First, how do we ensure that the vast majority living in poverty are also lifted by the high tide of prosperity? Second, how do we achieve this via sustainable development — without further irreparably damaging Mother Earth?
As we deliberate the path forward, it’s clear the agenda for growth must be inclusive, qualitative growth. Keeping this in mind, one must target the bottom of the barrel, i.e., people living in rural regions as well as the impoverished in urban areas. Catering to those at the bottom of the pyramid need not be at the cost of profits. Entrepreneurs just have to discover new ways to open virgin markets profitably.
A case in point is the exponential growth in India’s telecom markets, with companies providing services at rock-bottom prices. Compare this with the situation a decade ago when India was one of the costliest telecom markets. Despite rates that keep falling periodically, Indian telecom companies still make money. How? A major reason — they have suitably tweaked their revenue models.
It would be in everybody’s interests — the Government, the public and private companies, and civil society — if all commercial activities had an element of Corporate Social Responsibility interwoven in them. This can be in the form of sustainable or environmentally friendly forms of development. Such an approach would also help preserve the traditional way of life in rural areas, since it would seek to integrate the least destabilising ways of achieving development. An inclusive approach would also allow greater job opportunities for rural populations.
These goals are best achieved, though, through public-private partnerships. Government organisations and the private sector must act in concert to ensure better results in development tasks.
Commercial activity backed by societal responsibility can achieve excellent results. The best example in this regard is the city of Jamshedpur, now in Jharkhand.
It was in the early 1900s that the Tatas began efforts to build India’s first steel plant. The site for a location rich in resources (iron, coal, limestone and water) began in April 1904 in present-day Madhya Pradesh. Only after three years’ painstaking search did the company’s prospectors find a suitable location in a village called Sakchi. The village lay in densely forested stretches of the Chhota Nagpur plateau, where the Subarnarekha and Kharkai rivers meet.
An extremely enlightened man, Jamshetji Tata (after whom the city is named) wanted the city to be more than a row of hutments for his workers. His city should have all the possible comforts and conveniences of modern life. Within years of its establishment, the city began to do its founders proud.
Jamshedpur is the lone city in India without a municipal corporation — possibly the world’s only modern city with this distinction. The maintenance of the city is entirely undertaken by Tata Steel. It is also the sole city in India to provide uninterrupted drinking water supply 24 hours a day. Jamshedpur Utilities and Services Company Limited, a Tata Steel division, handles this service to the city’s 1.1 million residents.
One of the richest cities in India, Jamshedpur also has one of the highest per capita incomes in the entire country. It is also one of the greenest cities. Tata Steel undertakes regular reforestation and tree plantation activities to maintain the air quality. Without ongoing tree plantation drives, Jamshedpur would rank as one of India’s most polluted cities, given the presence of a large number of industries.
The villagers of what was once Sakchi village (which lies in the heart of Jamshedpur) now enjoy the kind of life they could have never dreamt of a hundred years ago. Jamshedpur is truly the epitome of inclusive, qualitative growth. Had the Jamshedpur model been adapted in other parts of India, there would have been no Maoist menace today. Yet it’s never too late to make mid-course corrections and promote genuine, sustainable development in all the neglected regions of India. If we develop equally enlightened minds like that of Jamshetji Nusserwanji Tata, there’s no reason why miracles like Jamshedpur cannot be replicated in the rest of India. Were that to happen, the pipeline of Maoist recruits would dry up. Overnight.