PM's address at The Indira Gandhi Conference: “India: The next decade”
November 19, 2004
Soniaji, distinguished ladies and gentlemen:
I am particularly delighted to be here today to inaugurate the Indira Gandhi Conference. It is a conference that I have been closely associated with in the past and that I have always looked forward to, given the nature of the subjects we have discussed at these gatherings. I am even more pleased today by the fact that so many distinguished scholars, eminent public persons and longstanding friends and well-wishers of Indiraji are participating in this year’s conference. New Delhi has become a city of conferences and the winter months see a flurry of such gatherings. However, the Indira Gandhi Conference has come to occupy a unique place not just in the intellectual life of this city but of a wide range of scholars and policymakers from across the world. This is because the Indira Gandhi Conference has resisted the temptation of being pre-occupied by the here and now. Rather, we have tried to reflect on the larger and the more enduring challenges and puzzles of our times.
This is only appropriate since these Conferences celebrate the life of a woman whose breadth of vision and depth of knowledge surpassed that of most political leaders of the 20th Century. She thought big, she thought far. Indira Gandhi’s concerns were of course Indian, but her perspective was invariably global. She was passionately committed to India’s development, to our well-being and welfare and to restoring to our country our rightful place in the comity of Nations. Indiraji was intensely nationalistic and a true patriot. Yet, she had a global perspective and was a citizen of the world. The lessons she learnt in world history from her father created a solid foundation of knowledge on which she constructed the framework of her worldview.
The themes we have discussed in the past at these Conferences, therefore, quite correctly reflect the mind and personality of Indiraji. The subject of this year’s conference fits very much into this mould. For there can not be a more challenging and a more enduring concern, not just for us in India but for all thinking intellectuals of our time, than the course India will take over the next decade.
A decade is not a long time in the history of an ancient land like ours. Yet, for a people who for centuries have seen very little change, the past few decades have been epochal. Place yourself at the beginning of any of our post-Independence decades and ask the question whether the point at which one was standing gave any idea at all where the nation and the economy would be after a decade, and the answer clearly is NO. A decade back, for instance, few would have forecast the embarrassment of riches on the foreign exchange front. Gone are the days I would spend sleepless nights worrying about debt rescheduling! Today we can proudly claim that foreign exchange is no longer a binding constraint. If we choose to be more welcoming the world is willing to invest in India. The next decade can open up even more opportunities for us if we draw the correct lessons from the past and gather the courage to think boldly about the future.
India was conceived as a political laboratory in which the boldest social experiment of the 20th Century was to be conducted. Among the first of the colonies to ignite the fire of freedom from colonial rule, this land was also the first to commit itself wholeheartedly to development in a democratic framework based on universal adult franchise. The principles that define our Constitution, written by the founding fathers of our Republic who were steeled in the national struggle for freedom, have since come to be accepted as universal principles of civilized existence. Pluralism, secularism, republicanism, social justice and equality of all under the rule of law. We have much to be proud of in this inheritance.
Yet, we have some way to go before we can demand of the world the respect our experiment in pluralist democracy deserves. This is because we have not yet demonstrated to the world, and indeed our own people, that this political framework we have willed for ourselves can also liberate us all from the scourge of poverty, illiteracy and backwardness and build a strong, open, equitable, competitive and prosperous economy. Of what use is political freedom, it is often asked, if it only grants us the freedom to speak but not the right to be fed. Can hungry mouths speak for the future? Can sullen minds think for our posterity? If India does not make the grade on the economic front, can it continue to do so on the political? I am sure some of these questions will engage your attention in this Conference.
Looking into the future is always a hazardous enterprise. This has however not deterred soothsayers and forecasters from doing so and my tribe of economists have followed suit with their sophisticated models and statistical tools! I am, however, chastened by the dire warning of Dante who believed a special place was reserved in hell for those who dare to forecast the future! But having accepted your invitation I must soldier on!
Before we consider the next decade, let us pause and reflect on our inheritance. The historian Angus Maddison has painstakingly constructed the structure of world income over the past three centuries and shows us that in 1700, before the dawn of the industrial era, India, China and Europe accounted for similar shares of world income. Each had a near 23% share of world income. By the middle of the 20th Century India’s share was down to a paltry 3%, China’s down to 5%. Europe and the United States together accounted for more than 50% of world income. On this foundation of two lost centuries we have tried to rebuild our home. Compared to a near zero rate of growth of national income per year in the period 1900 to 1950, the Indian economy registered a 3.5% rate of growth between 1950 and 1980 and over 5.5% growth per annum between 1980 and now. Given this track record, I do not see why the next decade cannot record 7.5% growth if we manage our resources well. This is do-able.
Clearly the question for us is what must we do now to secure the required acceleration of growth in the near term? The answer is easy to comprehend. India needs a renewed bout of economic dynamism. A new wave of investment based on the entrepreneurship and creativity of all those who believe in the “idea of India. There is now before us a new generation of Indians with a new commitment and a renewed stake in the future of our country. There are many more across the world who also want India to succeed, to prosper. We must enable their creativity, their enterprise, and their faith in India to find expression in as many ways as possible. We have to put in place a policy framework which rewards entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity.
For our part, in Government, we have to address immediately the inadequately addressed agenda of human development. This we must do to convert our large population from being a liability into becoming an asset. Illiterate, unhealthy, unskilled and disempowered people are an economic and social liability. Literate, healthy, skilled and empowered people are an asset. The foundation of sustainable growth. We must very rapidly improve upon our record in education and health.
Second, we must ignite a new revolution of creativity and enterprise in the rural areas. Agrarian India must be transformed into a modern, viable economy, generating incomes and employment, attracting new investment in infrastructure and in education and health care. India needs a Second Green Revolution aimed at increasing the returns to investment and the productivity of both land and labour in agriculture. India’s villages must thrive. The farm economy must become robust and competitive. This is a priority for us. One of Indiraji’s early and long-lasting contributions to India was the Green Revolution. Her courage and foresight and her faith in professionals and in scientific solutions to human problems enabled us to win the war against hunger. From a “ship-to-mouth” existence we are today in a position to claim that we are not only self-sufficient, but also surplus in food.
But food security is not the only aim of the modernization of the agrarian economy. We must create new employment in rural areas, new infrastructure, better connectivity and improve human capabilities. The education of our farmers, the induction of modern science and technology and management and marketing practices into agriculture. The transformation of our agrarian economy and of rural life is an imperative of the next decade. Furthermore, we must broaden our vision of food security to mount a frontal attack on malnutrition which affects the well being of a large mass of our population, particularly women and children as well as elderly people.
Third, the country as a whole deserves world class infrastructure and greater engagement with the global economy. This is an agenda we have set ourselves. By the end of my term in office I would like to see world class power generation, world class highways, world class ports and airports and world class banking and communications infrastructure. We must raise our standards, our benchmarks of performance and expectations. We must replace our “make-do” attitude with a “can-do” spirit. This is particularly important to the acceleration of growth of our manufacturing sector. The past two decades have witnessed a relative decline in India’s manufacturing competitiveness, especially vis-à-vis China. We cannot afford to lag behind developing Asia in the manufacturing sphere.
Over the past decade we have gradually managed to come out of our inward-looking shell to become more engaged with the world. This process must gather momentum. India must emerge as a major trading Nation. Our share of world merchandise and services trade must reflect our capabilities and potential. India has been an important part of the world economy since millennia. We must rediscover this spirit of adventure and be actively engaged with the world economically, politically and culturally. However, while taking full advantage of the opportunities offered by the evolving global economy to increase our productivity, we ought to resist the temptation to copy consumption habits of the post-industrial economies of the West. These consumption habits constitute a grave threat to the life support systems of our planet and co do irreparable damage to the environment. Copying these life styles will hurt our environment and will also lead to accentuation of disparities in income and wealth. The challenge ahead is to abolish mass poverty and unemployment even at a relatively low level of per capita income.
Fourth, we must keep up the tempo of building a knowledge economy and making sure that it envelops the entire nation. The experience of some of our more enterprising centers of excellence must be replicated elsewhere. The “knowledge economy” can not be an island in an ocean of mediocrity, nor can it be delinked from the rest of the economy. We must make sure that it strikes deep roots in all walks of life, creating a more efficient, transparent, accountable and responsive system. It must improve the efficiency of both government and of the industrial and agricultural sectors. Experiments like e-choupal show the way forward in the application of modern science to the betterment of the life of the people. We need more such examples of entrepreneurial creativity.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to submit for your consideration the idea that building a knowledge-based economy is more than just creating information technology capabilities. It is not just about producing more professionals and technically qualified people, ensuring better power supply and creating broadband connectivity. A truly knowledge-based society must impart a scientific and rational outlook. Our efforts to refashion social and economic processes and our political programmes and policies must be shaped by a scientific temper. This was the great intellectual contribution of Panditji and Indiraji to the intellectual discourse in our sub-continent. Their passionate commitment to the inculcation of a scientific temper in all of us. The India of the 21st Century must be a forward-looking, modern and rational India, where religious fanaticism, casteism and superstition have no place..
It must also be a compassionate India. Caring for its under-priviliged. For scheduled caste and scheduled tribes, for religious and linguistic minorities, for women, children and senior citizens. Even as we empower the weak, we must create social safety nets that protect the marginalized from the adverse consequences of change. The challenge ahead is to combine this abiding concern for social equity with the quest for excellence and to sustain the processes of wealth creation.
I am convinced that in each of these areas we can reach new heights of creativity and enterprise. The next decade must be a decade of the unleashing of Indian creativity based on individual enterprise and collective effort. Crony capitalism and the politics of populism can not take us very far. We owe it to our people and to the future to recognize the fact that ours has been a land of creativity and enterprise and that we must unleash these elements so that the boundary of possibilities is widen and pushed forward and forward.
The government, our political leadership and civil society, have the obligation of ensuring that this process is politically stable, socially and environmentally sustainable. Our democratic institutions have so far served us well in ensuring that we do not tilt too much in one direction and lose our balance. Our political and social systems have in-built correctives that have stabilized the process of change. We must remain mindful of this need. Imbalances between regions, between communities, between linguistic and ethnic groups, between man and nature, between us and our neighbours, must always be corrected for.
These are the basic requirements of a growth process that will enable us to realize our true potential. But there is something more to a nation than its economic capability. By the end of the next decade we will be the world’s largest nation. We already are the world’s largest multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic democracy. The success of the Indian experiment in Nation building and in the social and economic empowerment of a billion people is vital for the very future of mankind in the 21st Century. But we have some house-keeping to do even in this area and I do believe that in the next decade this is a challenge our youth will take up.
Our political life needs more professionals and leaders with a social conscience and personal integrity . Our civil society organizations need to be continually energized and empowered. Our democracy must be constantly rejuvenated by the infusion of fresh blood. Over the next decade our electoral cycle must cease to be defined by what has come to be dubbed as “anti-incumbency”, and the negativities it entails. It must come to be defined by the positive politics of change, empowerment and modernization. Ways and means must be found to prevent use of religion and caste for manipulating political processes. Politics must rediscover its role as a purposeful instrument for the management of social change and not merely a ticket for power. In this context, great importance attaches to the reform of the functioning of political parties. The financing of political parties must be as transparent as possible. The hold of unaccounted income and wealth on our political processes must be greatly reduced.
If this is the India we build at home, it will find itself in a new world. The world will look anew at us. Our neighbours will find us more welcoming and will welcome us more warmly. Over the next decade I would like to see India living in a neighbourhood of shared prosperity and peace. I would like to see India even more actively engaged with all of Asia and all of the Indian Ocean region. I would like India to be actively engaged with the world’s major powers in all international forums participating willingly in the preservation of peace, protection of the environment and the creation of prosperity.
India 2015 will be a nation of capable and empowered men and women, well-fed and gainfully employed, modern and rational, and actively engaged with the world. That is my dream for India at the end of the next decade. A decade is not a long time, indeed. I do hope you share my sense of urgency in doing what we have to. I welcome you to work with us in making the India of our dreams.