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Perspective: If India Can't Champion Diversity, It Should Forget About Economic Growth

By Arun Maira Email By Arun Maira
December 2015
Perspective: If India Can't Champion Diversity, It Should Forget About Economic Growth

The principal questions foreign investors would ask me until recently were about the health of the Indian economy. Now another question is being asked, too: what is happening to India’s social fabric? Astute investors know that the condition of a country’s society can have salient effects on its economic progress. The concern of Indian citizens is even deeper. For them, “development” does not have only an economic dimension. They fear that the tearing of the nation’s social fabric is a price not worth paying for faster growth of GDP.

Too many incidents around the country in the past few months have exposed the de facto denial of the lawful rights of Dalits, women, and people of minority religions to be treated as politically, economically, and socially equal citizens of India. Spokespersons of the ruling political dispensation point out that such incidents also happened when the previous government was in power. What is different now, and of great concern to India’s well-wishers, is doubt about the intent of the ruling Party. Its organs speak and act with disdain for minorities, justifying their hostility with their own self-serving interpretations of India’s multihued history.

The potential for greatness in India’s society, as well as the risk for its sustainability, lies in its diversity. Any force that encourages conflicts of “us” versus “them” within India is a threat to India. Though it may mask its agenda of hate in a specious nationalism, it is an anti- Indian force. The stoking of differences amongst stakeholders, as well as attempts by those in power to suppress others, destroy the idea of a diverse yet harmonious Indian society. These forces if unchecked will retard India’s economic progress, too. To “Make in India,” we have to make India, too.

There will be many contentions amongst stakeholders as India develops its economy and society. The government cannot be blatantly on one side or the other. The ruling dispensation too often appears to be on the side of divisive Hindu majority forces and regressive employers. The quality of public discourse must also be improved. There must be more listening to understand other points of view and less yelling at others on TV and in legislative assemblies. Millions more tweets in a “digital India” will not add depth to the dialogue. Millions of followers of opposing points of view on social media will divide society more deeply, not create unity. For harmony, people must listen to those whom they oppose and understand other points of view. They must comprehend the complex reality of which each is only a part. Then, together, they can shape a future that is good for all.

Two alternative scenarios of India’s future can emerge depending on whether or not consultation and collaboration are improved. If they are not, India may improve its GDP for a short while by a dictatorial government hammering down the opposition. The hammering down will increase internal tensions that, like a suppressed volcano, will break out some time in the not too distant future, and will, once again, retard India’s development. The better scenario, of sustained and higher economic growth and more harmony in society, emerges with institutionalization of processes for dialogue and consensus.

Such scenarios of India’s future, using disciplines of systems’ thinking and scenario planning, have been projected twice: once by the World Economic Forum in 2005, and then by India’s Planning Commission in 2012. Those who consider the value of a policy only by the effect it has on GDP should note that, both times, economic forecasters estimated a difference, between the scenarios with and without collaborative processes, of 2-3% in the growth of India’s GDP.

Clearly the priority for the country’s leaders must be to build a strong institutional framework for dialogue and for collaboration amongst many diverse stakeholders in India’s future. Without it, India’s future greatness will only be a dream.

Arun Maira has held leadership positions in the private and public sectors, and was most recently a member of the Planning Commission of India for five years till June 2014.

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