By Bikash Sarmah
This is not to even remotely suggest that India should now follow the Chinese political paradigm – one party-rule that boils down to ruthless authoritarianism – given the many trials and tribulations that Indians have faced in their quest for a functioning democracy, which is still a far cry. Despite its aberrations, democracy is the best political option that guarantees fundamental rights anywhere in the world. And Indians now enjoy the right to privacy too in the wake of a recent landmark Supreme Court verdict. What this opinion piece would argue for is that if India had followed the Chinese model of economic transition from a closed economic regime to a free-market economy – with a whole gamut of special economic zones (SEZs) sprouting across the communist country, beginning with the historic one at Shenzhen in South Chi – India could have perhaps maged to make much headway ever since the first wave of liberalization was unleashed in the early 1990s under the rasimha Rao dispensation. The reasons are not far to seek.
With an acute economic crisis facing India in the early 1990s during which things came to such a pretty pass that the country was forced to even mortgage its gold reserves in London, the immediate imperative was a U-turn from the Nehruvian-Moholanobis economic model, and the best option seemed to be a drastic foray into a liberalized model to draw out the best from the winds of rapid globalization and free-market economy blowing across the world. At that time the economist in the former RBI Governor Dr Manmohan Singh was the Union Fince Minister. Thus followed a slew of liberalization measures, including in aviation and telecommunication, inviting as a consequence an unexpected foreign direct investment (FDI). Liberalization votaries in the economic intelligentsia were buoyant with hopes that FDI would follow the Chinese way and there would be no dearth of zestful foreign investors landing up here with many innovative projects in hand in a win-win situation.
However, infrastructure bottlenecks, red tape and other bureaucratic hassles, a recalcitrant Red brigade backed by parties swearing by ‘socialism’, and a deep fear in the traditiol Indian mind as to whether the new wave of reforms would be to the aid of the already rich ones alone leaving the poorer segments among them in the lurch as before, ran counter to the possibility of a new Indian growth story. No wonder, Chi – despite it being an avowedly Leftist dispensation – doubled its per capita income in the 12 years between 1990 and 2002 as compared to the Indian story; the wonder being more wondrous because in these 12 years India was said to have trudged a free-market economy trajectory very spiritedly!
When the legendary Deng Xiaoping, it will be recalled, took over the reins of power in Beijing in 1978, the Chinese economy, thanks to its closed economic system under the staunch autocrat in Mao Zedong until 1976, was in the doldrums. But it was the great vision of Xiaoping that had Chi open up to FDI in an untrammelled fashion so that its people could be in sync with changing economic times or imperatives. Chi became rich quite rapidly. There was great boost to infrastructure development – road, railways, aviation, industry, dams, entertainment et al. New shopping malls, avenues, hotels and restaurants, and parks had a rich and undeterred flourish. And not just this. Education became a high-priority area, with universities laying a never-seen-before thrust on research and development. No wonder then that Beijing University is now rated as one of the best in the world in terms of teaching, ingenious research and university-industry interface. It is unfortute that not even our much-celebrated IITs and IIMs match this university.
The typical Indian argument – even as we in 2017 claim to have prepared a grand roadmap for a ‘new India’ by about 2025 – could be that since Chi is a totalitarian regime, there is virtually no resistance to what its communist rulers intend to do, such as that even as vast swathes of land are cleared for rapid development and a huge number of people are displaced, there is no impediment in the form of mass resistance and political opposition because every such dissent is crushed ruthlessly and there is no political opposition at all. But India? Its diversity, its multi-party system, its ‘human rights’ machinery, and the very fact that in a democracy the right to dissent is inviolable – all lead to the fallout that development is rather very complicated process, despite the fact that development must entail a cost as is exemplified by advanced and rapidly advancing economies, including of course Chi.
This argument is flawed to a large extent. While it is true that the very ture of democracy precludes sweeping action in favour of development at human cost, the fact remains that out-of-box solutions always exist in the deepest of predicaments. Displacement of people for development is a huge – and often exaggerated – issue here. But when pitted against the fact that adequate compensation and rehabilitation can always be doled out with the resources available in the governmental system, ‘displacement of people’ itself presents a democratic solution in the first place. The crux of the matter is that the system to counter the adverse effects of displacement of people is riddled with systemic loopholes, the most monstrous being the huge and elegant architecture of corruption in which siphoning of funds by the unscrupulous medley of politicians, bureaucrats, contractors and even militant leaders is just another routine affair as part of a sustained culture of corruption.
More importantly, politicians in India seem to believe that it is the bureaucrats who are the epitomes of all knowledge, including specialist knowledge. Seldom do they invite development experts in the field, including those settled abroad and delivering their best to acclaimed foreign universities but who are equally, and perhaps more, well versed in Indian development issues so that some meaningful deliberations could evolve tangible, people-oriented development roadmaps to match Chi’s exemplary growth saga in so less a time. Though lately, fortutely, this is changing now with the advent of a game-changer in Prime Minister rendra Modi. And here the role of the metropolitan media – that calls itself ‘tiol’ media – should have been equally paramount by way of organization of debates, including conclaves, involving both the politician-bureaucrat mix and experts, who are specialists in their respective fields, with stakeholders from the civil society too articulating their views freely for a meaningful development story to happen.
This is all the more imperative for India’s northeastern region (NER). Development-starved since Independence, with the added monstrosity of insurgency-turned-terrorism coupled with the sustained loot of the taxpayers’ money, NER ought to have witnessed a development firework by now, given also the fact that one of its frontiers, Aruchal Pradesh, shares border with Chi and the latter, in its unstoppable development zeal, has embarked upon a development marvel on its side of the border despite huge topographic adversities.
Development experts who have visited Chi for first-hand study and research have always been awestruck by the Chinese model and pace of development. And they, as reflected in the media time and again as they write positive opinion pieces, have never failed to point out what ails the Indian growth story vis-à-vis Chi: complete lack of political will and determition, and the unchecked presence of an over-sized bureaucracy and graft, in addition to the fact that experts who matter are hardly heeded. This must change if we are to match the Chinese stride.
(Bikash Sarmah, a freelancer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)