Part 9: Future Ideas
By Harish Alagappa, Official Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger
The idea of India has changed throughout history and it will continue to change as its people attempt to navigate an uncertain twenty-first century. In this series so far, we have explored the ideas of the past that have shaped India’s present. In this final piece, let’s look at the ideas of India’s present that will undoubtedly shape the nation’s future.
The median age of India is around 27 years, which in a population of over 1.3 billion people, implies that India is a giant mass of youthful energy just waiting to burst out on to the global stage. Or it could be a demographic time bomb, with over 600 million people vying for career opportunities, wealth, resources, and the ability to provide for their families. And while the average birth rate in India has decreased substantially compared to the decades after independence, this mass of young people will soon translate into a mass of young parents and even more mouths to feed.
If India is to survive, let alone thrive, over the course of the next fifty years, it is crucial for the country to challenge the idea of unchecked economic growth, and start exploring sustainable systems that value resource security and social cohesion over immediate economic gratification. Climate scientists predict that the impacts of climate change are going to very severely affect countries in the tropics, and a nation like India stands to be the epicentre of a climate catastrophe unless systems are put in place right now to mitigate these changes. Most of India is watered by rivers fed by Himalayan glaciers that are rapidly disappearing, due to reduced snowfall from warmer climatic conditions. If the climate continues to warm up unabated, we will see massive floods caused by fast-melting glaciers followed by very severe droughts when the glaciers finally melt completely, leaving no source for rivers such as the Ganga, Yamuna, Indus, and others. These are catastrophes that could potentially end up causing millions of deaths from natural disasters alone, let alone the social and political upheaval that would undoubtedly follow.
Another idea that has a stronghold in India at this moment is something that has existed in some form or the other since the beginning of Indian civilization, but never at the scale that we are witnessing today: the sanctioned gap between wealth and poverty. Following the liberalization of the economy in the early 1990s, India has borne witness to the creation of incredible fortunes and stories of unprecedented wealth generation. However, the benefits of a globalized economy, despite the assurance of capitalism-championing economists and world leaders, have not managed to trickle their way down to the vast majority of Indian populace. 40% of Indians are currently living without such fundamental human requirements as a working toilet, a functioning drainage system, clean water, electricity, and basic access to food, healthcare, and education. The fact that India boasts of how many of citizens are on the Forbes Billionaire List while ignoring or trying to deflect any conversation about the hundreds of millions of Indians living in worse poverty than almost anywhere else on Earth, is testament to how misguided our current priorities are.
As the economic inequalities prevalent in the county become more and more acute, the consequences could be dangerous and very violent. Indeed, the Indian government is already fighting a civil war against militias of guerrilla fighters across Central India. The movement began as a farmers and workers revolt against the unjust treatment they received at the hands of wealthy landowners and a corrupt government. The epicentre of the revolt was the village of Naxalbari in West Bengal, which gave these militias the name by which they are known today, Naxalites. As the wealthy keep getting wealthier and the poor get poorer, these kinds of violent movements might soon spread across the whole nation.
Nevertheless, the future of India is not all doom and gloom. More Indians today are literate than ever before in the nation’s history. After decades of living in the shadow of colonialism and the influences of the west, educated Indians from major urban centres such as Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore are starting to forge a distinct character that identifies strongly with their western-style education and upbringing, while also acknowledging and celebrating their cultural and linguistic roots in the histories and traditions of India. As we enter our 70th year as an independent republic, the challenges are numerous and may appear to be overpowering, but the opportunities for achieving a new great age in Indian history are equally ubiquitous. Ultimately, the future of India will be decided by the ideas that India chooses in the present, for if history has taught us anything, it is that what we believe is what we create. As Rabindranath Tagore put it, “when old words die out on the tongue, new melodies break forth from the heart; and where the old tracks are lost, a new country is revealed with its wonders.”
Â© Harish Alagappa
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