Privileged Midnight's Children, It's Time for Serious Nation Building

The Economic Times - 18 - August-2003

I am writing this especially for my age cohort and culture class, 'privileged midnight's children', and articulating what many of us already feel.*(An Age Cohort comprises a group of people born at roughly the same time in the same place or country, and consequently experiencing the same major economic, political and social upheavals at about the same stage in their lives; their lives are punctuated by the same crises, they share the same nation-memories and they encounter every new decade, each with its own particular challenges, at similar stages in their lives).

Born in the first 15 years after independence, the first generation of independent India, we have seen the pain of misguided socialism, the horrors of the emergency, and the humiliation of being dismissed as second class citizens by the first world. We are now more confident of our own identity and talent, and can transact as equals, with anybody in the world. We have leveraged the best of what this country could offer, and have grown stronger as the country prospered. In return for this, and for other, more important selfish reasons, we need to vigorously participate in serious nation building at this stage of our lives. This does not mean economic renunciation, khadi and swadeshi. That was their way, the generation before us. We need to find our way, and I suspect we haven't found it yet. But time is running out, we have to pass the baton on to Generation Next pretty soon, and we will be judged by history and by Generation Next, on how we seized the window of opportunity and influence that is so clearly available to us now, to build a stronger India.

The first step is to be believers that this is not a 'dead loss' situation but a 'turn around' situation that can be made to work. How can a company ever be turned around, if the mood is one of nay saying?? As Arun Shourie said in a powerful article recently (loaded with facts and evidence) "listen to the brave new India, and hear the success ring in your ears". He also pointed out that young India is doing its bit - the IT sector, new India's pride and joy, the engine of change of our image in the world, is powered by a work force of liberalization children (average age 26!) And ended with a suggestion that we need to move away from public discourse that "when it isn't whining it's wailing'.

Of course there are a lot of things that are gravely wrong with our country today - the size and state of weak India is starkly there for all to see. The challenge for us is to see how the strong India can pull as much of the weak India as possible on to drier ground. But before you reject it as 'too huge, not do-able', think about the fact that there is a 33% chunk of weak India which has the potential to quickly get strong - in progressive states, 'sensible' governments, and with higher starting points of economic and social development

A fellow age cohort friend remarked that I had to do better than write a random piece called "this is for all of us out there, is anybody listening, let's do something". Reminded me of what is probably an apocryphal but a symbolic story, where the PM sat through a very persuasive presentation on what needed to be done to get to 10% GDP growth and said "par yeh sab hoga kaise'.

So let me begin with my suggested action agenda. And it would be nice if many others could share theirs too. In the past year I have run into many of the development initiatives and experiments and pilot projects that are running in this country. The range and the quality is amazingly good, the proof of concept is there. All these initiatives are about sustainable business models not philanthropy. i.e. they all have a workable economic logic to them, which might not be working very well for operational reasons, but nevertheless exists. Computerised land records, distance health care, micro credit projects, self help groups of women as a backbone for various activities including food credit, distance education, affordable information and connectivity for economic gain, rain water harvesting, simple hand held computers etc. Interestingly, many of these use high tech capability to design appropriate low cost systems and many of these initiatives are parented by young people who are the privileged liberalization children. Many of them already have proof of viability, and are market tested. And more interestingly, many of them are in partnership with the government, not on a dole or grant basis, but in the best spirit of public - private partnerships.

So what's the problem? The biggest problem is one of being able to scale up these initiatives and widen their footprint of impact. Here's where strong and especially corporate India can help - partner with them in whatever and help design and implement the 'rapid scaling up' model. It's what we know how to do, albeit in a different context. It is an interesting intellectual challenge too. And it is also a good way to add to organizational learning about serving the bottom of the pyramid profitably, and about crafting successful public - private partnerships, because that's where growth will come from. For once, we are all on the same side! So the formula is 'each one adopt an initiative, and help scale it up'.

One way to operationalise this is to follow the process of 'funding fairs' that the World Bank initiated (written about in the Harvard Business Review last year); have a formal mechanism where projects needing partnering are presented to potential partners and at the end of the 'swayamvar', the more deserving ones will get the support they need. The development sector has its own seminars where they show case their work - I have been to some of these. Trouble is that since the idiom of the two worlds are so different, even if the objectives are similar, there is a need for some extra 'translation' work from the side of the corporate sector to understand and gauge the potential of what the project or initiative offers, and evaluate what the success so far has been, through a business lens. Can making this 'scaling up' partnership happen be the primary focus of organizations like CII (not relegated to its philanthropic social action group?) Can catalyzing nation building be its main agenda and not its side show, for the next five years?

I have always maintained that the force of change in India is all about a large mass of people moving with a slow acceleration. Let's not get discouraged with the slow acceleration - let's focus on increasing the mass (evangelism, action, reflection, raising decibel levels of issues, all counted as fruitful activity!)