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Quality education the greatest equaliser

The sharp soviet-inspired left turn taken by independent India’s establishment constituted a complete break from centuries of the subcontinent’s tradition of native private enterprise. On the eve of independence, several big business houses established by pioneer industrialists such as G.D. Birla, J.R.D. Tata, Walchand Hirachand, Lala Shri Ram, among others, were poised to lead India into a new industrial age and transform into conglomerates which would have dominated Asia long before the world-beating chaebols of South Korea and zaibatsus of Japan emerged to give western industry a run for their money. But that was not to be and course correction and liberalisation of the over-regulated Indian economy was delayed until the early 1980s and picked up momentum after the historic liberalisation and deregulation initiative of 1991. 

The benefits of liberalisation yielded immediate results. Since the mid-1990s, annual GDP growth, stuck in a 3.5 percent rut for over three decades, doubled touching 9 percent in 2005 with 7 percent having emerged as the new normal. As a result according to some estimates, over 300 million citizens have been lifted out of extreme poverty. However, according to a recent research paper titled Indian Income Inequality, 1922-2014: From British Raj to Billionaire Raj? by renowned Paris-based economists Thomas Piketty (Capital in the 21st Century, 2014) and Lucas Chancel, there’s greater income inequality in India today than in 1922 when income tax was first introduced. According to this research paper, the top 1 percent of the population has cornered 22 percent of national income. 

This research paper, which will be included in the first World Inequality Report scheduled for publication in December, will surely be used by statists and leftists to rubbish liberalisation and India’s slow movement towards free markets. But while there’s some merit in Piketty and Chancel’s recommendations of imposing progressive inheritance and wealth tax, a major reason why the rich have grown richer over the past two decades is that they have discovered the virtues of investing heavily in the education of their progeny. Cursory perusal of the biodatas of the offspring of the country’s Top 1 percent most affluent households indicates that almost all of them have not only schooled in one or more of the country’s Top 1,000 schools, but have also attended prestigious American, British or Commonwealth universities. This cause of the rising inequality within Indian society has been overlooked or is insufficiently factored in by Piketty and Chancel. 

The biggest failure of the Nehruvian socialist model was neglect of public education, which to this day remains inadequately funded and administered. Regrettably despite a mountain of evidence, there seems to be minimal awareness within the self-serving establishment that quality education is the greatest equaliser and passport to upward socio-economic mobility of the bottom 90 percent. That is the greatest treason of all.

 

Necessary but insufficient condition

Sadhguru jaggi vasudev and the Isha Foundation’s national Rally for Rivers campaign, which has prompted this philosopher-seer to undertake an arduous road journey from Kanyakumari on the southern tip of India all the way up to Delhi, deserves the support of every right-thinking individual. 

The statistics the Sadhguru cites are indeed alarming. The current per capita availability of water is 75 percent less than it was in 1947 when India became an independent nation; by 2030 the country will have only 50 percent of the water required for national survival and 25 percent of India’s 3.28 million sq. km landmass is in danger of imminent desertification. “If we do not act now, the legacy we hand over to the next generation will be one of conflict and deprivation,” he says.

The solutions advanced for reviving our dying rivers by Sadhguru are as simple as they are feasible. On the basis of expert advice, he recommends a nationwide re-afforestation campaign to grow forests a kilometre deep on both banks of all rivers on their entire journey to the sea. Under this plan, government land on river banks should be reforested and private farmland should be converted into horticulture (fruits and vegetables) farmsteads with landowners and farmers given soft loans and subsidies to make the switchover. The rationale is that forests will precipitate rainfall, prevent soil erosion and tree roots will absorb urban waste preventing it from flowing into and polluting river bodies. Self-evidently, this reasoning and logic is good and the Central and state governments should swiftly enact enabling legislation to save India’s rivers great and small. 

However, it would be a mistake to believe this solution is a magic wand which is a sufficient condition to rectify post-independence India’s disgraceful record in ecology conservation and environment protection. It’s pertinent to note that less than 40 percent of the sewage generated in urban India is treated. The remainder is discharged through piping directly into our rivers by ignorant state governments and municipal corporations. Massive investment has to be made in sewage treatment plants to transform raw sewage into acceptable quality water/fertiliser which will nourish the river bank forests. Similarly, strict supervision and punishment of industrial units which release untreated industrial waste into the soil and rivers is a necessary precondition to rejuvenating the country’s rivers. 

All this will require additional resource mobilisation, i.e, taxation of the urban middle class which enjoys highly subsidised piped water supply. Sadhguru Vasudev’s Rally for Rivers has undoubtedly alerted the populace to the dangers of environmental degradation. But whether the Central and state governments can summon up the will to further tax the middle class and/or re-order official spending priorities is a moot point. 

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