Nearly 2,500 years ago the celebrated Greek philosopher Socrates prophetically declared that knowledge is power. A forceful vindication of this perceptive observation in recent years has come from the power and reach of modern information and communication technologies, which are often described as the lifeline of globalisation. These technologies, including satellite television, mobile phones, the Internet, social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn and video-sharing sites such as YouTube and yFrog, are not only playing a highly important role in the worldwide diffusion of information, ideas and images but are also acting as catalysts of change. Some commentators suggest that the Internet generates “social capital”—in the form of networks, norms and social trust that facilitate cooperation and coordination among citizens who share common social concerns and commitments. It is interesting to note that France, Finland and Estonia have made Internet access a basic human right.
Modern information and communication technologies, especially mobile phones, the Internet and satellite television, played a highly important role in the recent popular and successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. In Tunisia, an anchorman for Al-Jazeera made arrangements with a Tunisian journalist and human rights activist to report from a secret location in the country. When the uprising began, Tunisians began sending him homemade videos showing and documenting incidents of police brutality. These eye-catching images were beamed by Al-Jazeera, which inflamed popular passions against the repressive and corrupt regime of Ben Ali and helped in mobilizing and coordinating large numbers of people in countrywide protests and demonstrations. Protesters in Bahrain uploaded images of violence and police brutality to websites such as YouTube and yFrog and then showed them on Facebook and Twitter. These images were viewed by tens of millions of people in the Arab region and around the world and acted as a potent force in motivating people and in mobilizing and coordinating protests and demonstrations.
The role of modern information and communication technologies in reinforcing and spreading the popular uprising in Tunisia and Egypt should not be exaggerated beyond a point. The fact of the matter is that it was the people’s agency and power and their unflinching resolve and determinism that carried the day. Modern information and communication technologies, like globalization in general, are Janus-faced in that they can be a force for the good and the bad, for liberation and for repression. These technologies have been used in recent years by authoritarian regimes to filter and circumvent the Internet, to enhance surveillance, to stifle dissent and to fund government bloggers to legitimize and promote state tyranny. Many of these filtering products, which are largely made by American companies, are widely used in China, Vietnam, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait and Libya.
Information and knowledge can serve as potent sources of social intervention and reform, good governance, social transformation and people’s empowerment and can act as a pillar of civil society. In recent months, the Right to Information Act in India has been of enormous help in exposing and uncovering massive scams and scandals and corruption in high places. The government of Karnataka has recently launched the Bhoomi project, under which all records pertaining to land ownership in the state have been computerized. Anyone can access these records for a small fee of two rupees to check the ownership status of his property.
In 2000, the United Nations launched an ambitious programme, known as the millennium development goals, aimed at reducing, by 2015, the number of those living in poverty by half, universal primary education and reducing by two-thirds the number of children dying before the age of five. The programme galvanized political commitment and humanitarian intervention around the world.
The results of this ambitious and laudable programme show a mixed and rather disappointing picture. There have been some credible achievements. Ghana, for example, has been able to reduce the rate of hunger by 75% since 1990 and child malnutrition by half. In Ethiopia the hunger rate has fallen from 71% to 40%. In Vietnam, the proportion of population living below the poverty line has dropped from two-thirds to a fifth in the last 14 years and the rate of children dying before the age of five has dropped from 56 per 1000 to just 15. The enrolment rates in sub-Saharan Africa have shown a remarkable progress. In Tanzania, for example, the enrolment rate has jumped from 52% to 98% since 1991. Child mortality in sub-Saharan Africa has dropped by a third.
On the other hand, nearly a fifth of humanity still lives in extreme poverty. Three quarters of the world’s poorest people live in middle income countries such as India and Nigeria. The global economic crisis has pushed millions of people back below the poverty line. Global aid agencies and NGOs reckon that a billion of the world’s people will be still living in extreme poverty in 2015. In sub-Saharan Africa one child in seven dies before their fifth birthday. There is increasing evidence that the millennium goals are bypassing the poorest people in the world.
Since the 1930s the Gross Domestic Product or GDP has been adopted as a reliable measure of economic growth and development around the world. However, in recent years there has come about a growing dissatisfaction with the GDP-centred, growth-oriented neo-classical model of development. It has been pointed out that GDP does not take into account the benefits from nor the costs to the ecosystem. Furthermore, the GDP-driven model leaves out of account highly significant parameters such as the distribution of resources, disparities of income and wealth, the human, social and psychological costs of development, gender justice and social cohesion.
There is no necessary correlation between an increase in GDP and reduction in poverty or human well-being. In Latin America, for example, while GDP went up by 25% from 1981 to 1993, the proportion of the population living on less than $2.15 a day increased from 26.9 per cent to 29.5 per cent. The eminent American economist and Nobel laureate, Joseph Stiglitz, points out that development is meaningless in the long run unless it is sustainable, equitable and participatory. The discourse of development cannot be divorced from the issues of equality, social justice, cultural diversity, environmental safeguards, access to healthcare and consumer protection. The United States is one of the richest countries in the world. But for all its economic and technological achievements, the country has more poverty and lower life expectancy than any other major advanced nation, thanks to wide inequalities of wealth and income. The eminent American economist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman has shown that the upper 1% Americans take in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year. More than six million Americans have been out of work for six months or longer, and more than four million have been unemployed for over a year.
One of the striking features of many developing societies is the paradoxical coexistence of rapid economic and technological development, on the one hand, and poverty and deprivation, wide disparities in income and wealth and a sorry state of human development, on the other. India, China, Kenya, Venezuela, Nigeria and the Arab region provide glaring examples of lop-sided development. A recent Unesco report has identified India, Turkey, Nigeria, Pakistan and Kenya for wide disparities of income and wealth.
During the past five years, India’s economic and financial integration with the global market has accelerated at an unprecedented pace. The country’s foreign reserves have risen to over an enviable $300 billion and raised annual economic growth from around 4% in the four decades before the early 1990s to more than 8% in the past five years. As a result of extensive economic reforms, the balance of payments has turned into a average surplus of almost $50 billion. India is today one of the world’s fastest growing economies. On a purchasing power party basis, India is today the fourth largest economy in the world after the US, China and Japan. It is on the verge of overtaking Japan to become the third largest economy in the world. It is estimated that India will overtake the US in about 2050, as measured in dollar terms. It is reckoned that India’s per capita income will increase to 35 times the present level by 2050. Projections by the McKinsey Global Institute suggest that if the country manages to maintain its current growth rate, income levels will almost triple over the next two decades and India will climb from its present position as the 12th largest global consumer market to become the world’s fifth-largest consumer market by 2025, surpassing the size of Germany’s consumer market.
There is also a gloomy side to the picture. According to the UN and World Bank estimates, nearly 40% of India’s population still lives below the poverty line. India’s maternal mortality rate is the highest in the world. Nearly half of all children in the country suffer from malnutrition. Nearly a third of the country’s children do not attend school. Infant mortality, though substantially reduced since Independence, continues to be one of the highest in the world. A devastating report by the NGO Save the Children reveals that more than 10 million children die every year before their fifth birthday, mostly from preventable diseases. According to the World Health Organisation, India ranks a miserable 171 out of 175 countries for public health spending.
An important index of gender equality is the female-male sex ratio. The sex ratio in India, especially between 0 to 6 years, is one of the lowest in the world, thanks to the deeply entrenched cultural preference for boys, neglect of the girl child, female infanticide and, most importantly, the increasing practice of aborting the female foetus with the help of prenatal diagnostic techniques. A decade ago, Amartya Sen drew attention to India’s missing women—estimated at 37 million—as a result of the neglect of the girl child and amniocentesis. An estimated 700,000 girls are killed in India every year. Preliminary data from the 2011 census show that though the sex ratio for the population as a whole has improved, the female-male ratio in the 0-6 age group has declined to touch the lowest levels since independence. Ironically, the prosperous states of Haryana and Punjab have recorded the lowest sex ratio. If the sex ratio in the country continues to remain as low as it is today, over the next 18 years about 10 million women will be missing.
There is a good deal of discussion nowadays about India overtaking China in respect of GDP growth in the next few years. Writing in The New York Review of Books a couple of weeks ago, Professor Amartya Sen has drawn attention to a comparative perspective on India and China in regard to human development indices. Life expectancy at birth in China, for example, is 73.5 years compared with 64.4 in India. Infant mortality rate in India, one of the lowest in the world, is fifty per thousand while in China it is 17. Mortality rate for children under five is 66 per thousand in India and 19 in China. Maternal mortality rate in India, the highest in the world, is 230 per 100,000 live births, while it is 38 in China. China’s adult literacy rate is 94% while India’s is 74%, according to the preliminary results of the 2011 census. Government expenditure on healthcare in China is nearly five times that in India.
I would like to draw your attention to what may be described as the politics of development. Sometimes politicians use the politically motivated rhetoric of development to further their vested interests and hidden agendas and to deflect attention from pressing problems and their own failure in addressing them. A glaring example of this phenomenon is provided by Gujarat, where the state’s performance on development is trumpeted with great fanfare. Lurking behind the rhetoric are certain ugly realities, including the growing disparities of income and wealth, the dispossession and migration of people from rural areas and the marginalization and exclusion of the Muslim minority. Gandhians and social activists in Gujarat have pointed out just a few days ago that the exaggerated claims about development made by the state’s chief minister are false and misleading. They point out that vast stretches of grazing and irrigated farmlands have been taken over by the government by stealth and sold at ridiculously low prices to big industrialists, depriving thousands of villagers of their sources of livelihood. Nearly 10% of the rural population, mainly youth, have been forced to migrate to urban areas in search of jobs.
China has made rapid and highly impressive economic and financial strides in recent years. Millions of people have been lifted out of poverty and deprivation, thanks to economic liberalization and globalisation. At the same time, millions of people, especially in rural areas, remain poor and impoverished. The financial meltdown has adversely impacted the economy and has aggravated the problem of economic insecurity for millions of people. The country’s one-child policy has created a host of problems, including a skewed sex ratio, shortage of women for marriage, problems related to the care of the elderly, loneliness and dementia. The number of boys born to every 100 girls is now 118.6, up from 116.9 in 2000, thanks to sex-selective abortion on an extraordinary scale. In 2010 the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences warned that by 2020 one in five Chinese would be unable to find a bride because of the dearth of young women. Preliminary data from China’s 2010 census show that the country is aging faster. As a result of the one-child policy, population growth rate and total fertility rate have fallen. China’s workforce will start declining in a few years and the “dependency ratio”—the proportion of the population made up of the young and elderly—will start to climb. The proportion of people aged 60 and above in the country has increased from 10.4% in 2000 to 13.3% now. Those under 16 now make up 16.6% of the total, down from 23% in 2000.
The idea of human development, conceived by Dr Mahbub ul Haq and Amartya Sen in the late 1980s, sought to rectify the shortcomings of the GDP-driven, statistical model of development by focusing on the fostering of human capabilities. It is more than two decades since the first Human Development Report was brought out by the UNDP. Since 1991, over 600 regional and national human development reports have been published in 140 nations.
There is a growing belief among economists, sociologists, psychologists, planners and policy makers that the idea of human development, extremely valuable as it is, needs to be supplemented with other, equally important parameters, such as equity, sustainability, environmental costs, well-being and social capital. Some eminent economists, including Amartya Sen, have suggested that individual well-being and happiness should be measured not just in terms of the conventional indicators such as national income and GDP but also in terms of what they call a Gross Wellbeing Index. Governments in several countries, including Australia, the UK, Canada, Bhutan and Thailand, have made well-being a national policy goal. Harvard University’s Robert Putnam emphasizes the value of what he calls social capital—which connotes social connectedness and solidarity in human life. He points out that most commentators on the global economic meltdown have focused on the economic consequences, but hardly anyone bothered to examine the social consequences of the downturn, in terms of social isolation and loneliness.
Large parts of the contemporary world are bedevilled by political, ethnic, social and religious conflicts and violence. Ethnic and religious conflicts in Sudan, Congo, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Angola and South Africa have taken a heavy toll of life. Iraq and Afghanistan continue to be under the shadow of violence. One of the gravest threats to global peace and stability has come from transnational terrorist groups and networks, in which a section of extremist youth from the margins of Muslim societies is prominently implicated.
Recent researches and global trends point to the significant linkage between conflicts and violence, poverty and deprivation and development. The 2011 World Development Report, the flagship publication of the World Bank, says that violence is becoming the primary cause of poverty. The Report suggests the main constraint on development today may not be a poverty trap but a violence trap. The report reckons that nearly 1.5 billion people live in countries affected by political violence and organized crime. People in such strife-torn countries are twice as likely to be malnourished, to miss primary school and to die in infancy as people in other developing countries. The report notes that no poor, violent country has achieved a single one of the millennium development goals. The report says that countries that are faced with large-scale violence lose almost 1% in poverty reduction every year. Until 1990 Burundi and Burkina Faso had similar rates of growth and levels of income. But in late 1993 a civil war broke out in Burundi, which took a toll of some 300,000 lives over the next 10 or 12 years. On the other hand, Burkina Faso, which did not experience any large-scale violence and civil war, is now two and a half times richer than Burundi.
Since conflicts and violence are widespread across large parts of the world, it is necessary and instructive to look into the historical, social, geopolitical and international context and dynamics of social conflict. The violence in Israel has a lot to do with the oppressive and barbaric treatment of the Palestinians by the Israeli government. The former US president Jimmy Carter described Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as “one of the greatest human rights crimes on earth.” The violence in Afghanistan and Iraq reflects the tragic legacy of the invasion and occupation of the two countries by the US-led forces.
The Democratic Republic of Congo has witnessed some of the most horrifying incidents of violence, genocide and rape since World War II, with the death toll estimated at more than five million in the last five years. More than 45,000 women were raped in 2005 alone. The war, which is still raging, has its roots in the pillage of Congo’s precious resources, including coltan, which is used to make the metal in mobile phones and laptops, diamonds and gold. The war has been fuelled and fostered by American and business corporations which are eager to exploit the country’s resources and which have hired hoodlums and robbers, including armed militias, to intimidate the people by carrying out killings and gang rapes.
The air strikes against Libya launched by the US and its Western allies have once again brought to the fore the selective and calculated manner in which the US and European powers launch military interventions in other countries. In a major speech on 28 March, President Barack Obama, the Nobel Peace laureate, defended the military intervention in Libya in the name of protection of freedom and human rights. Obama’s high-flown rhetoric can scarcely conceal the hypocrisy and duplicity in US foreign policy. There is another interesting and revealing angle to the US-led air strikes against Libya. Bill Richardson, the former US energy secretary who served as US ambassador to the UN, said: "There's another interest, and that's energy... Libya is among the 10 top oil producers in the world. You can almost say that the gas prices in the US going up have probably happened because of a stoppage of Libyan oil production... So this is not an insignificant country, and I think our involvement is justified."
There is ample evidence to show that the US applies its yardstick of democracy, freedom and human rights selectively and in consonance with its economic and strategic interests and that it is often guilty of flouting human rights and international conventions. The 2008 annual report of Amnesty International said the US has “distinguished itself in recent years through its defiance of international law.” The suffering of the Palestinian people and the suppression of human rights by the ruling establishment in Israel, Bahrain and Yemen do not stir the conscience of the Obama administration because, as everyone knows, these are the allies and client states of the US.
There is a growing realisation around the world, as well as in the United States, that the American-led invasion and occupation of Iraq has proved to be an unmitigated disaster—for Iraq, for the world at large and for the US. The war has brought nothing but devastation and instability to Iraq, failed in its ostensible objectives (finding weapons of mass destruction and restoring democracy and stability in the country), and added to global insecurity. According to a study carried out by the World Health Organisation in January 2008, more than 151,000 Iraqis have died between March 2003 and June 2006. More than two million people have fled Iraq and an equal number have been displaced within the country.
The so-called “war on terror,” launched by the Bush administration in the wake of the attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, has failed to stem global terrorism and has in fact exacerbated tensions and conflicts in large parts of the world. A survey carried out by the BBC Radio in 2006 revealed that most people in 33 out of 35 countries believed that the American-led war in Iraq has increased the threat of global terrorism. The official data for the American government-supported RAND Corporation reveal that the invasion of Iraq caused “a seven-fold increase in jihadism.” Studies by terrorism experts Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank show that the invasion of Iraq and the torture inflicted upon prisoners there and in Guantanamo prison have caused a seven-fold increase in global terrorism.
Sometimes, situations that are suffused with unrest, disaffection and conflict bring about positive consequences, as it recently happened in Tunisia and Egypt.
Sometimes, the prevailing situation at a given point of time weighs so heavily on our minds that we tend to overlook the larger picture and fail to see things in a wider historical and social context. We are faced with a similar kind of situation in contemporary India. Communal polarization, inter-community mistrust, violence and terrorism have cast their ominous shadow over the country. It goes without saying that we need to be on our guard and take effective steps to deal with these challenges. At the same time, we should not lose sight of the deeply embedded linkages and networks that continue to knit various social groups and religious and cultural communities together. This fact has been highlighted by the People of India project, which has shown that, by and large, social groups and communities in the country are located within specific cultural-linguistic regions where they share material culture, social and cultural spaces, kinship organization, languages and dialects, customs and festivals, and regional identities.
There is a universal consensus, globally as well as within the country, about creating and sustaining a culture of tolerance, accommodation and peaceful coexistence. This has certain prerequisites. Foremost among them is the recognition and accommodation of cultural diversity and negotiation with differences. There is a misconception in certain circles that cultural uniformity and societal homogeneity is a precondition for national unity and integration. Implicit in this argument is a totalitarian agenda to assimilate minority groups into the majority population and to obliterate their distinctive identities. The discourse of cultural nationalism, espoused by certain extremist, far-right organizations and political parties in the country, is symptomatic of this totalitarian ideology. It may be pointed out that Hinduism itself does not represent a monolithic, homogeneous tradition, but is characterisd by diversity and pluralism, which is reflected in religious beliefs, in philosophical and metaphysical discourses, in social organization and in customs and traditions. There is a well-known aphorism in Hinduism’s scriptural literature: vipra bahudha vadanti. The eminent historian Romila Thapar has perceptively remarked that, from very early times, Hinduism has been a “mosaic of distinct cults, deities, sects and ideas.” Rabindranath Tagore, who is widely regarded as an authentic representative of Indian civilization, once observed that his family was the product of a confluence of three cultures: Hindu, Muslim and British.
India is a multiethnic society with a centuries-old legacy of what Amartya Sen has aptly described as interactive openness, tolerance and accommodation of diversity and a composite, hubridic civilizational ethos. India is also a land with multiple religious and cultural legacies and resources. The constitution of India enshrines and symbolizes this legacy and, at the same time, offers a vision for the reconstruction of society on the cherished values of freedom, equality, social justice and human rights, including group-differentiated and community-specific rights.
In order to create and sustain a culture of peace, we need to draw on the country’s civilizational ethos, its multiple legacies and resources and its long-standing tradition of cultural syncretism and hybridization. One can identify themes and motifs in the Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic traditions that are strikingly similar in import and imagery. We also need to draw on the experiences of other multiethnic societies of the past and present to create a culture of peace. The edifice of the culture of peace should be raised on the foundations of a vision for India’s national identity, which is capacious, accommodative and inclusionary, which is attuned to the vision and dream of some of the greatest sons and daughters of modern India, including Tagore, Gandhi, Nehru, Mawlana Azad and Sarojini Naidu.