Over the barrel: Towards a digitally equitable Indian society

Updated: Nov 02, 2020 1:21 PM

Technology has deepened aspirations. The govt is perceived to hold it in check. The tension between the state and the society must be bridged if India is to develop on an even social keel

Agriculture and manufacturing offers no scope. Construction, hospitality and eco-tourism are options.Agriculture and manufacturing offers no scope. Construction, hospitality and eco-tourism are options.

By Vikram S Mehta

Over the past decade and more that I have been writing a column for this page. I have, on occasion, written about the forest sanctuary of Binsar in Uttarakhand. I have a small cottage in the sanctuary. These articles have not been about the pristine beauty of the sanctuary; the verdant forests that roll from one range of hills to another merging eventually into the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas. These have not been about the restorative and calming influence of silence; these have been about the tension between economic development and ecological sustainability.

Binsar offered me a narrow window of insight into the difficulty of striking a balance between the aspirations of the villagers who lived in the sanctuary and were denied, as a consequence, the economic benefits of development and the imperative of preserving the magnificence of nature.

I bought one of the six British-built establishments in Binsar in 1987. I have been visiting the place regularly ever since. In the early years, I noted the near-total absence of development—there was no running water, there were no electricity lines, the road was narrow and irregularly tarred—I had to walk the last half-a-mile to my home, and the nearest hospital was 30 km away, and there were no schools. Itinerant travellers may have been happy to get away from the clutter of development, but the resident villagers were not. They wanted a share of the benefits accruing to those living outside the sanctuary. They wanted electricity, water, health, schools and, above all else, jobs. They verbalised their protest and, at times, out of sheer frustration, they even ‘ignited’ their surroundings to attract attention. One year, the forest fires almost engulfed my home.

The authorities have, to an extent, heard these protests. The drive to Binsar is no longer as tiresome as it used to be. The roads have been broadened and tarred. Electricity lines have been stretched. The valleys, which at night were blanketed in darkness, are now studded with pinpricks of light. My home still does not have grid electricity, as does no one who lives within the forest. But we are not complaining. For, except on days when the sun plays hide-and-seek with the clouds, solar has become a reliable substitute.

These tangible markers of progress mask, however, the deeper dilemmas of development. The reason I decided to pen another article on Binsar was because, in a microcosmic way, the nature and the pace of development in this area mirrors the fault-lines that have to be resolved for our country to get onto the trajectory of sustainable growth. The specifics will be different, but the essential issues facing Binsar are the same as those that confront the country.
For anyone visiting the Kumaon region on a regular basis, a striking manifestation of global warming is the receding snowline of the Himalayan range. Even the highest peaks of the Nanda Devi, the Trishul and the Panchachuli massif reveal large rock faces. The Pindari Glacier is brown to the naked eye. Of course, this will all change, when, in a few weeks, the winter snow swaddles the range in white and, maybe, I am drawing an exaggerated picture, but I have never seen so much contrast on the mountain faces earlier. Sitting inside a sanctuary where, on account of regulatory restrictions, the surroundings are lush and green, one cannot but reflect on the forewarning of the scientific community that if the world and, to be more specific, India does not tackle the issue of greenhouse gas emissions, it will, for certain, bequeath an irremediably damaged planet to the next generation. India cannot afford to develop first and clean up later.

Covid-19 has intruded, of course. It is not the numbers of infected that have roiled the villagers; these appear to be few. It is the economic ramifications. Most of the young that had left for the plains in search of jobs are back, and if one goes by the comments that I have picked up from the locals, only a handful want to return to their earlier jobs. The lack of a social security net in the cities has made them ask whether it might not be better to seek income-generating opportunities closer to home. What those might be is, of course, their biggest concern.

Agriculture and manufacturing offers no scope. Construction, hospitality and eco-tourism are options. But then the MSMEs engaged in these sectors are struggling to sustain their business. These enterprises are not unviable. They simply have no liquidity. The debate in the corridors of our economic ministries as to whether to enlarge the fiscal stimulus or not or whether the central government or the states should turn to the market to make up for the shortfall in GST revenues acquires a different hue when contemplated through the non-academic lens of livelihood.

There is no doubt, in my mind, that the central government must open up further the fiscal spigot and help the state/local governments create the social security nets that assure everyone a basic minimum income. The argument of those that pore over macro ratios (for example, debt/GDP) that there is no fiscal space for such largesse should be set against the Keynesian comment that “in the long run, we are all dead.”

A stark manifestation of the two track development of our socio-economic polity is the ubiquitous spread of digital technology. In a place with limited physical infrastructure and few social amenities, everyone carries a cell phone and most can find internet connectivity. I have attended several Zoom meetings from my Himalayan redoubt. To my mind, this reveals the sharpest fault-line of all: The potentially-deepening tension between the society and the state.

Technology has deepened aspirations. The government is perceived to hold it in check. Whether it is in Binsar or the country at large, this tension will have to be bridged if India is to develop on an even social keel.

The author is chairman, Centre for Social and Economic Progress

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