Jul-Sep 2009

The Other India: Realities of an Emerging Power

Balram Halwai, the eponymous White Tiger of Aravind Adiga’s Booker Prize-winning novel, is by his own declaration, “a self-taught entrepreneur.” His education in business, such as it is, owes nothing to American books, as he informs the Chinese Premier in the missive that forms the narrative frame of the novel. It comes instead from his years growing up in “an India of Darkness,” “a fertile place” that nonetheless “traps everything that is planted in it, suffocating, and choking, and stunting it.”

This is also The Other India explored in a new volume edited by Rajesh Chakrabarti of the  Indian School of Business (ISB). In a range of eclectic essays – reflective, analytical, didactic and impassioned -dedicated to Swami Agnivesh, the country’s preeminent activists and commentators dissect the myriad wastes and mutinies that shape this other India.  Here is the surprise, however – the most striking note to emerge from this collection is not one of despair or anger, but one of opportunity.

This disarming shift in perspective is also why this volume could be called The Other India Primer for the Future Business Leaders of India. The one lesson that these essays reiterate again and again is the need to value and include India’s vast human and natural resources in its growth narrative. As Jawed Naqvi argues in his searing essay Define Terrorism, and You could be Targeting Your Own Leaders, narratives are not merely a matter of semantics. Instead, the difference between the exploitation and employment of resources can either constrain growth irrevocably or convert constraints into assets.

A superb illustration of this difference appears in the story of the Tarun Bharat Sangh’s (TBS) (“India Youth Association”) work in the desert villages of Rajasthan, narrated by TBS founder and Magsaysay winner Rajendra Singh. Collaborating with villagers to revive traditional water harvesting technologies, this homespun social entrepreneurship transformed Alwar district’s resource poverty into prosperity.  Equally inspiring is the success achieved by the Self-employed Women’s Association (SEWA) with India’s foundational entrepreneurs – the vendors, hawkers, rag-pickers and tailors of India’s informal economy.

While Harsh Mander’s account of the Right to Food Campaigns provides an excellent public policy case study, it also underlines the shift in perspective required to see government food aid not merely as budget-draining expenditure, but also as investment in a healthy and productive workforce. An early essay by MS Swaminathan, Father of India’s Green Revolution, outlines the myriad opportunities for green and tech-savvy entrepreneurs growing out of India’s agro-environmental crisis. Vandana Shiva and Medha Patkar, two of only three women contributors included in the volume, offer broader intellectual paradigms for building an earth democracy and conceptualising alternative development policy. All in all, The Other India is a provocative but loose volume  that  throws  suggestive light on the ‘Darkness’ from which Balram Halwais arise, while charting the many openings for turning their entrepreneurship to more creative ends. As the women of SEWA have discovered, “money is power, but collective organised strength…is a bigger power.” This ‘powershakti’ is the “turmoil, of a positive kind,” that India needs.


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