Thursday, February 18, 2010

India Shining, the Sequel: can a new slogan save us?

Nandan M. Nilekani, noted Indian IT business man and Chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India, has determined that we need new new slogans for the new century. The old ones like bijli, sadak, pani (power, roads and water)  and roti, kapada, makaan (food, clothing, shelter) are out of date, he says.

"We have gone from … physical things to abstract things (UID number, bank account, mobile phone)," says Nilekani in remarks that have been widely published this week.  "If we can get everyone to have UID number, if we can get everyone to have bank account and if we can get everyone to have mobile phone, then we are giving them tools of opportunity. With that, they can access services, benefits and their rights."

Don’t get me wrong; new technology and new ways of doing things, can have a real impact in the real world.  Increased access to bank accounts and micro-credit programs is making a difference in many areas.  Some markets, especially those dealing with perishable goods, are operating more efficiently in recent years thanks to mobile phones--there's nothing "abstract" about a reduction in rotting fish, or the increase in income generated when the fellow selling the fish finds his way straight to a village that wants to buy it.  And in a country with so much migrant labour, who can deny the importance of being able to speak with far-away loved ones?  (As for the many advantages of the UID number, someone else will have to explain those to you--I surely can't.)

But when you get right down to it, we can’t change reality by introducing new slogans--even really catchy ones like "UID number, bank account, mobile phone!" And does it really make sense to say our old slogans are out of date? Talk to a Bihari taxi driver about this: sure, he may show off his mobile phone; but more likely than not he’ll also tell you his family in the village gets power for only a few hours a day.  And water? Can we really say it is “passé” to demand clean water in a country where 1250 people die every day from diarrhea?

Nilekani’s remarks reminded me of a piece that ran  this Sunday in The Hindu.  In it, Sevanti Ninan praised a recent cover story in India Today
In the same week that Binayak Sen talked on television about famine and genocide, India Today came out with a cover story whose cover photo was designed to cock a snook at nay-sayers. Composed like an ad for a mobile phone company, it had turbaned rural gentry with mobiles to their ears, riding in a roofless red limousine against a backdrop of lush green fields. The story's opening sentences proclaimed that “islands of poverty still exist but most of rural India is transformed beyond imagination thanks to a host of factors.” I can almost hear all those human rights activists who regularly post grim stories on Internet mailing lists gag. Whatever happened to the earlier stock stories of farmers' suicides, and the current ones about why Maoists are spreading their tentacles everywhere?
Ninan goes on to address the fact that seventy seven per cent of Indians live on under Rs. 20 a day:
This 77 per cent figure has become a favourite statistic (a variation of it says 77 per cent of India lives below the poverty line) but surely it caricatures even inequity when the discussion does not go beyond that?
Of course it is true that the discussion of this statistic needs to go deeper than it typically does.  And I think it is terribly important to discuss things that are working as well as things that are not; we can learn from our successes as well as from our mistakes.   To be fair, there are places where the India Today piece does a nice job of this.  For instance, they highlight some of the areas where micro-finance programs and the National Rural Employment Guarantee (NREG) scheme are working wonders.

But in being so selective in the kinds of trees it looks at, India Today misses some important things about the forest.  For example, although it concedes that, “The single biggest reason for the kind of money visible in rural India is the skyrocketing price of land,” it does not ask the next obvious question: what does this means for those who have no land?  That’s just one example, but it’s indicative of a larger pattern.

The real problem in this piece is not the positive examples it offers; it is the fact that it urges us, right from its very first sentence, to do something unconscionable: “Forget those images of ravaged villagers, kids with distended bellies and ragged clothes and a future as grim as the cracked, sun-baked earth.”

It would be one thing if those images were just... images.  The problem is, those images are part of the reality lived by millions of rural Indians every day--how can we forget them?  Yes, statistics like 77% of the population living on less than Rs 20 a day and 2,00,000 farmer suicides in 12 years are blunt and depressing.  Far nicer to see photos of farmers in front of Land Rovers and computers.

I’m all for thinking positive.  But as we discussed last week, the ways in which we frame the stories we tell matters. I agree that a variety of perspectives, a variety of frames, is the only way we can hope to understand the complex world we live in…but when someone tries to sell me a frame that hides 77% of the picture, I think it’s time to visit another frame shop.


What do you think?