Abdul Kalam Conference: Nurturing The Indic Grand Narrative

by Rajeev Srinivasan - Jul 11, 2019 12:14 PM +05:30 IST
Abdul Kalam Conference: Nurturing The Indic Grand NarrativeA message from the First Kalam Conference on Sustainable Growth at Sustainable Cost.
  • The underpinnings of an Indic Grand Narrative are moderation, respect for the earth and all living beings, and sustainability for future generations.

Are there ‘grand innovations’ that can transform India? I considered this issue, and contrasted ‘petit innovations’ with systemic ‘grand innovations’ in the February 2019 issue of Swarajya (“How an Upgraded Indian State Would Look”), discussing structural innovations for an India that can break away from its feeble efforts at growth (the “Nehruvian Penalty”) of the last 70 years.

Here I explore another grand innovation: the nurturing of an Indic Grand Narrative. I wrote of a Dharmic Grand Narrative on indiafacts.org (“The Outlines of a Dharmic Grand Narrative”, 11 November 2015): I was looking for something anchored in dharma per se. While such a positioning creates common cause with other dharmic nations, perhaps we need a purely Indian Grand Narrative, on par with the American and the Chinese versions.

This is because of two developments, one positive and one negative. The positive is that India may now have developed enough self-confidence to stand on its own, and to proclaim an ‘Indian exceptionalism’, just as Americans and Chinese tout theirs. The negative is the unrelenting demonisation of Hindus and Indians — and not other dharmics such as East Asians.

Even though the US is pursuing war by other means against China, it is framed in strategic and intellectual property and trade terms: not the old racist ‘Yellow Peril’ meme. In contrast, India is demonised. The vitriolic coverage during the elections, and recent dog-whistle, sly, anti-Hindu tirades such as by Arvind Subramanian (who in effect said that racist canard "Hindu Rate of Growth" [sic] of 4.5 per cent is India’s proper fate), it is clear that India is being framed as a country of uncivilised Hindu barbarians. US presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard is also a case in point: the naked bigotry against her because she is a Hindu is staggering.

Thus it makes sense to attempt to articulate the Indian Grand Narrative. And I think I have found a singular basis for this: sustainability. The American and Chinese Grand Narratives both have a rallying cry: “More”. More nukes, more money, more meat, more cars, more energy, more gross domestic product, more plastic, more, more, more.

The fact is that there isn’t enough planet for this Oliver-Twist-like meme.

We are rapidly running out of resources: climate change, water crises, the plastic catastrophe in the oceans and wholesale species extinction. It is apocalypse tomorrow, if not today. People are beginning to wake up to this: the gig economy, the backlash against meat and against plastic, the rent-vs-own trend, etc. Sustainability has suddenly become an in-thing.

The Sustainable Development Goals as articulated by UNESCO are an attempt to quantify this trend.

Intriguingly, India’s culture is the only one among the G3 (America, China and India) that has a philosophical history of saying, “Enough!”. Look at Hindu scriptures: the latter two of the chatur-ashrama, the idealised phases in a well-run life, are vanaprastha and sanyasa. A major theme is renunciation of one’s possessions and eventually one’s ego.

Admittedly, not too many people go on sanyasa these days. But I remember my extended family when an uncle decided to take the path of the renunciate: there was awe tinged with respect. When we hear about a wealthy Jain merchant giving everything away to accept the life of a monk, we admire him for his courage. The ascetic life is respected, and it always has been (and it’s not a hair-shirt-type of fake spirituality). You may remember the great short story by Rudyard Kipling: “The Miracle of Purun Bhagat”, about a mantri who became sanyasi.

There is Alok Sagar, an IITian-PhD from a top US university who gave up a tenured professor post, and who has for 32 years lived with tribals in Madhya Pradesh. He owns nothing more than a bicycle. Friends of mine, and yours truly, gave up good jobs in the US and returned to India because we could say, “Enough!”. In the West, you cannot: in the parable, Faust could never find the perfect moment to stop time, and therefore lost his soul to Mephistopheles.

It appears that sustainability is the future, and that India is the only Great Power contender that has the philosophical nous to accept and even celebrate it. This is a little different from the 1972 Club of Rome tract, “The Limits to Growth”, which predicted doom, Cassandra-like. In the Indic scenario, the masses can lead reasonable lives with moderate impact on the planet.

In celebration of this concept, my old friend Narayanan Komerath, distinguished professor of aeronautics at Georgia Tech, Atlanta, is chairing the First Abdul Kalam Conference on Sustainable Growth at Sustainable Cost, to be held at IIT Madras on 11 to 14 July. Here is what he had to say about the conference:

The Indian Institute of Technology, Madras at Chennai, is hosting a conference on July 11-14, 2019, as first of a biennial series as India grows towards 2030 and beyond.

Every developed nation has achieved high development at an extreme ecological cost. The growing environmental issues in India pose ominous warnings that temper the pride over India’s admirable progress since the 1990s. How can India develop while moving towards the Sustainable Development Goals? We believe that it can be done through a uniquely Indian path.

President Abdul Kalam is known to engineers outside India as an ardent campaigner for global collaboration in Space. His interest in Space Solar Power (electric power generated and beamed down from Space) was initially driven by his determination to bring drinking water to Chennai through desalination plants. Chennai’s plight today is a tough reminder of why we cannot afford complacency in minding the environment, while focusing on GDP growth.

This conference is to start a process towards Sustainable Growth. It will bring together the proponents of advanced technological concepts, with the social scientists and administrators who attend to public policy, and the NGO people who know the daily realities in rural India.

Today 67 per cent of Indians live in rural areas, producing less than half of India’s GDP, and that almost entirely from raw agricultural produce. Rural residents are buffeted by natural and anthropo-genic cataclysms that are far outside their control. Suicide, or migration to the overcrowded cities as refugees in their own nation, appear to be the only options to many rural residents. The rising congestion and costs in the cities drive salaries that are far above the stagnant or decreasing rural income. As the rupee has from 6 per US dollar in 1978, to over 68 today, city incomes have kept up, but the villages are falling further behind.

The past decade has also brought immense hope: the Right To Work payments from the government, the Aadhar card, online bank accounts operated by mobile phones, catastrophic insurance, toilets, free cooking-gas cylinders, medical insurance and electric grid connection to all villages, all promise growth of a consumer economy in rural India. Meanwhile, environmental conditions are deteriorating, and the population is too vulnerable to external events. About 300 million Indians, by most estimates, woke up this morning to another day without real access to electric power.

Are there solutions to these problems? We believe so. In principle, Climate Change can be reversed by growing enough forests, the best way to “sequester” carbon – or even by reflecting enough sunlight back into Space. Cyclones can be predicted in time using good science, so that people can get out of the way. Tele-medicine combined with Artificial Intelligence, and the wisdom of native Ayurveda, can reach every Indian with top-quality medical care. Waste can be converted to bio-gas and natural fertiliser, and toxins kept out of ground water. Off-grid solar photo-voltaic power has become nearly as cheap as wall-plug grid power. Bio-gas, which is also free, delivers four times as much energy per rupee as solar photo-voltaic, and can be stored.

Intensified solar heat can turn green waste into syngas and liquid transportation fuel in the near term, and split water efficiently into hydrogen and oxygen a few years down the line. Hydrogen fuel will slash air and noise pollution, and eliminate the carbon footprint of air travel. Imagine dust-free city streets as quiet as a golf course except for the swish of passing vehicles, where no one needs particle masks, and children can drink from faucets with no fear as we used to do 40 years ago. Imagine the villages as a distributed economy with high-tech agriculture, vertical farming and “cottage” industry as world-leading as Indian industry used to be 5,000 years ago.

In the next phase of development, there has to be strong attention to reversing pollution of ground, water and air. We believe that the route to success is by reversing urban migration, by turning the villages into the ideal living places that they can become. But what would bring people back to villages? Access to energy, excellent education, playgrounds, high-bandwidth connectivity, knowledge jobs with upward mobility, good law, order and fair, honest administration, clean water, and fast access to the global market – by drones until the roads become good.

How can these be turned from imagination to reality? This is the subject of Working Group 4, “Bridging Implementation to Reality”, chaired by Dr. Nivedita Haran, IAS (retd). Hers is one of 5 Working Groups that are at the core of this unique conference. The others are 1) Rural Energy Self-Reliance and Enterprise, 2) Renewing Mother Earth, 3) Reaching New Resources, and 5) Global Alliance for Wellness and Healthcare. Each group has a diverse set of participants, from international experts to enthusiastic students.

This is the conference website that leads to registration links in the USA (Takshashila Institute) and at the Indian Institute of Technology’s National Center for Combustion Research and Development. The ZOOM electronic registration allows participation with minimal carbon footprint, frohm all over the world. Please join us!

There is a major story in the background that Narayanan hints at: what development actually means. It almost certainly doesn’t mean forcing villagers to migrate to dreadful, overcrowded cities just to survive. But then neither does it mean simply providing them infrastructure without a view as to how that can be monetised to create a living for themselves.

Technologists often believe that providing technology solutions is sufficient. But they have to lead to social value. For instance, the arrival of long-distance electricity grids in every village — or of micro-grid local solar power — is not enough. It might simply mean consumption: for instance, villagers can watch TV, or charge their phones and watch videos on them. While this may (or may not) add to gross national happiness, it certainly doesn’t add anything to gross domestic product.

There was a village economy in India that sustained itself for millennia, and quite nicely too, but we cannot turn the clock back. We have to find mechanisms whereby villagers can become producers, not just consumers. Using 5G, artificial intelligence, Internet of things and other new technologies, they may be able to dramatically increase productivity, which at the moment is low. Organic, pesticide-free farming based on traditional methods may be possible with data analytics and tight control of inputs such as water and fertiliser.

There might be ways to integrate villagers into the supply chains of various manufacturers: perhaps through 3-D printing, drone pickup and delivery. Similarly, there could be appropriate outsourced services: as demonstrated by Rural Shores, a company co-founded by C N Ram, a fellow IIT Madras classmate, which brings well-paying fin-tech jobs to villages. Design services are another possibility.

All this could lead to a moderate level of prosperity, which (one hopes) will satisfy them, and at the same time be reasonably sustainable. They will not reach American levels of prosperity, but then they will not impose American levels of costs on the environment either (estimated at 35x the impact of the average Indian).

That is the message from the Kalam Conference. It is possible to elevate the general level of wealth in the country, live with a limited planet without cannibalising it, and give people a quality of life that is more than adequate.

That would be the underpinnings of an Indic Grand Narrative: moderation, respect for the earth and all living beings, and sustainability for future generations. I think this is within reach. That could well be the ‘grand innovation’ that we can all be proud of, something that enables life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Rajeev Srinivasan focuses on strategy and innovation, which he worked on at Bell Labs and in Silicon Valley. He has taught innovation at several IIMs. An IIT Madras and Stanford Business School grad, he has also been a conservative columnist for twenty years.

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