The mechanics and details of administration and economics are critical. But so is a vision for India in the long run. Here are five big ideas for India in the twenty-first century.
The hurly-burly of the elections is over and a new government is in place in Delhi. Ministers and their officers must be drawing up lists of the many urgent things that need to be done in the next couple of months. But there is a difference between what is urgent and what is important, and it is more often than not that the urgent displaces the important from our schedules.
In this article, we explore five important issues that India needs to address, not just for the immediate gratification of urgent needs but to set the agenda for the twenty-first century. From garbage disposal through restructuring of our education infrastructure that will in turn transform India into an artificial intelligence (AI) based space-faring civilisation that is rooted in our vedic past, let us explore five new narratives of Panchatantra/21.
Charity begins at home. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Before we set out to change the course of human civilisation, let us first clean up the garbage from our doorstep. Literally. India is drowning in garbage. Other than metropolitan cities, no town or village has any mechanism to dispose of household garbage in any meaningful way — except to dump it beyond sight.
Households dump it on the streets, and the municipality, if such a thing exists, takes it and dumps it at the edge of the town. This creates huge and unsustainable garbage dumps that are not only an eyesore but also a health and ecological hazard. The situation is worse if the town has a lot of visitors, tourists or pilgrims. The devastation is compounded by the number of people creating garbage and the indifference of the transient visitors to the outcome of their actions.
Disposal of garbage is not rocket science and communities across the world have managed to solve the problem to a large extent. In fact, a systematic disposal of garbage is the leitmotif of a civilisation and the Sindhu-Saraswati civilisation was perhaps the first to realise this and implement it in their system of drains. But in the twenty-first century, we must do it better and differently.
Swachh Bharat and its focus on building toilets must be enlarged to encompass the creation of industrial grade garbage disposal units in each and every town and village in India. Methods and systems to collect, segregate, transport, recycle and dispose of garbage exist in many countries and India must adopt and adapt what is most appropriate for India and then create a mechanism to replicate it in a scalable manner across the land.
After garbage, the next area to be cleaned up — and this time, metaphorically — is the education sector where the infamous licence-control raj is still alive and choking honest intent. Regulatory bodies like the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) and the University Grants Commission (UGC) have all the authority to control educational institutes but not the responsibility of delivering anything useful. These have throttled and choked well-meaning individuals from creating educational institutes of excellence.
Instead, what we have are either tax-payer funded white elephants run by politically-connected and government-appointed directors or dubious private institutions run by crony capitalists. A majority of the former are handicapped by lack of three requirements — funds, efficiency and imagination. A majority of the latter aim to fool students and deliver dubious value in terms of employability.
What we need instead is a regulator, modelled on the Registrar of Companies. This should not dictate which colleges are allowed to operate or what or how colleges teach. Instead, it must ensure transparency — in intent, execution and delivery — by mandating disclosure norms that are based on principles that are similar to GAAP — generally accepted accounting principles.
More importantly, these disclosures must be validated through a statutory audit process. What this means is that students and their parents, who fund their education, would have a reasonably clear idea about the merits of an educational institute — as equity investors have in the financials of companies that are listed on the stock exchange — and take an informed decision on where to invest time and money to get a decent education. In short, let the market and not government babus decide the fate of educational institutes. This is explained in detail in an earlier article, “Auditors, Not Regulators.”
Continuing with this basic philosophy of minimum government, maximum governance and extrapolating from the gig economy — Uber, Ola, AirBnB, Oyo — that allows individuals to sell their services directly to the customer, we could easily have good, but independent, teachers reaching out to students through platforms like the YouTube. However, distance learning has its challenges. First, students want the sanctity of an accredited university degree that is a necessary condition for jobs. Second, they want the security of a placement service as the outcome of any education. Finally, they want all of it to be either free or at a very low cost. Meeting all three conditions through a simple e-learning platform is impossible.
However, a recognised and accredited university, say Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), can create a platform where individual, but non-employee teachers can teach, or deliver educational services and be paid based on a metric that is based on student (“customer”) engagement and feedback. This metric should be multidimensional and should consist of (a) the number of actual student-hours views that the videos have, (b) the rating given by students. Such a platform supported by a distributed evaluation service, as in online exams in designated premises, and a Naukri.com style job-portal to facilitate placements can be put together as an alternative to the traditional campus oriented educational institute. This is explained in detail in “Distance Learning Reloaded.”
These two new age educational initiatives — auditing rather than regulating educational institutes and the ‘indie’ teacher based distance learning programme — form the second narrative for Panchatantra/21.
Education continues as the third of our five narratives but now the focus moves from platform to content. What is it that our students must learn? To begin with, a large part of the curriculum will be drawn from the traditional BA, BSc, BCom and even BTech, BBA, MA, MTech, MBA courses. These are tried and tested curricula that have stood the test of time but of course each university or college should have the freedom to offer anything that they want without centralised bodies like AICTE or UGC trying to impose their point of view.
In a market economy, “customers” — that means both students and recruiters — will signal their requirements in a manner that the education market must understand and respond to. This would mean that there will be more students — and hence more colleges or independent, “indie” teachers — for courses and subjects that are preferred by recruiters. However, as Steve Jobs has put it, “customers do not really know what they want” and so it is up to policy-makers to determine what would be important and useful for India in the current century and even the next.
Moving into the twenty-first century, mankind — the carbon-based biologicals — will have to share this planet with what is virtually a new species, the silicon-based artificial intelligence powered systems as explained in “Intelligent Machines: Humans May Have To Contend With A Superior ‘Species’ Soon; Are We Prepared?”. This may sound like science fiction but automated and more importantly autonomous systems — from self-driving vehicles, through medical diagnostic tools right up to public safety and even juridical services — will take over and run our society with little or virtually no human interference.
We may not like it — just as colonised people never really liked their new masters — but we will have to learn to live with them. To begin with, we need to learn their language. Indians learned English when they were colonised — say after the Battle of Plassey — and then they made the best use of this skill to chart their own destiny in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. So should be the case with artificial intelligence in the twenty-first.
Every child in every school and college must learn the basics of artificial intelligence, of neural networks and of course, computer programming. Python, for example, would be the new English, a skill that is so eagerly sought after by parents who are so keen to send their children to English-medium schools. One could learn history, (human) languages, sociology, medicine, fine arts, engineering or whatever but one must also know AI and computer programming.
Just as a knowledge of English equips a person to work his way through the world irrespective of the location or nature of work, so would a knowledge of robotics and AI be essential not just to live but to build new products and services for the coming age. Just as if you want to make money from a big economy like China you learn Chinese, so should there be no hesitation or embarrassment in learning Python and AI right from primary school all the way to college.
Machines and robots are “learning” about human languages, behaviours, attitudes and choices at an unprecedented rate but if we, biological sentients, have to keep up with them we need to know their language and behaviour as well. It is not just that computer programming should become “The Fourth Language” in our schools but AI and robotics should be built into the warp and woof of our school and college curriculum. Products like Arduino and Raspberry Pi should be used not just for science projects but for every kind of project that is mandated in the curriculum. This is one area where a visionary government and its policy-makers must take the initiative to fund the design of innovative curriculum, the development of appropriate course material and the appointment of competent teachers.
But AI and robotics is the path, what is the destination?
This takes us to the fourth narrative of our Panchatantra/21 and to the next level of human endeavour — Space! Europe was too small for the European civilisation and it flowered only when the bold and the brave among them, spread out, first to colonise America and then across Africa and Asia. Similarly, the world is not enough for humanity as biological and machine intelligence grow by leaps and bounds. The composite carbon-silicon civilisation must and will physically expand first to the moon and Mars, then to Titan, Enceladus and Europa and eventually to other solar systems in this galaxy.
In this grand adventure, it would be tragic indeed if India were to be relegated to the position of a passive observer clapping and cheering from the sidelines while the US, Europe and China establish colonies in these distant realms. As described in this article, “A whole new space age”, India must take a definitive stand to become a space faring nation and invest the power of money, of mind and of machines to stake her claim beyond the frontier. Mangalyaan and Chandrayaan are two excellent initiatives and they must be viewed to be as important as say goods and services tax or Ayushman Bharat.
This may not translate into votes in the 2024 elections but that is where the current government must demonstrate its passion for the big idea. “Go West young man” was once a part of the lexicon — and the manifest destiny — of the American civilisation that grew and prospered. Similarly, every young man and woman in tomorrow’s India must be encouraged to dream of going to space — along with robots and other intelligent machines — to set up homesteads, establish colonies and create opportunities for economic and social expansion.
Beyond the raw technology of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), a national-level space commission must be established to address the socio-economic issues of a space faring nation. Such a commission will encourage, and equip, schools and colleges with the tools and ideas that will allow their students to think beyond that next job in TCS or Hindustan Lever and incentivise private enterprise to invest in space-related ventures. Space travel and colonisation should be the fourth big idea that India must focus on in the next decade.
But in parallel with the exploration of outer space, India also needs to look within. We must use the rear-view mirror of history to look into the Indic heritage that stretches back in time longer than any other living civilisation that exists today. Egypt and Mesopotamia has been swallowed up in the march of time and even China that still preserves links to its past is in the process of forgetting the same.
Only we in India can still trace our civilisation back through Chandragupt’s Mauryan era to the tenuous links of the Harappan civilisation and even beyond. The evidence is tantalising. Remains of chariots from the Mahabharat era have been found in Sanauli, Baghpat in Uttar Pradesh. The sunken city of Dwaraka, Gujarat, is still visible under the ocean. Harappan era relics have been found along the dry bed of the Ghaggar river through which the Saraswati once flowed and this, as Michel Danino has shown in his book The Lost River, connects the Harappan civilisation with the Dwapar Yug of the Mahabharat.
It is time that the government puts together a formal mechanism that will initiate primary research into these areas, search for evidence, connect the dots and present a comprehensive picture that will transform our understanding of the past. Legends must be codified as verifiable and documented history. Without compromising on academic rigour — without claiming that ancient India had nuclear bombs and spaceships, for example — honest historiography must be applied to elevate our myths from the fog of antiquity and bring them into the domain of history.
This has happened in the past. The Asiatic Society of Bengal led by William Jones had identified Chandragupt Maurya, named in ancient and mythical lists of Indian kings, as Sandrakottus, a contemporary of Alexander named in Greek records of his invasion of India. This monumental discovery had significantly extended the antiquity of Indian history. India as a nation owes it to itself to do this once again and reassert the continuity of the Indic civilisation right from the Vedic Age to the age of space and intelligent robots. This is the fifth and final narrative.
Man does not live by bread alone and nations too must look beyond the mere mechanics of administration and economics. Irrespective of who runs the government, the Indian economy will surely grow as issues related to labour, land and capital markets are sorted out and technology is used to enhance efficiency of governance. But there is a far larger story that awaits India and it is time for us to gear up for a whole new role that India will play in the comity of nations. India must prepare itself to be the tip of the arrow and not a mere lance-bearer as humanity reaches out — literally and metaphorically — to touch the stars. Panchatantra/21 would be our road map in this quest.