Future Imperfect

In my last column, I advanced some thoughts on the significance of the millennial moment in which we are living. Today, I should like to continue my reflections on what might be our perspectives as we look back on the century that has just passed from our midst.

In economics, the twentieth century is ending as the century of globalisation – and golbalisation is, at the risk of sounding tautological, a worldwide phenomenon. Whereas not very long ago, 90 percent of the developing nations – members of the ‘Group of 77′, which went on to comprise over hundred United Nations member states – ran closed economies, today only Burma (and that too not entirely) resists the siren call of the global marketplace. Despite the financial crises that started In Asia In 1997 and appeared to be spreading across the globe, the basic assumptions of the world economy were not shaken. In every country around the world, trade barriers are being lowered, imports and exports increased, foreign capital avidly sought; legal systems are being brought into line with the needs of international business, tax and property laws are being re-examined against foreign standards, and restrictive rules and regulations are being scrapped. The role of the state is increasingly being redefined as that of providing an ‘enabling environment’. a framework within which citizens can pursue their own aspirations. More and more economies are being plugged In to global system In what is a self-reinforcing process.

I do not say this to echo those advocates of globalisation who blithely suggest that we have moved from a world dominated by superpowers to a world dominated by supermarkets. That is a rather Occidental view of the world. Most Indians are still far removed from the supermarket shelves of the American globalisers, groaning under their cheery packages of over-processed food and offering five Western brands for every imagined need. Globalisation has to mean more than the dominance of Western brand-name consumer products over territories abroad. The economics of the 21st century has to provide not just more money for a few, but more choice and more jobs for the many. Liberalisation must produce not only shinier foreign cars for affluent, but work for the unemployed, food for the hungry and spending money In the hands of the needy. As we saw In the street-riots of Seattle, the market will not appeal to those who cannot afford to enter the marketplace.

The main reason developing countries have not caught up more rapidly with developed ones is that they were closed to the world economy and therefore to the benefits of increased trade and foreign investment. This was understandable In the post-colonial context, because our closed and statistical economic policies were principally a political and cultural reaction to imperialism. Indian self-reliance combined a Nehruvian concern for distributive social justice with a profound mistrust of the international economic forces that had enslaved the country for 200 years. As a newly independent nation , India Pursued economic autarchy out of both pride (”we can do it too”) and suspicion (”we cannot rely on others to supply what we need, so we must make everything ourselves”).

Economic self-reliance thus became an axiomatic corollary of independence itself and was seen as synonymous with it. The Independence generation, newly freed of the incubus of colonialism, was deeply mistrustful of the outside world. After all, the British had come to trade, and stayed on to rule; foreign investors were therefore seen as the thin end of a non-imperialist wedge. The result was a policy that placed bureaucrats, not businessmen, In control of the economy, where they spent their time regulating stagnation and distributing poverty.

Low growth and underemployment resulted, as we turned away investments that would have created jobs and strengthened infrastructure while we tried to divide an ever-shrinking economic pie. Today such policies are being abandoned In favour of free enterprise. The most significant proof of the maturity of India and other formerly colonised states is the willingness of their leaderships to realise, at long last, that economic interdependence is not incompatible with political independence.

But at the same time there are dramatic disparities across the world – relating to wealth or the lack thereof, to across services, and to the opportunity for advancement. As the twentieth century came to an end, an estimated 1.3 billion people In the world subsist on less than a dollar a day (and 3 billion, half the globe’s population, on less than $2 a day); nearly a billion people, a shamefully large portion of them In our country, are illiterate; well over a billion lack access to safe water; some 840 million starve or face food shortages; and nearly a third of the people In what the United Nati

Source: Indian Express