Inclusive republic of...

The Budget Session of Parliament is always a time when economists, experts, politicians, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and all stakeholders in our society participate in active debates about national economics. How should our public money be spent? What should our priorities be? And it is eternally interesting for me as a non-expert politician to absorb and understand the vast rainbow of well-argued presentations, with industry leaders at one end of the spectrum and the welfare state (for want of a better word) at the other.

It is in this context, that, as a citizen, I feel that “inclusive growth”, as conceptualised and propagated by the Congress Party and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, is the best possible model for our country. And my emphasis would be more on aspects of inclusion — where could we tilt more towards making greater inclusion possible, while making decisions on policy issues.
Inclusion is one of the buzzwords of our times. Inclusive growth is both a national necessity and an abiding principle with the UPA government. In fact, the Indian exposition at the World Economic Forum in Davos was titled “India Inclusive”. This was not just clever wordplay; but a pointer to the sort of economic growth India needs and the philosophy of the UPA government.
Inclusion is a noun that can be suffixed to create a variety of adjectives. We can have financial inclusion, educational inclusion, knowledge inclusion, gender inclusion and, of course, political inclusion. Yet, we must recall what Jawaharlal Nehru said in his remarkable, iconic and never-to-be-forgotten “Tryst with destiny” speech on the midnight of August 15, 1947: “Peace has been said to be indivisible; so is freedom, so is prosperity now, and so also is disaster in this one world that can no longer be split into isolated fragments”.
Inclusion, too, is one of those indivisible phenomena. No one type of inclusion can be seen in isolation. Social inclusion inevitably leads to political inclusion. Political inclusion inevitably leads to economic inclusion. Economic inclusion inevitably leads to financial inclusion. Therefore, the challenge before us is simple: How soon and how quickly can we expand the “inclusion” universe?
In focusing on inclusion, we are not undertaking an act of charity. Frankly, to debate inclusion is not an option for our country — it is our only way. The alternative is not just a brutal, unequal and fundamentally unfair society, but also a potentially combustible one.
In today’s India, wealth is being created at a scorching pace. The number of dollar-denominated millionaires has gone up by almost 50 per cent. According to a Merrill Lynch report, high networth individuals (HNIs) rose from 84,000 in 2008 to 1,27,000 in 2009.
Yet, this is also the land of acute poverty. This country has 700 million mobile phone connections and, as per even the most optimistic estimates, only 400 million personal bank accounts. Indeed, less than 100 million Indians — under 10 per cent of the population — have PAN cards. These people have names, not identities. They have no ID proof; they are not treated as human beings, but as statistics. They are not among the “included”.
For everything that is true of India, the opposite is also true. And so it is with inclusion. Each one of us, in some deep-seated and strongly-felt sense, feels he or she is a victim of non-inclusion. The villager who gravitates towards the Maoist slogan; the poor, desperate person from a remote village who migrates to the teeming misery of urban life in a faraway city just to earn a living; the ordinary middle-class wage earner who walks outside a glitzy shopping mall but dare not go in; the “outsider” who feels unwanted in some religious or community ghetto; the business tycoon in the political hothouse of Delhi; the Dalit avoiding those uncomfortable upper caste stares in the village temple; the elderly — each has his or her own idea of inclusion and its absence.
Yet there is one cross-cutting theme to the non-inclusion story — that of gender. In all the examples I have cited, a woman would be doubly excluded. She would feel an absence of inclusion due to class, caste, identity, social status, relocation. And she would feel a second absence of inclusion due to her gender. In a sense, the Indian woman is twice scorned.
Where do the solutions lie to this and other forms of exclusion? We have learnt for over 60 years that they do not lie in the exclusive domain of the government and the law. India has one of the world’s finest corpus of legal statutes and constitutionally-guaranteed rights and freedoms. We have made much progress in these decades in increasing opportunities for more and more of our fellow citizens and in enlarging the inclusion cake. Yet, surely, that is not all?
Inclusion will remain a legal text and a national aspiration and a little more unless it is embraced by civil society and the private sector. Already, the biggest effort is coming from and is going to continue to come from the civil society. India has among the largest, the most extensive and most vigorous networks of civil society organisations in the world. The role of NGOs in incubating self-help groups (SHGs) and community-based organisations (CBOs) is well known. SHGs and CBOs are invaluable tools for a variety of inclusions.
Civil society plays its role, but what about the private sector? Inclusion may be too abstract and intangible an expression for most pragmatic businesspersons to wrestle with. Perhaps, they would be better served contemplating inclusion’s first cousin, its synonym: diversity. Does the workplace employ tens and hundreds of people of the same community, caste, state, religion and — dare I say it — gender? Or is it truly diverse?
Empirical evidence establishes that workplaces and business corporations that practice diversity — that are inclusive, in that they are identity-neutral when they recruit — are more innovative, have more motivated employees and move ahead faster than their peers and rivals.
The idea of inclusion has got to be adopted not just by the Indian state, but by Indian business as well. The idea of inclusion is the idea of diversity. It is an idea whose time has come.

Jayanthi Natarajan is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha and AICC spokesperson.
The views expressed in this column are her own.

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