August 31, 1998

By Garry Jacobs

Each time I return to India after an interval of 6-12 months, I am surprised by the visible signs of further progress. But when I recall conditions in India at the time of my first visit nearly 30 years ago, the contrast is truly astonishing. Changes that are so dramatic to me are largely lost on my Indian friends and associates for one of several reasons – either because they were too young to recall how things used to be, or because the changes come so gradually that they take them for granted or because they compare India today with more economically advanced nations, rather than with what it used to be.

I can recall a time when it took three days to get a phone call through from India to the US and sometimes half a day to get one through across Delhi, when the national highways were glorified village roads, when an Indian razor blade was more apt to remove the skin than the beard, when rice milling and starch making were the major industries in many districts, when choosing which car to buy was a simple question of large or small and many of them needed their engines rebuilt within three months of purchase, when bus travel from the village to the city was considered a once-in-a-lifetime thrill, when there were fewer medical shops in a district than there are sugar mills today, when TVs and refrigerators were only for the rich, when the loin cloth was standard dress among village men and the sari blouse and flowers in the hair were considered luxuries for women, when concrete houses were rare in most villages, when one meal a day was standard fare for many and tea or coffee were considered delicacies.

By contrast, today I feel frustrated if a call back home to America does not go through the first time I dial. STD booths have become as common as tea stalls used to be. Computer training schools are ubiquitous and it seems that every fourth student I meet is studying computer and planning to work overseas. It is rare today to find a village man who does not wear a clean shirt when he is not working on the field. Three meals a day along with tea or coffee, curd and sweets have become the norm for most people. The grass hut is gradually disappearing and may soon become a museum piece. Medical shops have sprouted up on every block. A burgeoning variety of Indian cars, motorscooters and electronic goods are being exported to the West. As many buses ply between Pondicherry and Madras every hour as used to go in a day.

Key to growth

These observations give rise to some perplexing questions: Where has all this prosperity come from? How has it been created? What factors are responsible? I have read and heard all the standard answers without finding any of them very satisfying. Government, the five year plans, foreign technology and investment, liberalization and several other factors claim credit for India’s progress, but I am not convinced. Sure, Government has done a lot. Without it the Green Revolution may never have come to India, but it is not the government that raised foodgrain production from 50 million tons to 200 million, it is farmers. Sure, the induction of modern technology has contributed to industrial growth, but who or what made the induction and adoption of that technology possible?

This process of deduction leaves money as the most eligible claimant for the throne. But I find that suggestion amusing. Foreign investment has very little claim to fame, since the sum total of it all over the past five decades probably amounts to less than 1% of total investment. During the last six years, West Germany has invested more than $1.2 trillion—roughly 5 million crores—rebuilding East Germany and the primary result has been a rise in unemployment from zero to 25%! If money were the key, then what country could be doing better than Japan, which has about $8 trillion in personal savings, yet feels itself getting poorer by the day? In fact, I am unable to fathom why India should need any foreign investment at all, when it possesses enough wealth in the form of gold—more than $250 billion worth— to build power plants, modern roads, first rate schools, and everything else it needs several times over. India has all the money it needs, but what seems missing is only the confidence and will to invest it.

My own conviction is that neither government nor technology nor money or any other economic factor is sufficient to explain what is going on in India today or what will happen in the future. The real source of India’s impressive achievements up to now and the key to its future greatness is human choice. It is the choice of people that makes a society prosperous, and today more and more Indians are making the right choice.

America’s Aspiration

Looking back on my own country I have come to the same conclusion. Contrary to popular conception, the USA has not been a prosperous nation for very long. At the turn of the 20th Century, hairpins, bicycles, horse shoes and the horse and buggy were the basis of the American economy. There were only 8000 cars and 10 miles of concrete road in the entire country. Life expectancy was less than 50 years. Typhoid and malaria were rampant. Telephones were a rarity. American homes and factories were lit by candles, lanterns and coal oil lamps. One power plant producing 5000 hp was the sole source of electricity for 76 million people.

What happened? The American people decided they wanted more. Around the turn of the century there was a marked change in people’s attitudes. Until then it had been common for people to compare their standard of living with what pertained in the past. By that standard of comparison the average person in 1900 seemed far richer in comforts and conveniences than George Washington, the wealthiest American of his own generation 120 years before. Instead the average person began comparing his present state with that of the wealthiest person of his own generation and found himself wanting. The ordinary American decided that he wanted as many conveniences as the benefits of modern technology could place at his disposal and he was willing to work as long and as hard as necessary in order to get them. Thus, when Henry Ford came up with the ludicrous notion of a car for the common man, the average man rushed out enthusiastically to buy it. Within a quarter century the car became a symbol of the common man’s aspiration for prosperity and there were 17 million cars of them on American roads. That is the power of human choice!

Traditional economics states that societies become wealthy because human beings increase their productivity, earn more and, therefore, are able to consume and enjoy more. But I have serious doubts about this hypothesis. I have seen too many people in both America and India who, when faced with abundant opportunities to learn, produce and earn more are simply not interested or willing for the effort. I have also seen countless instances in both countries of people who had the desire to consume and the willingness to work, but not the means, and yet were able through ingenuity and resourcefulness to produce and consume more. This lends credence to the old proverb, "Where there’s a will, there’s a way."

The human choice is primary, the means of satisfying it secondary. Government, technology, investment, infrastructure and many other factors are powerful aids to development, but they cannot substitute for the most fundamental of all conditions—human choice.

Power of Decision

The power of human choice is dramatically demonstrated by the Indian freedom movement. It was not the power of arms or revolution that drove the British out of India. It was the power of choice. When India’s leaders decided the country must be free and succeeded in convincing the people to will and work for it, there was no force on earth strong enough to keep the country under foreign rule. India was freed by the collective decision of its people.

Imperialism has given way to democracy. Freedom of choice for all is guaranteed by the constitution and laws of the land. But that does not mean everyone exercises that freedom or that they exercise it at the highest level for their own best interests. The government guarantees every child the right to education, but not all parents choose to send their child to school, not every child chooses to study hard, and not every student that studies chooses to think for themselves, which is the greatest benefit of education. Real education of the mind increases the range and quality of human choices, because it makes people more aware of the opportunities for advancement and it releases greater aspiration for individual progress.

India’s market economy provides people with a wide range of opportunities for employment. Until recently most liberal arts graduates sought jobs in government and most engineering graduates choose the security of salaried jobs over opportunities for self-employment. Now the balance is shifting in favor of jobs in private industry and entrepreneurship. Until recently many Indian consumers were willing to settle for substandard products and poor service. Now the consumer is more discriminating and more demanding. These choices are not just the results of increasing prosperity, they are the cause.

From poverty to prosperity

Many of the elder generation in India who participated in the country’s freedom struggle may not agree that the choices of youth these days are really a sign of progress. They can recall a time when patriotism, public service and self-sacrifice were the guiding ideals of the society. By comparison the pursuit of profit, higher salaries, and more conspicuous consumption appears selfish and degrading. This view is understandable and partially true. The idealism of selfless service may be the greatest goal that any society can pursue, but few societies are able to sustain such lofty goals, except under conditions when an enemy or natural calamity threatens the society’s survival and way of life. The call for Indian freedom against foreign rule was a condition that demanded the sacrifice of the individual for the liberty of the collective.

Conditions today are different. Let us not rush to condemn today’s youth. They are India’s future heroes. The war against an external enemy or foreign power can be waged on a common front by a portion of the population sacrificing itself for the good of the collective. But the war against poverty has to be fought by every Indian citizen in his or her own life. The choice needed today is not for mass boycott or protest. It is for individual initiative and accomplishment.

If every Indian citizen chooses to take full advantage of the enormous range of opportunities afforded by the current atmosphere of freedom—to learn, teach, think, invent, produce and achieve all that he or she is capable of—then poverty will soon be a thing of the past in this country. Eradication of poverty is a necessary achievement and the sooner the better. But it is far too limited and humble a goal for a great nation with such rich intellectual, social and natural resources. The best choice for India today is the choice for prosperity. That choice can abridge decades of progress into a few short years. The commitment of the individual and the collective to this choice will bring out the best in the nation and raise it to its rightful place at the head of the world community.