We are taught about the struggle for independence – championed by our great freedom fighters and supported by an awakened India. But the struggle our nation went through to stand back on its feet after gaining independence is rarely discussed.
The period from 1950 to 1991 was both tough as well as influential period for the then young India. In fact, it is this period which shaped our social mindset and led to the evolution of the economic condition of the country.
But to understand how all of this shaped India, we need to do a thorough introspection of our nation’s recent history; we have to travel right back to the time when our parents (the Generation X, which refers to people born between 1950s and 1970s) were young. We need to scrutinize every national catastrophe they faced, which may have left a significant mental impression on them.
How did we become corrupt?
The first general election brought, not unexpectedly, Jawaharlal Nehru to power at the center. As the first Prime Minister of independent India, the onus was on him to chalk out an economic model for the country. Nehru was of the opinion that private companies always prioritized profit over national interests and hence despised the private sector.
One of the first things he did was to bring all the heavy industries under government control (coal, mining, steel, machinery, infrastructure and so on). Next, all the small scale industries (and private companies) were licensed and hence came indirectly under government control. Nehru assumed that the government knew how much of a product a customer would need every day, and calculated the quantity of product usage for the nation accordingly. This quantity was licensed accordingly to private companies, and no company was allowed to manufacture more than what it was granted the license for.
This economic model which was based on licensing was bitterly criticized by eminent leaders such as C. Rajagopalachari, who even went to the extent of coining a phrase for it: License Raj.
For booking items such as a scooter, there was a waiting time of 2-5 years due to imbalance between supply and demand. The policies were not changed even though the government was well aware of the situation it was creating.
Since such a system suppressed productivity and competition, there was no incentive for improvement nor innovation which in turn led to shoddy and unreliable products. Apart from the limitation on productivity, such a centrally planned economic model involved lots of approvals passing through several layers of bureaucracy.
Such licensing rules were not only absurd but impractical too. Indians were forced to work around the system by unethical means which led to corruption creeping in.
Let me explain it by using a simple illustration. You apply for a license to start a fruit juice company and simultaneously apply for approval to import a machine to produce fruit juice. As per the then government rules, you are allowed to import a juice machine costing a maximum of Rs.25,000 but unfortunately, the price of such a machine actually starts from Rs.50,000 and goes up to Rs.1 lakh depending on quality. So what are you supposed to do now? Simple. Either bribe the bureaucrat who will allow you to violate the rule or quote a false invoice, which is unethical, but the only option if you are against bribe. Either ways, you are forced to follow a corrupt method due to the system.
Then another ‘great leader’ was elected , Indira Gandhi , who made statements like these:
Indira Gandhi not only continued this closed economic model (although it had become pretty clear by then that such a model was not in the interest of the nation and actually favored politicians and bureaucrats rather than the common man) but also strengthened it further by imposing much severe regulations and restrictions which pushed India into economic dark age leading to an increase in corruption.
Living in a country where even the head of a government endorsed corruption resulted in a domino effect on the minds of Gen X.
The entrepreneurial struggle and inception of brain drain
For teens in India of that era, economic options were limited because of the sluggish economy. Personal options were heavily influenced by the family, group, or caste into which one was born. For those who were able, success was linked with getting out of India to obtain higher education and work in the UK or the US.
Even today, we get to hear that India does not offer the right opportunities for specialization. It was even worse four decades ago. PhD holders who needed employment in research institutes probably had a tougher time because of a lack of such institutions in India.
And what about entrepreneurs? They had a market of around 70 crore people, something that nobody would like to ignore! But instead of going to a foreign land and toiling hard to become entrepreneurs, why did they not remain in India and do the same here? After all, India being a developing nation could have provided them a chance to experiment as well as capture a huge market share.
It is easy to say that they were greedy or that they did not care for the country and fled to the US for greener pastures. But the real reason lies in the political and economic system.
This snapshot of the 1974 budget might give us some hints. During Indira Gandhi’s rule in 1970s, income tax was at an all time high with the top slab having a tax rate of 97.75 percent.
If you were an entrepreneur and wanted to set up a business , would you be fine with doing business in such an economic condition? After a certain slab, for every profit of Rs.100 you made, you were supposed to part with Rs.97.75 and keep only Rs.2.25 for yourself. Would there be any incentive for you to work hard after you reach a certain profit level since anything you earn after that will not come to you anyway?
Where would Dr. Har Gobind Khorana be had he stayed in India? He would have probably ended up as a professor in one of our universities, checking practical copies and complaining about “the system” for not giving sufficient funds for a project. He is just one example of the brain drain. There are many more like Abdus Salam and Sundar Pichai.
Although the current generation has the necessary entrepreneurial spirit, Gen X is skeptic of this trend and worries about the instability and the risks involved.
Economic Crisis of 1991 and the ‘need for security’
India depended on the Soviet Union as a market for exports – as we failed to develop good economic relationships with the US and Western Europe (why?). But in late 1980s, Soviet Union started to crack and by 1991 they had split into 15 nations (Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, etc). Now, India had a major problem because our primary buyer was in turmoil. Exports were down significantly.
Meanwhile the US-Iraq war in early 1991 set oil fields on fire and ships found it hard to reach the Persian Gulf. Iraq and Kuwait were our big suppliers of oil. The war led to the destruction of our oil imports and the prices shot up substantially – doubling in a few months.
Thus 1991 was the year of the perfect storm. On the one hand our primary buyer was gone while on the other hand our primary sellers were in war. In the middle, our production was effectively stopped by political crisis. We were running out of dollars to buy essential items such as crude oil and food from the rest of the world. This is called a ‘Balance of Payments Crisis’ – meaning India’s exports were significantly less than imports.
The Indian Emergency had left the Gen X with skepticism. By 1985, India had started having balance of payments problems. By the end of 1990, India was in a serious economic crisis.
Bollywood tells the truth
A quick analysis of Bollywood movies can reveal the mindset of the then era. The plot give a general census of what the hopes and aspirations of the population of the time were. Most movies generally like to deliver what the audience wants and thus the main reason for a shift in the plot is a reflection in the shift in the mindset of the audiences.
From 1940s till the early 1960s, critically acclaimed movies such as ‘Shree 420’ (1955) and ‘Mother India’ (1957), to name a few, were made. We may call this the first phase of cinematic evolution.
The movies made in this period revolved around the common man, who faced various struggles in life, which the audience could relate to. This protagonist was often depicted as someone who emerged as a man with the right morals despite hardships. The stories presented the protagonist as a poor man who initially wavered from his path (mainly due to greed and success) but finally realized his mistakes and became a better person by overcoming his troubles in a just manner. It was the time when a majority of the population was poor but morals were still upheld.
The second phase is the phase from late 1960s to the early 1980s. This phase saw a distinctive shift in the general storyline of the movies.
The movies were more action-based or romantic in nature. Violence became an integral part of the movies, and a lot of emphasis was given on villains, who were basically depicted as underworld mafias. The image of the ‘angry young man’, a brooding hero who was very good at delivering his punches and kicks, was introduced in this period. He would destroy the villains and win the lady’s heart in the end. So basically, this period was when the seed of ‘aspiration’ began to bloom in Gen X. They idolized an individualistic protagonist who would fight against all the odds to obtain what he desired.
Now that the economy is relevantly stable and the middle class has expanded, movies have become a source of ‘unnecessary inspiration’. We’ve all been raised to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, movie gods or rock stars, especially because of reality TV. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact! Now the fight is not against poverty or oppressive circumstances; it is in fact against the protagonist’s own mind, his own aspirations and self-created illusions.
What the ghost is up to now
Now the economy is relatively stable and quality of life has increased comparatively. But we Indians do not feel the freedom we should feel – freedom in its absolute form. This is because the ghost is still looming large. In spite of the economic security, the ghost is impatient and has now found a new fruit for itself – greed. The need for security has taken the form of greed!
Greed is the Primary Driving Force
For a long time Indians have remained deprived of freedom and opportunity. The causes of deprivation aside, the end result is a constant urge to be better. Expectations were set based on comparative analysis with others. So the major sources of these aspirations are coming from the social circles. They basically try to imitate any aspect of their friends’ life that they think is good. (Yup, that monkey from which we have evolved still lives in us!)
Take a look at how the spending on luxury items have increased in just one year!
Opening up of the economy has opened the floodgates of opportunity to make more money. Hunger is still the problem for a significant population but for others, even hunger of the downtrodden is yet another opportunity to make money. Greed with lack of patience and industry now gives rise to crime. This probably is the price we have to pay for the improvements we saw in the last few years.
In a report titled ‘The State of Food Insecurity in the World Food’, the Agriculture Organization of the United Nations commented on an overlooked fact about the economic growth in India:
“Higher economic growth has not been fully translated into higher food consumption, let alone better diets overall, suggesting that the poor and hungry may have failed to benefit much from overall growth.”
What the current generation wants
The parents of the current generation raised their children with a sense of optimism and unbounded possibility. They told their kids that they could be whatever they want to be, instilling the special protagonist identity deep within their psyches.
This made the current generation feel tremendously hopeful about their careers, to the point where their parents’ goals of secure prosperity isn’t really the goal.
Ngram viewer is tool that shows how prominently a given phrase appears in English print over any period of time. A quick look reveals that the phrase “a secure career” has gone out of style, just as the phrase “a fulfilling career” has become hot.
This indicates a shift in the conventional thinking. This shift is also accompanied with mental agony, which is the state of youth today. The growth in consumption of luxury goods can also indicate the process of masking these feelings, with changes in lifestyle.
The battle of the youth against society rages on, as does the battle of generations. According to the Youth Survey 2016 conducted by HT and MaRS Monitoring and Research Systems, an overwhelming 84.1% of the men said they want to rebel against society. The women are not to be left behind: 80.8% said they want to break out and rebel.
The survey covered 5,200 respondents, equally divided among men and women, half of them in the 18-21 age group and the other half in 22-25. The respondents were from 15 state capitals and major towns, living in households with televisions, refrigerators, washing machines, computers, and either a car or a two-wheeler. They were either undergraduate students or higher, or employed with at least a bachelors degree. They regularly used the internet, mobile phones, and social networking sites.
The respondents are not rebels without a cause. The largest number among them – nearly half of both men and women – believe there are too many rules that curb their freedom. More than half from each gender – 54.1% men and 56.3% women — think of society as someone to either compete with or ignore.
Optimism is not running high. A high percentage of men and a higher percentage of women – 62.8% and 66.1%, respectively – have no hope from this country.
The vicious cycle this world is stuck in
This generation tries to find a solution in everything material and ends up turning it into a problem for themselves. They strive to become the idea of an ideal life that has been ingrained into their heads. They work for a high-paying job and a family to come home to only to feel trapped by their creations in the end. The job and the family itself becomes the major source of stress in their lives. To tackle this, they may go on a vacation to spend the money they have earned with the family they have raised to search for the peace they have always longed for only to realize that every solution is transient.
Years and years of swinging between the left and right, yes and no, right and wrong hasn’t really changed anything. Scrambling for security has never brought anything but momentary joy. People keep moving around seeking pleasure and comfort, but the satisfaction that they get is very short-lived.
When nothing works, man puts all his hopes and aspirations onto his progeny only to set him up for the same cyclic pattern he has lived. It’s the human pattern: we project onto the world a zillion possibilities of attaining resolution. We can have whiter teeth, a weed-free lawn, a strife-free life, a world without embarrassment. We can live happily ever after. This pattern keeps us dissatisfied and causes us a lot of suffering.
Although there is no panacea to this age-old human condition, work has to be done to improve the world that is inside and not the outside world where control is just an illusion. Real control comes from accepting your situation and the fact that you ‘suck’, but only according to the expectations in your mind.