India 2020: A Vision for the New Millennium
by A.P.J. Abdul Kalam with Y.R. Rajan
Penguin Books, New Delhi, 1998
pp xvi+312, INR 395
ISBN 0 670 88271 2
Because Kalam’s solution is a hammer, all problems have been reduced to nails.
Everyone has a legitimate right to frame their own vision about the world and society. But when a vision construed through personal predilection is presented as ideology, problems emerge. This is even more so when a missile scientist prescribes his worldview as a socio-political panacea. India 2020: A Vision for the New Millennium, the book presented by Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam (of Pokharan II fame) with Y.S. Rajan, fits into this category. The author draws heavily upon the India 2020 Vision Report prepared under the aegis of TIFAC (Technology Information Forecasting and Assessment Council) between 1993 and 1996, in which Rajan was actively involved. The TIFAC report included eight themes: food, agriculture and processing, materials and the future, chemical industries and biological wealth, strategic industries, health care for all, and the enabling infrastructure, and these form the main chapters of the book.
India 2020: A Vision for the New Millennium, the book presented by Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam (of Pokharan II fame) with Y.S. Rajan, fits into this category. The author draws heavily upon the India 2020 Vision Report prepared under the aegis of TIFAC (Technology Information Forecasting and Assessment Council) between 1993 and 1996, in which Rajan was actively involved. The TIFAC report included eight themes: food, agriculture and processing, materials and the future, chemical industries and biological wealth, strategic industries, health care for all, and the enabling infrastructure, and these form the main chapters of the book.
India 2020 presents an image of an India that operates in the world arena from a position of strength, taking advantage of expressways, multi-modal transport networks, efficient navigation, modern factories, petroleum dumps, marshalling yards, nuclear power stations, and a secure population. The quest for this image is understandable had it not been for the militaristic path sought as the means to that end. For, the bottomline solution offered in order to reach the ‘developed’ stage is by acquiring competence in defence and related core areas.
With its subtle and oft-repeated assertions, the book attempts to demonstrate the indispensability of laboratory establishments not just in defence-related decisions but by extension in all aspects of civic life, society and the body politic. The nation-state remains sacrosanct, and under its rubric the vision is to homogenise the diverse and asymmetrical social and economic contexts into a ‘market’ of more than one billion citizens.
In Kalam’s view, an array of military paraphernalia, including the Prithvi, Nag and Agni missile systems, will help maintain the necessary security shield for the newly acquired prosperity. “Possession and deployment of a large number of Prithvi Missiles can act as a deterrent and prevent a missile attack from our adversaries.” This is plain posturing since the authors do not rule out war. The very next paragraph begins: “In case of war, the powerful explosive and high accuracy of the Prithvi Missile has enormous potential to bring life to a stand still in cities and urban areas to affect the morale of the enemy.”
With a battery of missiles targeted at them, what will the adversaries do? They will do exactly the same, set up their own array. The outcome is the archetypal vicious circle. One takes the first step, the other mimics it, the first takes another step, the second copies that too, and so on. Where and when will such madness end? Cities and citizens are synonymous, and to contemplate the implication of the language used in a text about a vision for the future (“bring life to a stand still”, meaning annihilation) is appalling.
The section on water and rivers is the weakest in the book, the thrust of which is modern inland navigation. The recommendation to network rivers from regions with excess water to those with deficits in order to bring about water security is a poor caricature of the proposal to divert Himalayan rivers to link canals. The impending South Asian water crises is all about lack of data, inefficient uses, declining quality and inequity, all of which are mentioned in the book. But the argument runs that continued augmentation will automatically bring about the required changes.
In order to create wealth and ensure a national march “towards developed country status” by sharing the largesse ensuing from networking of rivers, the author advises citizens to transcend emotional and political issues involved (read high social and environmental costs). In South Asia those who have demonstrated magnanimity so far are individuals in the social and economic margins, the uneducated, the dispossessed, the tribals and the ‘low caste’ groups. The repeated sacrifice that is demanded of them is not coincidental, but instead an unavoidable outcome of the chosen path to modernity. The military-industrial culture would guzzle up more fresh water and further aggravate the problem.
Because the solution sought by Kalam is a hammer, all problems have been reduced to nails. All solutions exist in the laboratory and related institutions. Some case studies make fascinating reading. The drdo (Defence Research and Development Organisation) in Assam, which is devoted to preventing malaria and its treatment in order to keep the armed forces healthy, has also helped the ordinary citizen to be free of malaria, writes Kalam. drdo has also developed a desalination process that can make brackish water potable and Rajasthani villagers are jubilant because their water problem has been solved.
Of course, Kalam does not mention what the cost of producing water thus was or whether the experiment has a wider use. The fact that specific innovations are needed is not in question, Kalam’s seeking all solutions within the military-industrial complex is—especially when he himself recognises existing “systems of governance and social and political compulsions”.
The section on energy presents a candid and realistic assessment of the problems, which include low-end use inefficiency, high transmission and distribution losses, high pilferage and the poor performance of State Electricity Boards (sebs). As with the rest of his themes, however, Kalam’s prescription for change—technological innovations—is flawed. For example, a one line reference to reform of the sebs—reform to generate energy from within and make the supply utilities financially viable—overlooks the reality that such processes simply don’t work because incentives for change are hamstrung by entrenched incentives for non-efficiency.
Kalam’s citizens are atomised individuals guided only by a desire to consume, and who, he believes, will unquestioningly subscribe to his thesis. Consequently, the author advocates consumption through extraction (emphasis added) of the region’s biological wealth, rather than harness it. If consumption were a universally accepted ideology, as Kalam implies, Mohandas Karam chand Gandhi would not have shed his clothes, started dandi marches, and achieved swaraj, and in recent times India would not have the Bahugunas, the Patkars, the Hazares, the Swami Bhai Antalas and others, who nurture the ethics of frugality.
The formulation of India 2020 overlooks the history of the introduction of modern technology to South Asia, and how the process of colonisation damaged the spirit of communitarianism as well as indigenous wisdom and local institutions. Technology bereft of a social carrier tramples human values. India’s modern development history has enough evidence of such trampling, which has caused immense pain and destitution to a large section of its population. Indiscriminate embankment building, which results in drainage congestion and water logging, for example, has totally ruined the lives of millions of farmers in North Bihar, but that is a fact largely ignored by the Indian mainstream.
Because the author, together with his team, could achieve so much in the laboratory—they made the Bomb, after all—Kalam contends that his model can be replicated in real life. Indeed, Kalam is in love with his new image, in several places in the book he quotes his own speeches. His theology, that the solution to all the ills that confront India is technological, is devoid of institutional and social counter balance. The assumption that technology is neutral and that the framework of a nation-state will take care of all issues related to society, institutions and governance is simplistic. Too simplistic, in fact, given that governance, and not technology, is the problem that India and the rest of South Asia face.