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Six Years Of B&E: Six Defining Trends
Issue Date - 21/07/2011
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It was a truly scorching night in June 2005, when we packed up the first issue of Business & Economy at around 5 in the morning. For months before that, I (a lapsed, failed, retired and or obsolete journalist in my own opinion!) had encountered sniggers from the extremely tenuous contacts I still had in the community of journalists about the imminent collapse of the yet to be launched business magazine. It is about 5.30 AM now in the third week of June 2011, as I am writing this piece and thundershowers of the previous night have triggered a soothing breeze. Six tumultuous years later, do allow me the privilege of just a wee bit of chest-thumping. I know it sounds mean, but nobody can stop me from crowing about the fact that many of those who sniggered at the ability of my Editor- in-Chief Arindam to launch even one magazine, now directly or indirectly, sound me out for a position in Planman Media which is growing at a scorching pace! It is a truly mad, mad world, isn't it?! Many have asked me how we have survived and then thrived against all odds. I believe the answer is simple: We have always called a spade a spade, and are definitely the first business magazine that dared to ruthlessly criticise corporate icons and titans if we were convinced they were wrong. Of course, we have also praised many of them along the way! And then again, we at B&E have always tried our best never to lose sight of the big picture.

Enough of self congratulatory chest-thumping. What I really want to share with you all is in my unarguably prejudiced opinion the six big emerging trends that could have a decisive impact on the future of India. Some of these trends make me feel proud as an Indian and marvel at how we cannot possibly be a genuine superpower a few decades down the road. Some make me cringe in despair and wonder if India can ever throw off the tag of being a third-rate Third World country. For better or worse, here are the trends that I have discerned as a semi-optimistic hack who constantly fights cynicism!

Entrepreneurship: I know you will say that the entrepreneurial animal inside India was unleashed way back in 1991. But do think a little about it and look at the number of new companies and brands that have exploded across sectors and verticals in the last six years. I will just point out one example to prove my point. One of the first corporate stories we did (and our marketing and ad sales guys still curse us for it!) was on Nokia. Back then, 3 out of every 4 handsets sold in India was a Nokia. We relied on simple common sense and wrote that such a monopoly cannot be sustained and that Nokia would face massive competition. Just look at the number of nimble entrepreneurs who have relentlessly savaged and ravaged the market share of Nokia. Literally hundreds of thousands of such entrepreneurs have bloomed across India in the last six years. And I am not talking of the usual suspects who make it to the annual Forbes list of billionaires. The amazing thing is: these entrepreneurs are succeeding despite a hostile and rent-seeking business environment.

Connectivity: Not just the last six years, but the mobile phone is one of the most powerful successful stories of India in the last 60 years. Back when we launched, we did a policy story on the obstacles that could prevent India from creating 200 million mobile subscribers. I am actually happy we were wrong. India now has more than 700 million mobile subscribers and is adding about 10 million every month. India also boasts of the lowest tariffs, though service quality does make you weep most often. But then, that kind of incredible growth has to come with glitches, if you look at the big picture. Internet connectivity has not kept pace and India has just about 20 million active connections though a far larger number access the net through cyber cafes. But I have no doubt that this will change in the next six years and the number of Internet connections will also explode. I need not elaborate on how this is empowering the most hoodwinked section of India, the aam aadmi!

Activism: This is one oasis in the barren, gloomy and foreboding landscape of governance in India. You could say activism in India dates back to the days when the likes of Raja Rammohan Roy and Ishwar Chandler Vidyasagar did their historic bit. But actually the passing of the Right to Information Act (arguably one of the best policy initiatives of the UPA regime) has almost opened the floodgates of activism in India. Activism is no longer just a romantic and quixotic tilt at the establishment. It is now becoming a powerful force and a movement that the ruling class is finding impossible to ignore. It could be Anna Hazare and his team fighting for a strong Lok Pal Bill to tackle corruption; it could even be an obscure and unknown schoolgirl in Uttar Pradesh who filed an RTI application to know what happened to the funds that were allocated for building toilets in her school. The fact is: activism is now an unstoppable force. In the Alternative Budget that he presents every year, my Editor-in-Chief Arindam has repeatedly argued for huge funds to be allocated to publicise RTI. But there is also a downside to this: genuine and purposeful activism is still limited and the vast majority of middle and upper-middle class Indians prefer the armchair variety. They never vote, they brazenly violate traffic rules, they routinely pay bribes and then pass sweeping judgements on everything.

Demographic Disaster: I hate to, but there is no choice but to highlight the three trends that could destroy the future of India. I would like to call the first one the demographic disaster, a sort of take on the demographic dividend that everyone loves to talk about. The fact is, despite tall promises and massive allocations in successive budgets over the last six years, the process of abdication by the State of providing basic education and healthcare has actually accelerated. Quite simply, you will get a demographic disaster instead of a demographic dividend if the vast majority of young Indians join the labour force as uneducated, unskilled, unhealthy and unemployable citizens. India continues to languish at the bottom in the Human Development Index and worse, the malnutrition, child and maternal mortality rates and literacy rates in vast swathes of the country are more appalling than those found in Ethiopia and Haiti. One of the most talked about alternative budgets presented by my Editor-in-Chief was the one he coined as 'A Budget for Three Idiots' in 2010. Behind the catchy slogan lay the grim reality of how dysfunctional the education system in India is. There is no way we can be a power that the world respects, where more than 400 million cannot even read and write. I am afraid I see no visible signs of dramatic improvement on this front. Incremental progress will not help; it will mean India will miss the bus yet again.
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