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Rahul Jacob: The inspiring Kumbh lesson

Rahul Jacob  |  New Delhi 

Rahul Jacob

On Monday, researchers from Harvard University hosted a panel discussion in New Delhi on the lessons learned from the Kumbh Mela of 2013. In terms of footfall, this was the biggest congregation ever with as many as 120 million visiting. The pictures of rows of neatly laid out tents looked like the ultimate smart city at night, especially considering they had plumbing and electricity. On stage, Jawed Usmani, the former chief secretary of Uttar Pradesh, paid tribute to the work of the police and to his fellow civil servants and to the courtesy extended to his wife and him when he visited the different akharas at the mela. The inspector general of the Meerut police, Alok Sharma, who worked with Mr Usmani, will travel soon on vacation to Nashik, which hosts a Kumbh Mela soon. Satchit Balsari, a doctor who was part of the Harvard University team, marveled at the fact that no epidemics broke out during the Kumbh. Doctors had dispensed Crocins and a few antibiotics - nothing more than what had been distributed during "the London Olympics," Mr Balsari said. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav spoke self-deprecatingly of being asked to visit the police who had worked so hard to keep order and being moved by their request for a jacket to ward off the winter cold.

The sense of camaraderie and team spirit aside, the bureaucracy's work sounded so efficient that I began to feel like I was listening to a presentation in China about a city coming up at lightning speed. Mr Usmani said the government had used district magistrates' orders to force factories to shut down on certain days so that the effluents into the river where the pilgrims bathed could be kept under control. Similar injunctions were used in China to shut factories ahead of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 to give the city less polluted air. A few of us speaking after the inspiring presentation couldn't help wondering why the experience of the Kumbh Mela in 2013 could not be carried over to government programmes such as Swachh Bharat. Even the pilgrims departing left behind just a few rectangles of woven rattan matting and not the garbage one might have expected. Yes, more than 30 pilgrims died in a stampede at Allahabad station after a railing collapsed, but the management of the Kumbh itself was an extraordinary success.

From the need for rapid job creation at a rate of 12 million a year to water conservation on an emergency basis to the devastation of climate change, India confronts challenges in slow motion that are not unlike managing the Kumbh Mela. It will need a bureaucracy as galvanised as two years ago in UP to ensure that things go smoothly. A sense of urgency is needed; in India, alas, that usually only comes from a crisis such as 1991 or the prospect of one such as at the Kumbh.

Instead, next year (or even this year given the slowdown in China's export markets and decline in capital investment and the sharp fall in its stock markets) will mark the first full year that India's GDP growth rate will exceed China's. Ahead of this milestone, our business press has sounded like a huckster, headlining every projection of this kind by Moody's or the Asian Development Bank.

And yet, China's per capita income last year was $7,593 with India's just $1,630 - a level, in fact, that China surpassed in 2005. In this "rivalry", China is so many laps ahead that the time-keeper has long since retired. The distance between the two countries is magnified when one moves from yardsticks such as GDP (China is a $10 trillion economy to India's $2 trillion) to human development indicators. Consider that India's life expectancy in 2013 is what China's was in 1978, just when the late Deng Xiaoping began market reforms in Guangdong, its southernmost province. China's infant mortality rate in 1990 was equivalent to India's in 2013. We now trail Bangladesh on some of these indicators.

Instead of 2016 being heralded as the year in which India "caught up" with China, it should be a reminder of how far behind much of the developing world India is. There are more malnourished children in India - just under 30 per cent of children under five in India are severely malnourished - than in sub-Saharan Africa. (The corresponding figure for China is three per cent.) The combination of poor nutrition and poor education contributes to Indian students faring very poorly in international tests. The Indian government picked students from Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh for the test a few years ago, but they finished second last among 73 nations. Students from the Chinese city of Shanghai finished first. India, wisely perhaps, declined to participate in the 2015 assessment.

The move by the government this week to raise public investment to 2.5 per cent of GDP by 2020 from a disgraceful 1.04 per cent is to be applauded. This beginning of a turnaround in the health ministry is being attributed in part to an energetic new secretary replacing an underwhelming one.

Listening to the applause on Monday evening for Mr Usmani, a member of the prime minister's office before he moved to Lucknow, one could not help wishing that such able civil servants could be plucked out of retirement to galvanise, say, the effort to clean the Ganga. The youthful Amitabh Kant hits retirement age next year, seemingly just as the effort to bring more foreign investment into manufacturing gathers speed. And why stop at just the bureaucracy? Nandan Nilekani, Narayana Murthy and Azim Premji all have original thoughts on improving education and innovation. Surely including retired senior executives would increase the gene pool for regulators. If Team India's team were widely representative, there is chance we could achieve the seemingly impossible (just as at the Kumbh two years ago) and turn the Titanic around.

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First Published: Wed, August 19 2015. 21:46 IST