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Hope In The Wilderness

These are dismal times. From the COVID-19 pandemic that raged from the start of 2020 and is beginning to peter out only now, leaving a trail of illness and deaths not witnessed since the Spanish Flu more than a century ago, to the uncalled-for wars and conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East, society and politics are fractured and polarized all over the world today. And with supply chains disrupted, causing food shortages, job losses and inflationary spikes in far corners of the globe, including regions which were already poor and vulnerable, the global economy is in tatters, and on the brink of a recession.

It is easy to understand the sense of gloom and pessimism we see all around. Nevertheless, in a strange way, I feel optimistic. I am in Barandanga, a nondescript village in eastern India, in Purulia District of West Bengal, abutting the state of Jharkhand. This is a region of tribals–Santals, Murmus and Sabars–people who arrived in the Indian sub-continent, winding their way from Africa, much before the British and the Moghuls came, and also before the so-called Aryan invasion.  

I am here to spend a few days at the Filix School, and to visit the Lokeswarananda Eye Foundation, both run by two remarkable women who head the NGO called Nanritam. The aim of the school is to impart quality education to the children of the region. The students come from Barandanga, Para, Raghunathpur and other villages and small towns scattered over the district of Purulia. They learn mathematics, science, literature, using latest techniques, some of them introduced by teachers who were brought here from Finland. The medium of instruction is English to help children go to colleges and get jobs anywhere in the world.

What makes me optimistic is the progressive ethos of the place. Children of all major religions of India mingle and play and learn, respecting their differences but sharing a human warmth and friendship which is visible to all. It is heartening to hear young schoolgirls, Hindus, Muslims and Christians, speak about gender equality and the need for women’s liberation. Boys and girls are taught to question their teachers and debate with them. To experience this over several days, as I have just done, is a reminder of what is possible. It is this questioning mind, nurtured from even before the nation’s independence, that led many Indian citizens, from C. V. Raman to Amartya Sen, to win the Nobel Prize.

Purulia gives me hope because it makes me feel that we can turn back from the regression and divisiveness that plagues the world today to the path of secularism and inclusion, to creativity and questioning.

In many ways, the school mirrors the idea of India. Right from the time of independence, India invested in democracy, free speech, independent media, and equal rights for all citizens. Many newly independent nations, including Indonesia, Pakistan, Ghana, and Tanzania, tried this. But coups, chaos, and the craving for power caused these progressive institutions to collapse. India was the exception, and it was globally respected for this. This was an achievement not just of political leaders, like Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru, and Ambedkar, but of progressive writers and thinkers, like Rabindranath Tagore, Periyar E.V. Ramaswamy, and Sarojini Naidu.

One notable feature of India was that it invested in political institutions right from the time of its independence. What is interesting is that this began to payoff also for the economy, which picked up steam from the early 1990s and was growing above 8% per annum from 2004. It is regrettable that some of these institutions have regressed in recent years, and society has got divided with an erosion of trust across different groups.

Sitting in Purulia, with flowers in bloom, leafy green palash trees all around, and a school in a poor remote village, committed to openness and a culture of questioning, I feel optimistic that India will have the wisdom to remain on the path it chose at the time of its independence, a path that eventually put India’s economy on a sustainable growth trajectory, and gave the nation a special standing on the global stage. 

About the author: Kaushik Basu is Professor of Economics and Carl Marks Professor of International Studies at Cornell University; and former Chief Economic Adviser to the Government of India, and Chief Economist of The World Bank

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