Where are the problem-solving citizens?

State, Market, Society
Last Updated 24 August 2019, 19:25 IST

Imagine you turn on the TV and see a news report about the economy. A million jobs could be lost in the automobile sector, you hear. The textile industry is starting to show signs of worry, too, and that’s even before the robots have started making clothes. This kind of worry is spreading across many industries, and all the time we’re adding to the numbers of people who need jobs. In short, there’s plenty to be anxious about, and do something quickly to set things right.

Now, imagine you flip to another channel. In it, some political leaders are busy changing parties, and some are forcibly deposited in resorts to keep them from the same. Some leaders are contesting elections from their jail cells, and others are headed to jail cells because they didn’t win the elections. And there are ten guys shouting all together, each more interested in being louder than the others, never mind what’s said.

Of these two, which would you pay more attention to? Would you be interested in the first channel telling you about efforts to improve the economy, or would you want to see who’s landing the next punch in the dishum-dishum show on the second channel?

The answer should be obvious. On one is a matter of great significance, calling for thoughtful leadership, creative solutions and diligent action by a wide range of people. The nataka on the other channel, in comparison, is getting too stale even to count as good entertainment; it’s simply the latest episode of Who Cares How This Ends, starring a forgettable cast that refuses to go away. Surely, you’d care more about the former, right?

As it turns out, no. Call it what you like, but there’s now little doubt that we’ve come to regard much of the serious work of developing the country as less important than being entertained. Making our schools better, ensuring healthcare for everyone, building roads that stay built, and pipes that deliver water to all homes -- these things aren’t even what we look for anymore. It’s WWF on a scale that is unimaginable, and yet very real.

Why? Is it indifference, even to our own fates? Or, is it helplessness that drives us to simply look away from the worries that engulf us?

A few weeks ago, on a podcast, I was asked what has changed in the last 15 years in the life of our nation. My answer: a lot of people have finally recognised that governments cannot on their own bring about the changes that we hope to see. They have neither the capacity, nor largely and apparently any intent to do that. But despite that realisation, we’re still left with two options, and those are the ones playing out on the two channels.

One set of people has concluded that they must get involved, roll up their sleeves and begin to do the arduous but necessary work of making things better. The State will still need to do its part, but this group recognises that society and markets, too, must play a role in development, and is starting to do that. But another set of people has come to a different conclusion from the same observations, and decided that if things aren’t going to get much better, they may as well take the entertainment on offer.

We’re used to seeing a lot of measures of development -- purchasing power, inflation, fertility rates, college enrolments, ease of doing business, etc. But there’s one we don’t see at all, which may matter more than anything else, and even be contributing to those others -- the number of informed, participating, problem-solving citizens.

When that number starts to rise noticeably, the nation’s tryst with destiny, promised all those decades ago, will appear on the horizon. The better show to watch on TV is the one in which you can see yourself, too, playing a role.

(Published 24 August 2019, 19:00 IST)

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