There is now so much visibility and noise revolving around cleanliness campaigns and waste management around the country. If it is the challenge of disposal as experienced by the residents of Bengaluru or the media hype around Swachh Bharat, one is indeed impressed by the mind space that this issue is now occupying. At the end of the day the question that one is left with is ‘Will all this truly make our country clean?’ One recent incident left me not only visibly disturbed but also aware of the enormity and complexity of the problem on hand. It was around 8 30 in the morning and I was on the way to my office. The huge metal container (Waste bin) that the City Corporation had put up on the street side was overflowing with stinking domestic waste. I found a young man standing inside the bin and sorting and picking waste that meant some ‘wealth’ to him. He was handing over his ‘selections’ to a child standing outside the bin. This boy was around 8-10 years old and eating out of what looked like a food parcel held in his right hand and receiving the assorted waste and filling up a sack that hung carelessly across his back.
As I looked at the young boy, I wondered whether he being there and leading this life was a mere accident of birth? Why was it that I was privileged to be in my place and not where he was? What made it different for me? Will this boy or his family’s economic mobility move him away from this waste bin to something better and higher in life? Would schooling and education have made a difference in this child having a different vocation after he grows up?? Was this brother or father standing in the bin, the only social connection that this child had? Would it have been different if this child were part of a larger societal framework that could have stepped in to ensure that he too lived a life of dignity and respect? Would such societal institutions, whether they are in the Governmental or Civil Society domains have made a difference to not only this child but to also how each of us view such incidents?
This raises the question on whether ‘Swachh Bharat’ will remain a mere slogan and photo op for politicians, movie stars and cricket players. Or will it go beyond the rhetoric and change the face of India. And what is this change that we desire? As one thinks about it, one is left wondering if we can bring about change in our attitude, mindsets and physical environment without a change in the entire eco-system. Will mere income growth and economic progress assures us of these changes? Or do we need to usher in change at a much deeper human and social level before we begin to reap the ensuing economic consequences?
The British economist Angus Madison in his ‘World Economy – A Millennial Perspective’ had observed how India was the Nation with the largest GDP in the world till the 16th Century. The degradation in terms of our economy started in the 17th century and by the time we were an independent nation, we became one of the poorest nations in the world. Beyond mere economics, those 16-17 centuries also saw an enormous expansion of human capability within India. From Algebra to Calculus, 0 to Pi, from Trigonometry to Astronomy, from large cultural centers to the highest spiritual thought, we were everything you could think of. Opportunities to excel in every sphere of human endeavor was everywhere, though social barriers did exists for many. Despite all this, we had a thriving eco-system where creation of human and social capital was the focus. Huge economic consequences ensued. One can debate whether our growing economy led to the growth of our human and social capital, or the other way around. But global experience today shows that sustained economic progress can happen only when there is growth and stabilization of a nation’s social and human resources.
What kind of human capital are we talking about? Is it merely the capacity of a human being to acquire enough information to meaningfully participate and contribute to the ‘economy’? Or is it something more than that. What about all the other human capacities that allow him to function freely, responsibly and with dignity? What about the qualities of compassion, humanism, spirit of enquiry, humor, mindful existence, positive thinking and the intent to be good and do good? Shouldn’t an individual strive to acquire the capabilities that can distinguish him from a mere animal existence and allow him to function as a part of a larger global network! Imagine a world that is led by humanity that is responsible in its consumption, respectful of all of nature’s creation, constantly striving for both internal and external peace, harmony and good will. Such a world would be wonderful indeed, where sharing and caring would be second nature to human kind and the mad rush to acquire everything for just ourselves a thing of the past. If this world could be created, then this little boy would not have to stand amidst the filth, picking on what others threw away and just live his life rather than exist as a joyful 8 year old.
Imagine such a world where these self-evolved humans are interconnected and live with the awareness of interdependence and reciprocity. That is the ‘Social Capital’ that this world badly needs, if it needs to stop hurtling towards self-destruction. What does this ‘Social Capital’ mean? While there are different ways to define Social Capital, the most commonly understood one is where ‘Social capital’’ is the information, trust, and norms of reciprocity inherent in one’s social networks… They are the seemingly obvious opportunities for mutually beneficial collective action. Social capital refers to the institutions, relationships, and norms that shape the quality and quantity of a society’s social interactions. Social capital is not just the sum of the institutions that underpin a society – it is the glue that holds them together. This is what Indian society was well known for – whether it was the joint family system at the micro level, or the highly evolved political and community systems of governance that were thriving at the macro level. Stories from the Mahabharata and our Puranas clearly expound not only how individual human capital is important, but also lays down the unwritten rule of social capital being higher up in the societal hierarchy. Such a highly connected world would neither have the conflicts that we are seeing today nor the limited vision of mere economic progress. Such a world would have found given this young waste picker not just a dream but also the means to achieve them.
It was this evolving appreciation of human and social capital that led to the sustained growth of our GDP for such a long time. Though the explanation seems simplistic, it is essentially a complex interconnected array of people, relationships, institutions and thought processes that all contributed to where we were. Unfortunately, it was this human and social capital that the British colonization destroyed by taking away the foundation of our social-cultural milieu and civilizational history on which it was based.
It was at a time when India was at its degenerative worst that Swami Vivekananda burst onto the scene. Swami Vivekananda gave the dimension of personal inner ‘evolution’ a new meaning by taking it to the next level. He said ‘inner spiritual growth’ should happen through the service of people around us. In one stroke, he could string together the individual with the social and gave a practical impetus to the principles of interdependence and reciprocity. He also lived in a generation that saw the consequences of the degeneration of both these capitals and ensuing consequence on our national economy. He saw the amelioration of the masses as the only solution and for this he called upon the youth to not only build on their own human capital but also give themselves ‘meaning’ by working to build the social capital of the Nation. And this he knew would result in the resurgence of the Indian Economy too. And that is the India he dreamt of, a resurgent and resurrected India that could be a world teacher and a world leader.
And only when we learn to weave all this together seamlessly, will we see change. This change will not be in just one dimension or sector, but in whatever such highly evolved humans engage in. And that means, not only will we generate less waste, consume more responsibly but also ensure that relative equity and opportunity will provide the required social and economic mobility for this young lad who is today wasting away along with the waste that he lives one. That is the ‘Swachh Bharat’ that we should aspire for and that is what will make the dream of ‘Vasudaiva Kutumbakam’ a meaningful reality.