ENVISIONING A NEW GROWTH STRATEGY FOR MSMES IN INDIA - The Daily Guardian
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ENVISIONING A NEW GROWTH STRATEGY FOR MSMES IN INDIA

The MSME sector can prove to be a key determinant in boosting India’s economy and needs stakeholders and policymakers to focus on its long-term growth. This can be done best using a strategy combining absorption, transition in its size and orientation and technological innovation.

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The economic fallout from the pandemic has hit a critical component of India’s economy. With disrupted cash cycles, plummeting revenues with a thin resource-cushion to bank on, MSMEs are mired in a slump. The micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME) form the lifeblood of the Indian economy by employing over 11 crore people, second only to agriculture, and contributing a third of the GDP. Driving the thick of growth and employment, especially for vulnerable segments of the workforce in the non-agricultural sector, with low capital costs, somehow this sector hasn’t received the attention and assistance it deserves.

MSMEs hold the promise to propel India’s development arc as evinced by the growth model of successful Southeast Asian economies. But policy assistance and reforms to overcome existing bottlenecks and practical difficulties with a focus on charting a sustainable course will be a critical enabler for realising their potential. In this context, although credit injection and regulatory reliefs have stepped in to backstop this decline, policy responses shouldn’t be aimed only at weathering the current crisis, but also to sustain growth once these enterprises recover.

Planning focus for a medium to long-term growth trajectory for MSMEs would require a three-pronged strategy of absorption, transition and innovation, with recognition of the heterogeneous components of this sector.

ABSORPTION

The Indian workforce needs an exit strategy from the low productivity and underemployed agricultural sector. The lower rung of MSMEs can emerge as an attractive prospect, provided we get certain things right.

Absorption can only take place if good jobs open up in sizable numbers at the lower end of skill requirements. The need is to target and expand MSMEs in the labour-intensive ‘manufacturing’ sector which has an unrealized potential as MSMEs contribute only 6% of manufacturing GDP, in contrast with services, which contribute 24%. Part of the issue has to do with the fragmented manufacturing bodies which yield low returns to capital and thus attract little autonomous investment. Filliping this component of MSMEs will be indispensable as India can’t leapfrog manufacturing if it aims to achieve sustainable broad-based growth.

Fostering broad-based entrepreneurship across the country will open up alternative avenues and enable the absorption from the primary sector. The critical factor here will be easing and extending financing access for MSMEs. Due to the informal nature of these enterprises, and asymmetrical information for institutional lenders, financing entrepreneurial activities has been broadly a challenge—only 16% of MSMEs receive formal credit. Given the heterogeneous composition of MSMEs, a ‘one size fits all’ financing strategy is unfeasible, hence, the government’s efforts to address financing need contextualisation. For instance, providing seed capital for micro enterprises, encouraging easy financial assistance to women entrepreneurs through small banks’ whose MFI have a women-dominant clientele, and removing regulatory impediments to access venture capital for promising medium size enterprises could help achieve lending efficiencies.

Besides resource access, a definite marketplace for MSME output is equally essential. Expanding the public procurement policy’s reach through platforms such as Government e Marketplace (GeM) is pressing. A practical difficulty in the current scenario is the tedious tendering process where tiny enterprises face roadblocks to participate and thus avail of government procurement. Navigating the large business-political nexus to grab tenders and sustaining through the lengthy procedures is a challenge for small scale enterprises. The other dire challenge of the lack of formalisation is because of low registration in Udyog Aadhar Memorandum, which mature enterprises with proven track record easily avail of. Widespread implementation by easy registration in a flexible regulatory framework to rope in tiny enterprises is needed to make their entry into the formal economy.

TRANSITION

A peculiar attribute of Indian MSMEs is that the majority (around 96%) of them comprise micro (employing only 5 or fewer workers) and small-scale enterprises which provide tepid employment opportunities. Tapping into this ‘missing middle’ of the industrial structure, would be critical for generating productive employment. The transition would require policy encouragements in the form of enhanced formal credit for successful tiny enterprises to mature into medium size. This is pressing because small enterprises cannot operate productively, let alone efficiently, and thus most micro enterprises in our country fail to grow. Developing capabilities through scale should be the way forward.

There are well auguring prospects for medium enterprises to integrate themselves with global value chains as “demographical reversal” and increasing wages in early growers like China has made room for other countries to avail of the lacunae. And the avenue to look at is in ‘manufacturing’, as Arvind Subramanian shows in his paper that India is vastly under-exporting relative to its labour force, and big, unexploited opportunities lie in unskilled labour exports. A McKinsey report also states that there is an export growth potential of $70 billion in manufacturing alone. But to capitalize on this, MSMEs need to grow in their operations to avail of scale economies and operate at peak efficiency. Policy enablers for this transition are needed in the form of enabling trade deals with global partners, progressive regulatory reductions, and reformed labour laws making it easier for mid-size firms to hire workers unhesitatingly.

More than half (around 51%) of the MSMEs are located in rural areas. The case for sustained impetus to this sector is even more pressing now because the upshot of a reverse migration during the last year due to Covid, has made available a semi-skilled workforce which can be engaged in productive employment as MSMEs recover and make room through expansion. MSMEs can serve to provide economic empowerment to the rural populations while also allaying regional disparities. The ethos aligns with the goal of achieving inclusive growth for India, advancing people through upward mobility and expanding the middle class, which, in a world of growth stagnation, will be a resilient driver for domestic growth. In this context, India can learn from the opportune case of Shenzen in China, wherein the municipal governments intervened and heavily assisted the transformation of a rural area into an urban startup hub.

A lot will depend on the extent of cooperative federalism India can secure, especially now, because after the woes of GST, the federal relations are stretched more than ever, and need essential repair. This is vital so as to ensure vertical fund flows and tackle the constitutional concurrent subject of labour laws. There is a need to give states more flexibility with regard to tax revenues which would be critical to ensure the growth of regional MSMEs because a decentralized flexible system can allocate funds better, just like the Shenzen’s experience evinces.

INNOVATION

Any growth strategy won’t sustain itself on its own in a dynamic business environment. Besides, only frugal labour and financing credit won’t be enough for MSMEs to create an edge in international markets. The MSME sector in India is beset with technological inadequacy. Looking ahead, to enable sustained growth and facilitate MSMEs to move upwards in the value chain, the service sector would be pivotal.

India must leverage its attractive ICT capabilities and lure a higher amount of FDI in the service sector to scale up and ameliorate its current station. Innovation and digitisation are indispensable if Indian MSMEs want to remain competitive through increased efficacy and agility. A Microsoft report concludes that adoption of the latest ICT tools can help India’s small and medium businesses boost revenues by $56 billion, while also creating over a million jobs.

The year 2020 witnessed the accelerated adoption of digital behaviours and practices by enterprises, from sales channels to communication, and, as a CRISIL report suggests, this increasing digitalisation will enlarge the footprint of MSMEs, helping them tap into newer markets and improving their access to credit. However, since most MSMEs operate in the informal economy with low capital base, policy enablers for innovation will be vital for long-term sustenance in a transforming business environment. These enterprises face both internal resource constraints due to their size and external constraints to credit access due to market failures.

R&D investments by SMEs need to be encouraged and bolstered by policy support and incentives. A key support for this could be inspired by the model from Europe through new public innovation support programs. As the enterprises mature, investment in analytics would necessitate a skilled workforce for the service sector, and government efforts in reskilling and upskilling would serve the twin benefits of assisting MSMEs and realising the promise of India’s demographic dividend. Useful lessons can be drawn from Germany, which has successfully built a national culture wherein vocational training is seen as a valued career path.

MSMEs have an unrealised promise yet somehow it doesn’t capture the popular imagination as much as it deserves. We would be leaving money on the table, if we don’t realize this key determinant for India’s growth story in the coming decade. It is high time the crucial backbone of India’s story deserves its fate and its cause is assisted by involved stakeholders driving policy forward with focus on medium to long-term growth.

Rajesh Mehta is a leading international consultant and columnist working on market entry, innovation and public policy. Govind Gupta is the co-founder of IFSA Hansraj and a researcher at Infinite Sum Modeling, Washington.

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CREATING A CULTURE OF BIRDWATCHING IN HAIDERPUR WETLAND

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Bird enthusiast Ashish Loya, in an interview with The Daily Guardian, tells how his childhood hobby of birdwatching turned into a purpose to conserve and protect Haiderpur Wetland with the support of locals and authorities. Excerpts:

Ashish Loya all set to shoot.

Q. What sparked your interest in birdwatching which later made you rigorously document and record various species of birds?

A. Birdwatching was my childhood hobby which began from 6th grade. I used to regularly indulge in birdwatching during my school and college days and also visit Bharatpur every year. But then it took a backseat during my life in New York. Years later when I came to Bijnor for Art of Living work, the flocks of Painted Storks and Bar-headed Geese on Ganga Barrage attracted my attention. Out of curiosity I started exploring the area and was stunned to find thousands of migratory waterfowls. This revived my hobby and I started birding regularly here since 2015. I understood the importance of this area and wanted it to be conserved. I started preparing checklists regularly and uploading on eBird, documenting my findings, hoping that it will attract the attention of the right people.

Q. What can a birdwatcher absorb and learn from spending time at Haiderpur Wetland?

A. Birdwatchers can see a diverse and large number of species in pristine undisturbed habitat. Some are not found so easily elsewhere, like the White-tailed Eagle. Greylag Goose flock is estimated to be the largest in the country. There is a watch-tower, beautiful and strategically located viewpoints and 15km of walking and cycling trails, all of which makes this an unforgettable experience. There are many undiscovered secrets here which they can unravel.

Q. You have been instrumental in conservation efforts to turn Haiderpur Wetland into an attractive abode for native and migratory birds and work is underway for it to be made a Ramsar site. Would you like to throw light on your contribution?

A. For a site to be declared a Ramsar site, it needs to satisfy at least 1 of the 10 criteria laid out. My reports, observations, documents, photos and videos have helped establish that Haiderpur Wetland meets 5 out of the 10 criteria, making for a very strong case. When I first started birdwatching here, I immediately recognised the importance of this place as an important site on the central Asian flyway. I started making a checklist and also uploading it on Ebird. I have created a checklist of 280 species.

I have spotted some very rare species like Penduline Tit, White-tailed Eagle, Bristled Grassbird, and Indian Skimmers which helps to satisfy the Ramsar criteria. My videos and pictures have documented the presence of >1% population of Greylag Goose, Ferruginous ducks etc which is another Ramsar criteria. I was also the first to record 145 swamp deers and otters, which suggests that the wetland supports other endangered forms of wildlife as well. I have observed the breeding behaviour of Bristled Grassbird here, establishing that species depend on this wetland during critical phases of their lifecycle.

I have also conducted bird counts, as part of Asian waterfowl census, national bird count etc and helped tabulate over 27000 migratory birds here. For Ramsar site declaration, we need to have 20000 waterbirds.

I shared my findings with the forest department and made them realise the importance of this place. My pictures and videos awakened administration to the richness of biodiversity here and have been valuable evidence to establish the case for Ramsar site declaration.

Q. What can be done to encourage more children to care about wildlife, engage in bird watching as well as conservation initiatives?

A. I believe children need to be exposed to birdwatching through some programs, like the Art of Living children’s program. They have a natural affinity for nature and can easily take up birdwatching, as it stimulates their curiosity. They are by nature very curious. For the first few times, we need to take them on guided trips, encourage them to find and discover nature. Today’s children are just not exposed to nature so much. I think parents should expose themselves and their children more to nature.

Q. Do you believe that initiatives like organising Haiderpur Wetland Birdwatching Festival will help to draw more visitors and put Haiderpur Wetland on the environmental tourism map?

A. Surely as the festival creates a buzz in the media, it helps popularise the place and brings like-minded people together viz conservationists, nature lovers, experts and newcomers together who learn from each other.

Q. Will Haiderpur wetland’s conservation and promotion of ecotourism create more livelihood opportunities for locals?

A. Yes, it will and it already has. I have trained a few youngsters in birdwatching who can act as nature guides. There is a boat safari on the Ganga river which is generating income for local boatmen. There are a lot of opportunities to develop homestays, tours, local handicraft for tourists and more.

Q. What is being done to increase the awareness of locals about conservation practices?

A. Forest Department is having regular meetings and workshops for the local community. Art of Living programs are also helping in reaching out to the area’s youth and spreading the message of conservation. Also, I provide regular updates to local media on important sightings and developments at the wetland which also helps in increasing the awareness of the locals.

Q. Is wetland conservation an even greater priority owing to climate change?

A. Wetlands are a valuable part of ecosystems, economic activity as well as social and cultural life. Many species depend on them for their survival. We need to make people aware of the fact that a healthy wetland means a healthy planet.

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PREPARING THE STAGE FOR A NEW PRESIDENT IN AMERICA

As Joe Biden takes his oath of office as the new President of the United States on Wednesday, it will be important for his administration to show strength and stability and send out the message that the oldest democracy is in the hands of a capable and committed team.

Rajiv Kumar

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After all the controversies and the act of near insurrection on Capitol Hill by Donald Trump’s supporters last week, the transition to the new presidency will take place on Wednesday, 20 January, in a traditional affair, with or without Trump. However, the ceremony will be shortened due to the regulations in place for the pandemic. Kamala Harris will become the first woman to serve as Vice President in the history of the United States. As the city is virtually under siege, a 20,000-strong presence of National Guard soldiers will strictly monitor the event.

The day traditionally begins with attending a morning worship service, which was introduced by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 and continues till this day. The outgoing President accompanies the President-elect to the Capitol for the swearing-in ceremony. Should he not be present, he would be the first President to skip his successor’s swearing-in ceremony in all of 152 years.

The inauguration is a National Special Security Event (NSSE) involving federal agencies and law enforcement officials who create a wide security perimeter with road closures and barricades around the Capitol. The secret service had already given its clearance although the recent failure to protect the Capitol from chaos, injury and death because of an orchestrated insurgency will go down as a historical fact. A seven-foot fence designed to prevent scaling around the periphery of the US Capitol will be in place with National Guard members, the D.C. Police and Capitol Police and US Army.

The Presidential Inaugural Committee has requested and received permits for Lafayette Square, portions of the Mall from 3rd to 14th Streets, the area surrounding the Lincoln Memorial and the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial, among others, for the inauguration, but the iconic parade would be virtual and all in-person balls stand cancelled. Congress members have been restricted to only two tickets, against the 130,000 they are typically instructed to distribute among their constituents, because of public health concerns.

During the last inauguration, it was observed that more than 95% of hotel rooms had been filled across the district, but this time it may be a fraction of that number. More hotel accommodation seems to have been grabbed by the security agencies. The city already had an extended public emergency order through 21 January, making the administration to issue curfews, close businesses, halt transit and dip into emergency funds to ensure a safe environment for the ceremony and later through the evening.

The Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, had asked Lt Gen (retired) Russel Honore, who helped coordinate the military efforts around Hurricane Katrina, to conduct “an immediate review of the Capitol’s security infrastructure, interagency processes and procedures and command control”. Can such an act be geared in India for the likely fallout, right or wrong, from the protesting farmers who are threatening to create a scene on our Republic Day?

Traditionally, the President-elect arrives at the White House and then proceeds to the Capitol Building with the outgoing President. However, Donald Trump’s presence is not assured. The only component in this ceremony, mandated by the United States Constitution, is the recitation of the presidential oath of office, typically administered by the Chief Justice. This happens around noon, followed by the inaugural address.

The 20th Amendment to the Constitution requires that the term of each elected President and Vice President begin at 20 January noon of the year after the election. Every President has to take the oath of office and they cannot assume their positions otherwise.

Symbolically, it marks the peaceful transfer of power from the current President to the next. Inauguration Day will be all the more important this year, as Biden ascends to the presidency at a time when political division has threatened the nation’s democratic institutions and his predecessor has gone to extraordinary lengths to stay in power.

Just before the President-elect takes the oath of office, the Vice President-elect will step forward on the inaugural platform and repeat the oath of office to ensure that the Vice President can potentially be elevated to President if an unforeseen event (death, illness, etc.) caused the President-elect, to not be able to assume the office. The Twelfth Amendment establishes that the Vice President must meet all the qualifications of being a President.

The oath of office of the Vice President of the United States is the oath or affirmation that the Vice President of the United States takes upon assuming the Vice-Presidency but before he or she begins the execution of the office. It is the same oath that members of the United States Congress and members of the President’s cabinet take upon entering office. Harris will be the nation’s first female Vice President. She will swear to “support and defend the Constitution” and “faithfully discharge the duties of the office”.

Since the 1981 inauguration of Ronald Reagan, the ceremony has been held at the west front of the United States Capitol facing the National Mall with its iconic Washington Monument and distant Lincoln Memorial.

Every US President since George Washington has delivered the inaugural address. Trump had spoken for 16 minutes, making a vow to break the “established order” and “make America great again”. But for Biden, the focus is likely to be on the important areas of his policies: the pandemic, the economy, climate change, healthcare and the need for uniting the Americans again, whether they voted for him or not. “With the campaign over, it’s time to put the anger and the harsh rhetoric behind us and come together as a nation,” Biden said in a statement. “It’s time for America to unite.” Biden has also unveiled a $1.9 trillion plan to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, boosting financial aid for Americans and businesses.

Biden and Vice President Harris will then lay a wreath and conduct a Pass in Review inspection of the troops at the Capitol. They will be joined by their partners, Jill Biden and Doug Emhoff. Former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush will join Biden for the wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington Cemetery after the inauguration.

The Bidens will receive a presidential escort from 15th Street to the White House after the swearing-in. The escort will include representatives of every branch of the military.

In 1989 from the beginning of January, I was interning with NBC News in New York as part of my Fulbright Fellowship programme through Syracuse University. Tom Brokaw was the MD of the network and the anchor of the Nightly News with Bill Wheatley as the Chief Producer. I was a budding news producer with the DD network and the two graciously gave me the honour to be a part of their coverage team which specially flew to Washington, in a sizeable number, and, as other networks, took the roof of a state building along the Pennsylvania avenue, overlooking the Capitol, and made a temporary studio and elaborate technical arrangements for a live coverage. The inauguration of George H.W. Bush as the 41st President of the United States was held on Friday, 20 January 1989, at the West Front of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. This was the 51st inauguration and marked the commencement of the only term of both George H.W. Bush as President and Dan Quayle as Vice President. The TV team was housed in Sheraton on K Street, just behind the White House. There was a mighty competition amongst the major US networks then, as it is now, of being the leader in important telecasts—something that we too witness in our country, trying to make more sense out of nonsense and hyperbole.

The inauguration is also a notable fundraising opportunity for the incoming President. Even though traditional events like balls have been cancelled, Biden’s inaugural committee has offered special “VIP participation” to corporations and individuals who can use the opportunity to curry favour with the new administration.

Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez along with Justin Timberlake, Jon Bon Jovi and Demi Lovato will also take the stage at the inauguration ceremony. Lady Gaga will sing the national anthem while Lopez will give a musical performance. Moreover, Tom Hanks will host a 90-minute TV special, ‘Celebrating America’, which will air right after the swearing-in ceremony on all major networks, including social media and Amazon Prime.

For those who will watch the ceremony on the screen, local bars and restaurants have planned special commemorative dishes, beers and cocktails. Biden’s choice and his own state Delaware’s most famous food export is Capriotti’s, a national chain of sandwich shops that began in Wilmington. When the first Capriotti’s opened in D.C. in 2013, Biden had remarked to reporters, “This is going to settle, once and for all, the best sandwich in America is out of Wilmington, Delaware.” It went with him to the White House. The “Bobbie” is Capriotti’s best-selling Thanksgiving sub, filled with turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce.

Television had already brought such events into our living rooms, and with the pandemic making things take place virtually, the trend has further changed, not only in terms of attendance but how expansively and lavishly they are organised.

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We are a vintage-inspired brand: Archana Kumari Singh

Archana Kumari Singh, founder of House of Badnore, shares her journey, and speaks about her label and excellence in design.

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NewsX was recently joined by Archana Kumari Singh, founder of House of Badnore, for an exclusive conversation as a part of its special series, NewsX A-list, where she spoke about her label and her excellence in design. Talking about the reason she started House of Badnore, Archana said,” I started my professional life as a journalist, I was a writer and then I went on to join a niche jewellery magazine, The Gems and Jewellery magazine of India. After many years of having a very exciting stint with the media, I decided to change my gear and that is how my life, my journey changed.”

Speaking about the products and the range of her brand House of Badnore, she replied, “House of Badnore is a brand which basically has accessories for men, women, and home, so it was a thought-out process but I wanted to cover the whole gamut of the product line, so there are some things for the home, some things for men and women both. I haven’t gone into the mainstream of creating serious apparel, or serious ensembles or big large furnitures; it’s all accessories because I do feel accessories are what completes everything around you.”

Asking about the USPs of House of Bandore, Archana said, “I wouldn’t say that we are a vintage brand, we are vintage-inspired. There’s a lot of romance around vintage, royalty, so we did want to pick up the vintage aspect of it, but we did not want to recreate vintage because that particular space is very crowded. Everything you see that we have brought out is inspired from the past but it is for the contemporary world, for a global platform. It is luxury, but affordable luxury; the products are aspirational and reachable.”

Talking about the impact of the pandemic on her brand and how she reinvented herself, she replied, “There’s been a lot of lessons that we have learnt, a lot of big companies brutally and ruthlessly lay off people in order to survive, but small enterprises like mine not only had the privilege of surviving but also had the privilege of being able to give. So, at House of Badnore, we thought that we would do our bit for the community. Through the lockdown period I had actually thought of the product line that could add. For the first two, three months there was no movement of business, nothing was happening, so all I could do was think and dream. As soon as the workshop started to function, I decided to add so many products that would involve different skill sets, crafts so; we were able to farm out work to people in order to keep them sustained.”

On her advice for upcoming entrepreneurs, Archana said, “I would tell them to actually listen to the universe sometimes, there are signs and signals that the universe sends to you. Don’t try and hold on to many things you cannot hold onto your future. Let the future unfold on its own. Trust the universe; trust the blueprint of your destiny.”

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When women step up to build peace & harmony

Over 40 women achievers will brainstorm to find solutions for peace in South Asia at eShe’s ‘Indo-Pak Peace Summit Led by Women’.

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Whenever Aaghaz-e-Dosti, a peace initiative to normalise relationships between the youth of India and Pakistan, holds virtual conferences between schoolchildren of both countries, the questions usually asked are: “Does your teacher give you a lot of homework too?” and “Do you like maths?”

“The initiatives have given the children a space to connect with their peers across the border without reducing them to their political and social identity,” says India convener Dr Devika Mittal, an associate professor at University of Delhi, who has been upholding the cause of India-Pakistan peace for several years. Students are invited to send one another greeting cards, and to converse in Hindi, Urdu or even Gujarati depending on the linguistic region, which often leads to expressions of amazement once they realise the ‘other’ is just like them.

Under all the rhetoric of hate that has dominated the media and political landscape over the past several years lie numerous stories of humanity, hope and a shared history. It is to highlight this truth that I, along with a group of intrepid peaceniks across various professions and time zones, have set out to normalise the conversation between Indians and Pakistanis, and to offer practical, grassroots solutions for long-term peace, be it in the form of literature, art, culture, cinema or through the optimistic voices of the youth.

Our initiative, titled Indo-Pak Peace Summit Led by Women organised by eShe magazine, is a virtual conference being held on January 16-17. The schedule includes talks by notable peace activists from South Asia and worldwide, including three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee Dr Scilla Elworthy, and panel discussions between award-winning filmmakers, global youth activists, writers, artists, designers, and entrepreneurs. All 40 speakers are women.

As UK-based peace builder Dr Elworthy says in her new book The Mighty Heart: How to Transform Conflict (2020), “When women are included in peace processes, there is a 35% increase in the probability of an agreement lasting at least 15 years longer. Why? Because male negotiators (often previous combatants) are primarily concerned with territory, resources and positions of power, while women bring to the table the concerns of orphans, the injured, the bereaved and the traumatised. When these issues are addressed, the cycle of violence can be more effectively interrupted and turned around.”

Despite women’s success as peacemakers and peace negotiators, only 13% of negotiators, 6% of mediators, and 6% of signatories to peace agreements were women during peace negotiations from 1992 to 2019. And considering that only 13% of parliamentarians in India and 20% in Pakistan are women at present, and that the current leaders of both states are more likely to pander to populist local narratives of enmity rather than sustainable, long-term solutions for peace in the region, we are unlikely to see any productive peace treaties emerging from our political leadership in the next few years.

And it will come at a cost—to both business and human lives, not to mention the thousands of crores spent on militarization and war. With leisure travel almost at a halt between the two nations at present, thousands of families have been forced to live apart for years on end. With the economy at a dangerous low, this further barricading of markets and business opportunities is unhealthy for the entire region. And with extremist religious jingoism increasing unchecked on both sides of the border, the rights of women, minorities and oppressed sections of society are tragically threatened.

No good comes out of shutting doors—just ask UK—and by fuelling hatred. For flourishing economies, healthy populations and social justice, borders must be open and the populations must feel safe. Peace is sensible, practical and necessary. Let us make space for the youth, the peace-lovers, the brilliant professionals and achievers with their feet firmly in the grassroots and the heritage of our two countries to step up and suggest sustainable solutions. Who knows? A generation of women may succeed where a century of men have failed.

Aekta Kapoor is the founder and editor of eShe, an independent magazine and blog that amplifies women’s voices and stories of our shared humanity. Visit eshe.in to register for Indo-Pak Peace Summit Led by Women.

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IDENTITY, CULTURE AND THE AGE OF PARADOXES

The contradictions suffered by the latest forms of liberalism as well as neoliberalism are of a serious nature. On one hand, these ideologies—which have betrayed their colonial character in the last three decades since globalisation—advocate individualism; and on the other, these encourage people to define themselves by racial, sexual, gender and many other markers of identities.

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“It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.”

In the operational doctrines of colonialist and imperialist ideologies, the conceptual path to normalising the coloniser’s culture in an invaded and/or occupied land often passes through what we may call the ‘Uniqueness Argument’. It works as follows: At the initial stage of colonisation, invasion followed by forceful occupation of parts of a country takes place, which is sometimes accompanied by a drastic demographic change of those parts. This almost always gives rise to political dominance by the invader over the land and administration of the invaded.

Then, a significant portion of the invaded and/or partly occupied land, originally belonging to the victims of invasion, is painted as a ‘unique’ cultural zone. This depiction is incessantly repeated through aggressive propaganda, using the powerful channels of academia and media. As the propaganda penetrates increasingly into all levels of public discourse, it acquires the air of an undisputable, default position from which all discussions around the subject must proceed—an unmistakable mark of ideology which is false consciousness. This is the stage of turning manufactured narratives into powerful discourses. It requires some time and a certain amount of indolence on the part of the intellectuals produced by the culture under siege.

The purported ‘unique’ cultural character of the demographically and/or politically colonised area is then exploited to project this area as a distinct sociocultural identity, altogether different from the mainland. As is the nature of invasions, such attacks advance from the border areas and move gradually inward. The very next step—and the most crucial one in the process—is to claim a distinct political identity of the colonised area. This is where benign and diverse cultural nuances are painted with the broad strokes of monolithic category-driven identity politics, and identity turns into a tool of power. Identity politics is thus activated.  

The primary goal of this politics is to amplify intra-cultural nuances of the besieged civilisation and thus foreground them as cultural differences that are seemingly set in stone. In reality, however, those cultural nuances are hardly ‘differences’ per se; instead, they are the local expressions of a broader civilisational outlook—the local manifestations of an orthogenetic development (which is a series of gradual and slow changes occurring organically and brought about by internal or indigenous factors, as opposed to changes brought about by disruptions that are by nature sudden) within a great civilisation, such as India. The amplification of intra-cultural nuances is then forcefully applied in the discourse as well as in day-to-day actions, to cut off a region’s culture from its civilisational roots, from its fountainhead, so that the process of a cultural takeover by the predatory religion representing a foreign culture—the coloniser’s culture—is made easier.

Having achieved this, the next stage of establishing a cultural hegemony through the instrument of various social institutions, brought into the invaded land by the coloniser, is activated. This completes the process of cultural colonisation, granting it the kind of resilience which is difficult to break through for whatever remnants of the indigenous sociocultural structures that survive the onslaught. We are inclined to think that at such a stage, any hope of a cultural recovery, or ‘decolonisation’, requires nothing short of a deus ex machina.            

The pathway described above is a mutant form of the more classic colonial strategies, a new algorithm if you like. The other interesting feature observable in the age-old phenomenon of cultural colonisation, employed generously by ancient Romans and ancient as well as modern Chinese—and perfected by the European colonisers in the last two centuries—is that of universalism. We have seen the European colonialists, and in recent times their civilisational inheritors the American neo-colonialists, employing the universalist argument in the most effective of ways to destroy variety which is not just the essence but indeed a precondition of life. This becomes evident from one look at the natural world.

In the natural world, lack of variety means death of organisms and extinction of entire species. At the genetic level, more genetic variety within a population ensures more phenotypic variation, which means greater variety at the level of observable physical properties of an organism, including the organism’s appearance, development, and behavioural patterns. Whether or not the organism has the ability to develop two or more alternative forms of gene, given it has access to a suitable environment that affects the development of the genes, directly determines the organism’s ability to survive. Universalism, on the other hand, robs a social organism (like a group of humans exhibiting various shades and nuances in their cultural practices in relation to the other, fairly similar or analogous groups of humans) of its incentive to increase variety as well as the suitable environment which could have helped it materialise new possibilities at the sociocultural level. It stunts the orthogenetic development of a culture, something which we have mentioned earlier in this exercise—something which is essential for the survival of the culture in a recognisable form.    

The contradictions suffered by the latest forms of liberalism as well as neoliberalism are of a serious nature. On one hand, these ideologies—which have betrayed their predatory, colonial character in the last three decades since globalisation—advocate individualism; and on the other hand, these encourage people to define themselves by racial, sexual, gender and many other markers of identities and become obedient members of these multifarious flocks, which only helps aggravate the conflict and power drive inherent in identities. Paradoxically, emphasis on individualism has resulted in the multiplication of group identity markers—and consequently in more groupthink—instead of independent, original thinking in recent decades. Neo-colonialists are back in their erstwhile colonies through the backdoor portals created by institutions that were meant to be the torchbearers of freedom and anti-colonialism—which is yet another paradox.

Indeed, this seems to be the “Age of Paradoxes”, and no easy solution to any of its confounding anomalies seems to appear on the horizon. Things haven’t changed much since Dickens wrote: “We had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period…”

Ominously enough, the contemporary reader discovers that the accent tends to fall on the final words in that passage: “The period was so far like the present period”!

Sreejit Datta is Assistant Professor and Resident Mentor at the Rashtram School of Public Leadership. He heads the Civilisational Studies Practice at Rashtram. The views expressed are personal.

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GOOD MENTAL HEALTH IS ACTUALLY A LIFESTYLE STATEMENT: DIYA GANGULY MALLICK

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NewsX was recently joined by UK-based psychotherapist Diya Ganguly Mallick, co-founder of Psychonnect, for an exclusive conversation as a part of its special series, NewsX A-List. She spoke about her organisation which facilitates mental well-being, diagnostics, counselling and therapy service.

Talking about her reason for starting the organisation despite being an academic, Ganguly said, “Being born and raised in India, I have been exposed to traditional approaches like yoga, mindfulness meditation for mental health challenges, then my education and subsequent experiences abroad, on the other hand, exposed me to more scientific and empirical approaches for tackling the mental health challenges. I realised that I had the unique opportunity to actually merge these new approaches together or rather create an ecosystem that will be a confluence of the traditional Eastern approaches and scientific Western approaches.”

Speaking about how we can break the stigma and how her organisation is working to combat the stigma at the grassroots level, Ganguly said, “This is a very serious issue, not only in India but worldwide. In Psychonnect, we have two approaches to it—the first is driven to our very own initiative which is the ARK charter, where we try to endeavour through the superficial layers of human interaction and engage in deeper conversation, which talks about the various facets of mental health awareness, recognition, and knowledge on the subject. The second approach is to reinvent the context in which mental health is projected; we all know mental health is predicted in a negative or depressing way in media, news, etc, so it’s important that people think good mental health is actually a lifestyle statement just like being vegan or like yoga.”

Talking about how we ensure that safety doesn’t stop at physical health but also includes mental health, Ganguly said, “As I mentioned earlier, mental health is connected to physical health, people cannot look after their physical health without giving attention to your mental health and it is also important to emphasise here that whenever you talk about this pandemic, it has not only impacted our physical body but also on our mind.”

Talking about her journey in India, then in the UK, and how she actually decided that this is something that she would like to do, Ganguly said, “I narrate a story from my school days to answer this. I used to be a volunteer for an old-age home as a child and then one thing I realised that there were a lot of checks for physical parameters but there was nothing done for improving the subjective well-being of those people in that old-age home. That’s the time I realised I want to do something for improving people’s subjective well-being or improving their emotional state.”

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