When the mind says I am not a part of the body!

The title of this article is certainly not to mislead any of you, readers. It is a refection of our development planning – not just in India but globally. When Thomson Reuters carried an article by the second author making millions by investing billions in their sustainability column in October 2016, a lot of comments confirmed that our development planning is exactly doing what the title said.

Today’s development is for tomorrow, literally and not into the future. Whether it is our rush to make India ‘innovative’ in the information technology space or turning productive landscapes of nature to infrastructure development, we are proud of our short-term gains, ignoring long term impacts. Sustaining sustainable development is often forgotten.

Until recently we heard a lot of knowledge economy and how countries like India have an edge over others such as China if we invest in this sector development. However, a report from Asian Development Bank (ADB) using an index developed by the World Bank shows that average Knowledge Economy Index score for the Asia-Pacific region was 4.39, compared with 8.25 in the case of OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) and India fares just above Pakistan, Lao PDR, Cambodia. India’s highest ranking is in the area of innovation. Popularly known as ‘jugaad’ innovation or frugal innovation, the ADB report lists several examples of low-cost innovative techniques that have emerged in rural India.

When India ushered in the information technology revolution, we were all excited by the opportunity to be the software house of the world, serving the world. We did not know that under the heap of foreign exchange that trickled in, we were becoming the world’s backyard, and not the world’s product development house.

In our rush to promoting service economy, India practically laid a tombstone over the product development culture we had previously.  With sifting focus in promoting our information technology industry, people started flocking to the industry, where there was “money for nothing and cheques for free”. We used “development” as an excuse.

When companies took graduates of any discipline from our premium institutes to do programming, we called that “innovative”. However, by encouraging one industry, the availability of space engineers, ship technology engineers, engineers for defence departments, engineers for telecom industry – all vanished. When the industry expanded in Bangalore, it did compromise the ability of other small-scale enterprises to flourish.

We now need urgent measure to create enabling conditions for a healthy knowledge ecosystem. One sector that can help us in this process is our education. India’s commitment to pump over Rs. 10,000 crores to build a handful of world-class higher education institutions is not enough. We need to create high-technology and knowledge-intensive courses, industries to prepare for the future. Our ‘innovation’ in education is almost non-existent. Innovations in education are merely focusing on improved infrastructure such as classrooms and online platform creation than creativity in course content, method of delivery and encouraging peer learning and mentorship.

One key area that need urgent attention is to undertake a foresight analysis of our development priorities. Lot of time, our policies and planning are based on the past and current than the future. This need to change. If development planning and developing knowledge economy are real priorities, better they be, we need to have a wholistic understanding of impacts of the policies and actions being developed. We cannot afford to convert our agricultural fields into real estate blocks and moan about food insecurity and drain our wetlands for infrastructure and worry about future freshwater supplies.

In this regard, we do have a lesson or two to learn from our past. Countries and communities relied on nature based services for development and not just finances. The basis of our current development has been the prudent use of natural resources and wholistic planning. This is evident globally, whether flood management in the Netherlands or wetland management in the United States or forest management in India. The premise of development planning has been that we need to co-exist with nature and not see nature as independent of humans.

In the same vein, developing India into a knowledge economy should be based on our strengths of language, culture, innovation, adoption and use. Anytime one walks into a local market in India, the number of small and simple innovations abound. But we ignore them. We have not invested in an ecosystem that promotes innovation, protects the same and derives benefits. We ignore simple and small innovations. Thanks to initiatives such as that of the Honeybee Network and others, we still have a base for recognizing rural innovations.

Unless India learns to invest in scaling up innovation, focus on wholistic planning – especially in our education and knowledge ecosystems, our struggle to move up the ladder of being or becoming a knowledge economy will continue.

The hope from this despair comes from the following – ability of our youth to promote knowledge economy provided the education system open- up for true innovation to learn and respond to local needs, state and national policies on development provide options for unfettered partnerships that promote wholistic and not sectoral development and our investments are aimed into the future and not just tomorrow.

We need to have all parts of the body work together to live and grow. One part cannot ignore the other nor function independently.

Jacob C Varghese is the Founder of Descant, and Balakrishna Pisupati is Chairperson of FLEDGE. Both focus on new education policies. They can be reached at Jacob and Balakrishna respectively.

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