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Nations are built by their citizens

LiveMint logoLiveMint 14-08-2017 Livemint

Nation-building is usually identified with the achievements or failures of individual leaders. However, the two other building blocks of a successful nation state get far less attention than they deserve—the commitment of its citizens as well as the quality of its institutions. 

President Ram Nath Kovind alluded to this undervalued truth in his speech soon after moving into Rashtrapati Bhavan in July: “Nations are not built by governments alone. The government can at best be a facilitator, and a trigger for society’s innate entrepreneurial and creative instincts… Each citizen of India is a nation-builder.”

So let us then remember the extraordinary people who have helped build India in the seven decades since we broke free of the shackles of colonialism. 

There are the scientists who worked on the critical space, atomic energy and missile programmes. There are the agronomists who helped launch the Green Revolution in India. There are the engineers who built large national projects. There are the civil society activists who have been our moral compass. There are the educationists who built new centres of learning. There are the soldiers who have defended our borders. There are the entrepreneurs who have built enterprises that created millions of jobs. There are the civil servants who maintained the iron frame—and pushed for policy reform. There are the judges who have protected our constitutional freedoms. There are the artists who have sought to create a vibrant national culture.

The road over the past seven decades has not always been a smooth one. There were the inevitable rough patches—the economic, social and intellectual failures. However, there is no doubt that India has come a long way since 15 August 1947. The credit for that needs to be more widely distributed.

A country that is obsessed with political agitators should pay more heed to the karmayogis who have helped make India what it is today. For example, think of where we would have been as a free nation without the likes of Homi J. Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai, H.R. Khanna, V. Kurien, Ela Bhatt, Nani Palkhivala, R.H. Patil, Kailash Satyarthi, Bhimsen Joshi, C.N.R. Rao and thousands of others like them. They are as much national heroes as the political leaders who have held positions of power.

However, even the most talented individuals need to work within an institutional framework that allows them to do their best—be it a laboratory, a bureaucracy, a business enterprise, a civil society group or a regulatory body. 

It is said that a great institution is one that encourages even ordinary people to do extraordinary work. A successful democratic nation operates through institutions rather than by depending on a few individuals.

India has far better institutions than should be expected from its level of development. A lot of credit for this goes to the first governments led by Jawaharlal Nehru. 

A lot changed after the 1970s. The institutional decay that has seeped in needs urgent attention from all those committed to the nation-building project. This is especially true of our public institutions, which have not kept pace with the rapid changes in the rest of society. 

Lant Pritchett of Harvard University has famously described India as a “flailing state”—or a state which has a few sound elite institutions but has institutional failure elsewhere, and where the action of the state apparatus that deals directly with citizens (policemen, engineers, teachers, health workers) is abysmal. Many experts have also spoken about the lack of state capacity when compared to a country such as China.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has at times touched on the issue of institutional strength. In a speech he gave at the NITI Aayog nearly a year ago, he had quite rightly said: “There was a time when development was believed to depend on the quantity of capital and labour. Today, we know that it depends as much on the quality of institutions and ideas.”

India now has the unstable combination of a vibrant economy, social mobility and institutional decline. It now needs a new generation of quality institutions—and institution builders—to nurture the creativity of its people as well as protect their constitutional freedoms.

Who are some of the tallest institution builders India was fortunate to have in the last 70 years? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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