Where are the peers? (Column: Soliloquy)

About a decade ago, 2004 or thereabouts, I found myself at the media launch of a British certifying institute that was offering a staggering 250 courses ranging from Pitman’s Shorthand to oil exploration. The two Brits on stage waxed eloquent on how in a changing world, conventional degrees were not worth the paper they were printed on and what school-leavers needed to do was to focus on vocational courses. In the midst of all this, the buffet was being laid out and this was all the more irritating as I had skipped breakfast.

“What the dickens am I going to write about,” I wondered. This institution was opening in Noida and not even in Delhi and it was doubtful if it would get more than a few inches in the capital’s press. Nonetheless, I had to come away with a story that was different from the others. The press conference was about to be wound up when my hand shot up.

“Thank god,” said one of the Brits. “I could see something was going around in your head and it seems the penny has finally dropped.”

“Sure thing and it is this: It’s all very well to talk of professionalism and acquiring the relevant qualifications, but do you realise that 95 of the businesses in India are mom-and-pop shops? So, what’s the big deal about what you are offering,” was my poser.

“You’re right. India like England, is sitting on an educational time bomb. You’ve got any number of BAs, BComs, MAs, MPhils and PhDs. What’s the point of all this unless your are going into academics? What you need is hands-on experience and skills that will take you along in life.

“Most importantly, Indian businesses may be mom-and-pop shops but as globalisation increases, these very firms will have to professionalise if they are to stay alive in the market,” was the response.

Now, where had I heard a different take on this, I wondered. Bingo! In the early 1990s, when I was with a broadsheet in Bombay (now Mumbai) and Manmohan Singh had just unleashed the winds of liberalisation as P.V. Narasimha Rao’s finance minister.

Back then, a group of influential industrialists — there were, of course a few honourable exceptions — had come together under the umbrella of the Bombay Club to demand a level playing field as they feared an onslaught of MNCs and TNCs could decimate them. Many of these industrialists, it must be remembered, had immensely benefited from the “license raj” regime that was sought to be demolished. In the end, however, it all evened out because India Inc. realised that the way forward was to take on the competition instead of sitting in a corner and whining.

Thus, from the early 1990s to the early part of the 21st century to 2014, it’s been quite an eventful journey with many pointing to a burgeoning middle class as one of the key benefits of liberalisation. Along with this has come a new mantra – CSR, or corporate social responsibility — with firms beyond a certain net worth mandated to keep aside a share of their profits for reinvesting in society.

So, this is expected to create a corpus of Rs. 15,000 crore ($2.5 billion) for uplifting society — but at what cost? Just two examples would suffice.

* The head of a major Indian conglomerate has been in jail for about a month for defaulting on payments to the market regulator. Then the Supreme Court suggested a way out: Pay X amount, 50 percent in cash and the rest via a bank guarantee. The conglomerate, which has some tony hospitality properties in the foreign playgrounds of the rich and famous, said it needed three months to get the money together. Then it asked its executives to chip in and finally, it said the March salaries would be delayed due to cash flow problems!

To add insult to injury, senior executives have been asked to cough up Rs. 100,000 apiece while other employees have had Rs. 10,000 deducted from their salaries.

Did someone say mom-and-pop shop?

* Now for the second example. There’s this tycoon who loves to live the good life – who doesn’t? He let his airline run into the ground, invested heavily in an F1 team and then divested 50 percent of this to the above-named. And, the other day, he invested a fabulous sum on a stallion.

All this in a situation in which the ex-employees are living in penury with no hope of seeing their dues coming home.

So, what’s the point I’m making? Way back in the early 1970s, when I was taking my initial steps as a working journalist, there were many that me and my ilk could look up to – be they politicians, businessmen or academics. I didn’t necessarily agree with them but they helped me shape my perspective, for whatever it’s worth.

Today, at 61, with a few honourable exceptions, who do I look up to? More importantly, who do today’s youngsters, just out of college and finding their feet in the world, look up to and draw inspiration from?

My journey is drawing to a close and I have no regrets but what about 33 percent of India’s 1.2 billion population that is just setting out? Who’s going to guide them? The thought’s pretty terrifying, particularly given the gutter level to which the discourse across the spectrum has descended to.

(06.04.2014 – Vishnu Makhijani is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vishnu.makhijani@ians.in)

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