BERKELEY, Calif. — More than a dozen panelists with intimate ties to India convened over a two-day period at U.C. Berkeley March 11 and March 12 to discuss the country’s development – or lack thereof – in two years since Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed his current role.
Six panel discussions were held over the course of the two days – four on March 11 and two on March 12 – covering topics including business, education, health, law, digital governance and media.
While the overall feel of Modi’s two-year run thus far was mixed, the general consensus from the panelists was that two years is not long enough to get a good enough assessment of the results.
The “India Under Modi” event was hosted by the Institute of South Asian Studies at the university and had a generally lighthearted take on the development of India under its current prime minister.
Moderated by U.C. Berkeley’s College of Engineering Indian American dean S. Shankar Sastry, panelists Sridar Iyengar, Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Venktesh Shukla discussed the country’s business and industry development.
Shukla, the president of TiE Silicon Valley, said during the discussion that two years isn’t enough time to know for sure how Modi has done, and that excuses keep coming from businesses.
“The mindset of distrusting entrepreneurs continues,” Shukla stressed. “The government should create ways for startups to succeed and they don’t do that.”
Meanwhile, Iyengar, the co-founder of The Sounding Board, feels that the right intentions are there for startups and the country is on the right path. However, he added that “people around Modi can’t deliver.”
Mehta, the president and chief executive officer at the Centre for Policy Research, feels as though the country has not varied from the path created by previous Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
“The idea of what this government is doing is a major break from the past is just ridiculous,” Mehta, who also gave the keynote address at the event, emphasized. “It’s actually more incremental change in the same direction,” he added.
Summing up his frustration, though mentioning there is some progress in the infrastructure sector, Mehta said, “I frankly don’t yet see a framework that gives me confidence that some of this uptake is going to happen.”
Seshadri Chari of the Bharatiya Janata Party, vice chancellor of the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research University of Law Faizan Mustafa and associate professor Manisha Priyam spoke on education.
Moderator Pradeep Chhibber kicked off the discussion by suggesting that, even though there is a positive move in privatization of primary and secondary education, “I’m not so sure that just following the privatization model without adequate regulations would actually be good either for the students or for the teachers of the good of the country in the long haul.”
Priyam didn’t have a positive take on education, but added the most promising thing she’s seen has been the budget. Mustafa added that there are “alarming signs” within the education sector and the “picture is not as rosy as we think.”
Chari, who at times was confrontational about people not getting the facts straight, said education needs to be depoliticized and added that the “corrective process has to begin somewhere”
“If you think this is what Narendra Modi has been elected for,” Chari continued, “And in two years, what corrective measures has he taken … you cannot make these corrective processes in two years.”
Chari went on and explained what the government can do, including aiming at a collective national process, a radical reconstruction of the educational system, and improve the quality of education, teachers, educational infrastructure and curriculum, with a greater focus on STEM studies.
The third panel of the first day, moderated by U.C. Berkeley economics professor Pranab Bardhan, focused on the health, development and poverty sectors, and included a panel featuring IIT Delhi professor Reetika Khera, University of British Columbia professor Ashok Kotwal and U.C. Berkeley professor Isha Ray.
Khera, in a slide show, showed how India is the “world champion of social under-spending,” spending very little money compared to other South Asian countries, despite having a population of more than 1.25 billion. “They don’t have the architecture to support children,” Khera said.
Kotwal added that “growth is just a means to an end.” He added that the two years isn’t indicative of Modi since many policies have been delayed and the numbers have not even been processed to assess Modi’s work in his short time as prime minister.
“The shortcomings have not been in the policy ideas, but in the implementation of the policies,” he said.
Ray concluded the discussions with a vivid explanation of the government’s desire to make sure everyone has a toilet, but they aren’t thinking about it the right way.
“Plunking down toilets is not going to make people use them,” she said, adding that sometimes people don’t have the funds to have the latrine cleaned, and they refuse to clean it themselves, adding to the problem of defecation sitting in a latrine outside a home.
Still, Ray added, the lowest 25 percent of people – those who need toilets the most – are being left out. She added that it’s more than a people issue, it’s an environmental issue.
“If we concede health interventions … without thinking about the totality of the experience and the totality of the needs, I do not think it is possible for a program, despite its best intentions, to actually achieve, even remotely, a fraction of its goals,” she said.
Day one of the India Under Modi event concluded with a panel discussion on law, justice and minority rights. Initially scheduled to be moderated by Sujit Choudhry, the U.C. Berkeley law professor who resigned following sexual harassment charges, replacement moderator Sonia Katyal merely said he “unfortunately could not be here.”
Katyal, a professor at the university’s school of law, served as both moderator and panelist, and was joined by University of Delhi professor Carmel C.K. Joseph and lawyer Lawrence Liang.
The trio discussed the media’s role in law in the country, covering a bevy of topics. Liang summed up the discussion succinctly by saying he is “not sure we can address (these topics) under Modi.”
Following a break in the two-day event, panels on digital governance and media and culture were held March 12.
U.C. Berkeley political science professor Jennifer Bussell, Centre for the Study of Culture and Society’s Ashish Rajadhyaksha, and Inventus Capital Partners managing director Kanwal Rekhi spoke on digital governance.
For the final discussion, storyteller and technologist Thenmozhi Soundararajan and journalists Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Siddharth Vardarajan were the panelists.