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A Water Buffalo Hits a Plane: Reflections on a Changing India

“India is in motion, but the direction remains uncertain. Economic growth, urbanization, climate change, and leapfrogging technologies are strong forces for change, but they contend with deep-rooted social and cultural traditions that are hundreds-of-years old.”

On Friday, Nov 7th, I woke up to a text message that my upcoming flight from New Delhi to Surat was indefinitely postponed. A plane hit a water buffalo on takeoff and the airline was concerned about security. I marveled at modern global communication systems, felt sorry for the water buffalo, and wondered how on earth it made it on to an airport runway.

This event captures the tensions involved with India’s current growth. Domestic air travel is booming in India. Yet this growth occurs against the backdrop of an India that remains rooted in its past. Rural villagers see fences around the verdant lands of growing airports as barriers to the grazing of their flocks and, by extension, economic opportunity. They come up with their own innovative improvisations to tend to their livelihoods, one of which was the likely source of my early morning text.

From the Archives - Indian Farmer

A farmer standing in his field located near Karimnagar,
Andhra Pradesh in 1957.

India has played an important role in my life, both personally and professionally. I was born there and visit regularly, and The Rockefeller Foundation has a long history of working with Indian partners to support their efforts in improving the well-being of Indian people. In 1961, when India was on the brink of famine, the Indian Minister of Agriculture invited Nobel laureate and longtime Rockefeller official Norman Borlaug to help improve agricultural productivity. The result was the Green Revolution in India and the launch of its own programs in plant breeding, irrigation development, and financing of agrochemicals.

During my most recent trip, the discussion over India’s identity was animated by its recent change in government. The implications of Narendra Modi and the BJP’s victory at the polls earlier this year are popular topics in the op-ed pages of India’s leading newspapers. While I was in India, this discussion played against the memory of another famous Indian leader, Jawaharlal Nehru, whose birth 125 years ago on November 14th was being celebrated.

The two men and their different ideologies represent different forces in India’s ongoing evolution. Nehru was the scion of a prominent family that continues to hold significant power after his death. He set the foundations for a secular republic and advocated a strong role for government in the economy. Nehru helped establish the Congress Party’s social liberal platform including support for farmers and the involvement of lower castes in various institutions. He was famous for his letters to his chief ministers that covered broad ideological themes and practical administrative matters. One of Nehru’s letters advocated the use of brooms with long handles as more efficient and to give cleaners more dignity with an upright position.

Narendra Modi is different in many ways. He came from much humbler beginnings and uses his ascent from tea seller to prime minister as a symbol of a new India full of opportunity. Modi has evolved his image from a religious nationalist to a corporate administrator with the motto of “less government, more governance.” While he was Chief Minister of Gujarat, there was increased economic growth and investment in infrastructure but it’s debated whether the benefits were adequately shared across classes and castes.  This past October, Modi held a long handled broom and swept a parking area to launch Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Campaign Clean India), a drive to clean the streets and other infrastructure in India.

To create an analogy for the United States, it would be as if the media were analyzing Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 against the combined imprint of FDR and Johnson on the social, political, and economic paradigms for the country.

India is in motion, but the direction remains uncertain. Economic growth, urbanization, climate change, and leapfrogging technologies are strong forces for change, but they contend with deep-rooted social and cultural traditions that are hundreds-of-years old. How the government navigates this mix in guiding India forward will influence the degree to which all of India’s people, particularly the poor or vulnerable, are included in economic opportunities and how they share in the country’s prosperity. Furthermore, the decisions India makes today in handling a range of challenges today will determine its resilience in handling unpredictable economic, social, and environmental events in the future.

After two weeks interacting with a range of people and institutions, I am cautiously optimistic. I was also fortunate in my visit to spend time with partners in two Rockefeller Foundation initiatives that point to a positive future. In New Delhi, I worked the team driving our Smart Power initiative, which aims to electrify 1,000 villages using an innovative approach to providing renewable energy to anchor clients such as telecom towers for commercial use, to microenterprises for new livelihood opportunities, and to communities for home purposes. This is a market-based approach to inclusive economic development leading to many positive social outcomes in health, education, and quality of life.

I then—eventually—made my way to Surat to visit partners working on building resilience to climate change. This work started in Surat under our Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN), and continues with Surat’s membership in our 100 Resilient Cities Network. One of the projects funded through ACCCRN is an early warning system that has already equipped the city with the crucial information it needs to anticipate future floods. As India urbanizes at a dizzying pace, incorporating resilience thinking into urban planning and management will not only prevent costly interventions in the future but help capture the resilience dividend today.

From Smart Power to 100 Resilient Cities and beyond, we’re excited to continue helping India to protect its poorest and most vulnerable people—and ensure that they benefit from the emerging opportunities of this new century.

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