India knows its Arjuns well – Virat Kohli, astronaut Rakesh Sharma, Shahrukh and Salman, Leander Paes, et al. Yet, does it know its ‘Eklavyas’ – the winners whose identities are forged by their struggle to survive rather than succeed? There was a boy – probably all grown up now – at Mumbai’s Hanging Gardens who spoke several foreign languages, learned while selling peacock feather fans to tourists. (There are videos of him uploaded on YouTube for the curious.) To see him rattle off his sales pitch in Italian, Japanese, English, German, Chinese and other languages was a lesson in the abilities of those that have absolutely no support system and survive in a harsh environment merely because they have no other option. There are child street performers, who put on shows that can beguile even the most jaded cinema goers. Throughout the country, young boys can take apart the engines of cars and put them together again, yet cannot read or write. The most extraordinary feats of physical derring-do and endurance are carried out daily by millions of Indians merely as a mundane pursuit of livelihood, and not in the pursuit of Olympic Golds.
When India’s planners devise programmes of charity for its poor, do they factor in the ‘Eklavya’ phenomenon – that there are many who do not need help so much as opportunity? It is an insult, actually, to treat the downtrodden millions as charity cases, when indeed their cumulative effort underpins the Indian economy even in the most adverse of times, and in a most unjust system. They manage to survive a harsh childhood, make a living, have families and contribute to society regardless of what state the global economy may be in, what rate the dollar is selling against the rupee, and what ‘sacrifices’ the noble leaders of the country may be making on their behalf. If only India could tap into their energy and enterprise, invest in ways to magnify their achievements.
There is a conventional mode of thinking that restricts policy makers from engaging with this non-formal sector of the economy. This is because they disappear somewhere in a statistical model that fails to adequately capture their contribution. Economics derives so much from the Western experience that its votaries fail to modify theories, or evolve new ones that could explain how ‘survival of the fittest’ is playing out in the bottom echelons of society. That, instead of a mode of transformation, there is a conflict, and a parasitic relationship, between the ‘informal’ and the ‘formal’.
Even as the nasty and brutish quality of life of the struggling millions forces survival skills on them, the ‘cosseted’ lifestyle of privileged children may well be inhibiting their abilities – something that is evident from the lack of competitiveness the Indian economy has exhibited in the global context. Unless the strength of the one is dovetailed with the knowledge of the other, India’s natural advantages cannot be leveraged to the required level. It requires adoption of a ‘higher code’ that does away with hypocrisy and pretence, particularly in governance. The better off and the poor must collaborate on an enterprise that challenges a system that ‘divides and rules’ – maintaining thereby the hold of mediocrity over excellence.