Home / Opinion / Columns /  India’s next big bet: Internal globalization

Most of us would have read or heard about Thomas Friedman’s best-seller The World is Flat. We would also know that the inspiration for the book and its title came from Nandan Nilekani. The co-founder of Infosys Ltd and former chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India, or UIDAI, is back with another big idea: Internal Globalization.

In a recent interview with Mint he articulated this idea. “In the ‘world is flat era’, Boston and Bangalore were flat earth, but not Bangalore and Bidadi as internal India was not equally accessible," he said, before adding: “But given that India’s growth will have to come more from domestic economic activity, especially from services, reducing the friction internally between states and people of different languages is the need of the hour and we may be halfway on that journey." What Nilekani is trying to say is rather simple, but complex to execute; doable of course, if there is the requisite political will. His argument is that all services should be made portable—very much like banking and mobile services are today. Obvious then, that failure to do so will deny people access to key services such as healthcare, the public distribution system (PDS), and so on.

If implemented, it will recognize a very important facet of the contemporary reality of India: migration. The sordid episode involving migrants fleeing cities in the aftermath of the covid-19 pandemic, which originated in Wuhan, China, only reinforced a known fact. These migrants, anywhere between 10-12 million, annually move to cities around November in search of jobs and return to their villages around March-April.

But they represent only one aspect, important albeit, of the migration phenomenon. Due to a combination of factors—regional growth imbalance, better connectivity—Indians are crisscrossing the country largely in search of employment. As a result, the linguistic homogeneity of India is gradually being replaced with an unprecedented diversity; though sometimes it does give rise to tensions, it is creating a very layered India—it is not just about cross-cultural marriages, but also about the local language, the migrants, especially the children, learn. Those visiting Kerala and Tamil Nadu will be surprised to hear a spattering of languages ranging from Odiya, Bengali, Hindi and even Bhojpuri. In fact, Maharashtra, a traditional hotspot for migrants, now offers education in eight Indian languages. The Supreme Court, as Nilekani pointed out in the same interview, is deploying artificial intelligence, or AI, to ensure its orders are shared in multiple languages. The New Education Policy 2020, too, has laid out plans to address linguistic complexity. The message is increasingly clear. Migration cannot be prevented. It is a new fact of life. The advantage India has today is that there is technology available to facilitate this transition. The introduction of the goods and services tax for the first time economically unified the country. A similar idea, One Nation, One Ration Card is also about to be rolled out. It is time now to scale this concept to other deliverables. As Nilekani pointed out: “If I want education in my mother tongue, I should get that anywhere in the country. We have to really re-imagine some of these things so that people have access everywhere. All this can only be enabled through technology. Definitely, there is a chance here to re-imagine our future in a way that improves the common man’s life." The good news, as Nilekani said, is that the architecture for scaling such a plan is already in place. The introduction of Aadhaar has provided a unique identity to over 1 billion people in India; this was paired with an inter-operable payments mechanism, such as the unified payments interface, or UPI, to give a new definition to financial transactions—similarly, it can be paired with individual health data to create a national health stack; a plan the Centre rolled out on 15 August. The covid-19 crisis is forcing countries, including India, to look within. In this, eliminating barriers, cultural and economic, should be key. In other words, internal globalization can be the ideology driving the next round of change. Something that can transform a crisis into an opportunity.

Anil Padmanabhan is managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.

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