Lessons for Yogi from Gandhi and Lee

The test of public policies must be not what is good for investors but what is good for the people

June 16, 2020 12:15 am | Updated 12:15 am IST

“Lee Kuan Yew declared that Singapore would become the first ‘developed’ country in Asia.” A family is seen in front of a memorial portrait of Lee outside the parliament building ahead of his funeral in 2015. AFP

“Lee Kuan Yew declared that Singapore would become the first ‘developed’ country in Asia.” A family is seen in front of a memorial portrait of Lee outside the parliament building ahead of his funeral in 2015. AFP

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is determined to bring all migrant workers back to his State. He says he does not want U.P.’s citizens to migrate in future . He has a vision of providing homes and jobs to all of them — in a State which has not yet been able to provide for the larger multitudes who stayed behind. Moreover, he will be competing with neighbouring States (Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, etc.) and also States further away, which will also be working harder to grow jobs. He needs a good plan. He would do well to take some lessons from Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of modern Singapore, and from Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the Indian nation.

Developing Singapore

Lee declared that Singapore would become the first ‘developed’ country in Asia, when it was founded in 1965. His measure of development was the per capita incomes of Singaporeans which would rise to the same levels as citizens in more advanced economies. Singapore did not have any natural resources, like oil or minerals, which it could sell to the West to bring in money for its citizens. All that it could offer large Western companies to use was its strategic location on shipping routes between the East and West, and its people. Lee invited companies from the U.S., Europe, and Japan to set up manufacturing facilities in Singapore and use Singapore labour.

Also read: Adityanath remark on migrant workers misleading, anti-Dalit: Congress

The companies were attracted by the large pools of low-cost labour in ASEAN countries. Amongst these countries, Singapore was the most attractive for its location. They welcomed his invitation. But Lee had a condition they were not prepared for. He did not want them to merely set up labour-intensive assembly factories. Lee wanted wages to rise in Singapore, so that per capita incomes would rise. Therefore, he wanted the companies to train Singaporeans to do higher-value work.

Global supply chains were forming then: MNCs were on the lookout for lower-cost sources. MNCs could ‘plug and play’ in larger labour markets. If wages rose in Singapore, which Lee wanted, he feared they would move their assembly operations to the neighbouring countries. Lee promised the companies world-class infrastructure, an efficient administration, and low taxes. In return, he wanted the companies to help the government by investing in continuous upgradation of their employees’ skills, so that Singaporeans would earn more and Singapore would become fully ‘developed’.

The companies were not willing to make such long-term investments in Singapore’s people. Lee turned to J.R.D. Tata to set up a training centre and a precision tool room in partnership with the Singapore government, and help build foundations for Singapore’s industrial growth. Thus, the Tatas were pioneers in Singapore in the 1970s; other, much larger companies then came along.

Also read: Raut slams Yogi’s claim of ‘ill-treatment’ of migrant workers in Maharashtra

The rules of globalisation have made life easy for migrant capital, not for migrant labour. They make it easy for migrant capital to come into a country, make profits, and leave when it wishes to. It has been hard for migrant labour to join the global party. They have died in hundreds while crossing the seas to Europe, and walls are shutting them out from the U.S. Tragically, even when they leave India’s globalising cities to go back to their villages, after being used and discarded, they are dying on the way out too.

Governments must listen to and care for their citizens and workers more than to investors. They must encourage only those investors who care as much for citizens and workers where they invest as for their own investors back home. Economists who advise governments must be clear that humans are not tools to produce returns for investors; rather, money is a tool to produce benefits for humans.

Gandhian economics

U.P. is more complex than Singapore. Singapore is a city state with about 6 million citizens, while U.P., with a population of more than 200 million, has dozens of towns and thousands of villages. Migrants are returning from India’s cities to villages in U.P. and other States. They are returning to a world Gandhi knew well. Gandhi said that unless people in India’s villages have economic and social freedom, India cannot be a free country. This was his vision of ‘poorna swaraj’. For him, political freedom from the British was a step on the way. Gandhi is often dismissed as an impractical romantic. However, Gandhi and his economic advisers understood the economic and social problems in India’s villages better than the economists in India’s Planning Commission did. Gandhi also knew the potential of India’s poorest people, who were merely statistics for the economists. Above all, he believed that the economy must serve human needs, rather than human beings becoming fodder for the GDP. This was a vision that Lee Kuan Yew had too: for him, the ultimate measure of Singapore becoming fully developed was not the size of its GDP, but the incomes of its citizens.

U.P. does not have a ‘migrant’ problem. It has a ‘citizen’ problem. All citizens of the State (and India too) deserve jobs, livelihoods and a good life with dignity, whether they are migrants or not. The test of public policies must be not what is good for investors and for the GDP, but what is good for the people, especially those who are the most powerless. In Lee’s, Tata’s, and Gandhi’s books, diluting the rights of workers to make life easier for investors was not done.

The world has been ‘deglobalising’ since the financial crisis of 2008. Many countries have raised barriers against migrants from other countries. The World Trade Organization is very sick. COVID-19 has sharply accelerated a trend towards localisation that was already under way. Supply chains have broken up. Barriers against movement of people have gone up everywhere.

‘Gandhian’ economics, which E.F. Schumacher (author of Small is Beautiful ) and J.C. Kumarappa (sometimes referred to as Gandhi’s Planning Commission) articulated very well, is based on simple principles. One, human beings and local communities must be the means for human progress — and their well-being must be the purpose of progress too. Two, governance must be strengthened at the local level, in villages and cities. Three, wealth is good, but wealthy people must be only trustees of a community’s wealth, and not its owners. Four, the alienation of owners from workers must be reduced with the creation of new models of cooperative capitalist enterprises, where the workers, not remote capitalists, or the state, are owners of the enterprises.

India had come to a fork in the road in 1947: it could run behind the West to catch up; or it could take a path less taken, using a ‘Gandhian’ approach for human development. It chose to run behind the others. Now, we are back at the crossroads. The health crisis and the economic crisis have made people everywhere consider what path we should take after this crisis. Back to the ‘normal’ economics of GDP or towards a more human and more local economics?

Arun Maira is former member, Planning Commission, and author, ‘Transforming Systems: Why the World Needs a New Ethical Toolkit’

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