The great decline

19 December 2007
India has a record of creating worthy institutions, only to undermine them. Will the India International Centre remain an exception to this, as it has done so far?
WHEN historians analyse great institution-building in India in the 1950s and the 1960s, they cannot but be struck by the grand vision behind their conception or their breathtaking range. From the Planning Commission to the arts akademis, from development banks to museums and galleries, from central universities to national laboratories and the councils of social science and historical research, and from councils for the crafts to the National Book Trust, independent India created scores of institutions to perform functions related to nation-building, documentation of our heritage and the promotion of excellence. Historians will be even more astonished by the decline of a majority of our institutions, their takeover by cabals and empire-builders, their hollowing out, and eventually, undermining. The sad story of this cycle of creation, growth and destruction is probably unequalled anywhere else, at least in scale and pace of destruction. If this sounds extreme, just consider some seemingly disconnected examples: the state of the Sahitya Akademi, the Lalit Kala Akademi and the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the culture of neglect, slovenliness and patronage that pervades our museums, the pathetic funds-starved state of our universities, and the handing over of specialised institutions (for instance, the Archaeological Survey of India) to generalists in the bureaucracy. Most of our cultural institutions are decaying, having become victims of mismanagement and nepotism, worsened by poor funding. Our urban planning bodies have proved hopelessly inadequate in preventing the implosion of our cities, unremitting environmental pollution and destruction of community life under the impact of predatory commercial forces. India, the “Arriving knowledge superpower”, cannot boast of a single world-class library. The Indian Council of Social Science Research and the Indian Council of Historical Research have budgets that are only a fraction of what a mid-sized university in the West would spend on research. India, once called a “Third World science superpower”, now lags behind several southern countries in quality of output or citation of scientific papers. Among the worst performers are government institutions, especially those responsible for reforming the administration, improving policing, and making governance more people-responsive. Barring the Right to Information Act, we have little reform to show. The bureaucracy, and now increasingly, the higher judiciary, is proving resistant to accountability and change in the public interest. Put simply, the public sphere is shrinking. We have wilfully destroyed many economic institutions, including the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission — just when cartels and enormous concentrations of power are getting consolidated in the infrastructure and core industries, including real estate, petroleum, telecommunications and civil aviation. It took a great deal of foresight to set up term-lending institutions such as the Industrial Development Bank of India and the Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation of India, which would provide concessional finance for capital investment in import-substituting industries. These have become mere commercial banks largely catering to the urban elite. Such examples can be multiplied in every arena. Grave as these failures are, they pale beside our inability to create forums for intellectual reflection, policy debate and a critical review of where this society is headed under the impact of neoliberal globalisation, extremely dualistic growth, a burgeoning middle class which is deeply apathetic to the vast majority of our people, and a growing culture of consumerist hedonism and indifference to the public good. As the quality of parliamentary debate declines, and the bulk of the media becomes obsessed with trivia, there are few organised platforms for a discussion on major changes in India’s foreign policy and security stance, and more generally, on what India with its rising global profile can contribute to making the world a better, less skewed and strife-torn place. Arguably, only a handful of institutions in India offer such a discussion forum. Among them is the India International Centre (IIC) in New Delhi, conceived with the explicit purpose of becoming a meeting point of “various currents of intellectual, political and economic thought” and promoting “understanding and amity between the different communities of the world by undertaking… the study of their past and present cultures, by disseminating or exchanging knowledge thereof, and by providing such other facilities as would lead to their universal appreciation”. The IIC, set up in 1962 with former Finance Minister and University Grants Commission Chairman C.D. Deshmukh as its founder president, represented an initiative by what was perhaps the most far-sighted and enlightened selection of the Indian liberal establishment. Its founding involved people with a vision of India’s future and a progressive global role for her. At its inauguration, Jawaharlal Nehru remarked: “It surprises me… that we did not have [the IIC] previously, because the world today is so constituted that there can be no escape from international cooperation except, well, disaster. This International Centre will, of course, not change the nature of the world, but it will help in the process.” Incidentally, Nehru played no small role in choosing and sanctioning the IIC site. The IIC’s mandate is to host national and international conferences, promote free dialogue on a range of issues and organise programmes in music, film, folk and classical cultures, and the arts. It has several conference rooms and lecture halls, a library, a hostel, dining rooms and tea lounges, grouped around two great courts. Its programmes, inspired by the spirit of liberal humanism, are open to the public and are completely non-commercial in orientation. This gives the IIC a broader function related to the public purpose — despite its elite character and its relatively small, and much-coveted, membership. Situated next door to the handsomely landscaped Lodhi Gardens with their exquisite 15th and 16th-century domed monuments, the IIC has a special ambience where, in Deshmukh’s words, “the sharpness of intellectual encounter would be softened by the graciousness of good fellowship”. Designed by Joseph Allen Stein, the IIC has become an architectural landmark — not least because it derives its architectural character and forms based on modern techniques and appropriate materials to achieve consonance or concord with its environment, but without losing its identity as a structure belonging to the second half of the 20th century. Stein attempted to “create something which depended upon… relationships rather than things. So this is not a five-star appearance…. But it is a place where a certain kind of relationship exists — between the garden and the building and the water and the earth and sky, and the learning and activities that take place and the things that happen….” Central to the conception of the IIC was an intimate relationship with Indian and international scholars, and the universities, whom Deshmukh specially invited to join as corporate founder-members, and which made substantial donations towards the Centre’s construction costs. As he put it: “So impressive is the support… [from the universities and the UGC] … that the centre could appropriately be described as university-based.” Over the past 45 years, the IIC has managed to resist decay thanks in no small way to the system of life-trustees and an engaged section of its membership (now 5,811 individuals). It has maintained a reasonably high standard in cultural programmes. But the quality and breadth of the discussions it organises have declined in some cases. Too much importance is assigned to security-related issues, and too little to the profound changes taking place in Indian society, the economy, culture and ordinary people’s lives. More important, the IIC’s vital link with the academic world has got weakened. Not only is the representation of “the humanities and social sciences” and “education” within the membership (16.1 per cent) lower than that of retired bureaucrats and defence personnel (19.6), but fewer universities are now IIC members than 40 years ago — even as their number has tripled nationally. They go virtually unrepresented in decision-making bodies: the trustees and the executive committee. At the same time, “management and business” representatives, who perhaps have the least to contribute to intellectual dialogue or cultural interaction, are grossly over-represented and form the single largest category. The proportion of affluent members who participate in no IIC activity but only use its moderately priced dining facilities has sharply grown. Worse, the IIC has become extremely Delhi-centric. All this departs from its mandate and purpose. Clearly, the time has come for strict adherence to the Centre’s original mandate and rationale. But corrective action cannot occur without reform at the very top. As it happens, many IIC top positions, including that of the life trustees are, or will soon fall, vacant. It is absolutely imperative that they are filled with prudence, care and attention to diversity. It simply does not make sense that all the life-trustees should be Delhi-based, or that former bureaucrats/diplomats dominate its composition. In the past, some (for instance, Malcolm Adiseshaiah or M.G.K. Menon) were drafted from other cities and from other walks of life (Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay or Kapila Vatsayan). Again, the next Director does not have to be a former civil servant. She could be an artist/playwright. One thing is clear. Unless the IIC reforms itself, it risks going the way of many other Indian institutions.
Praful Bidwai, a fellow of the Transnational Institute, is a senior Indian journalist, political activist and widely published commentator. He is a co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of ‘New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament’.