Samir Saran, President of ORF, spoke to New Age’s Shahidul Islam Chowdhury about the various matters affecting India-Bangladesh relations, including the Rohingya crisis, the ongoing fourth industrial revolution and the Teesta Water Treaty.
New Age: How do you assess the need for the presence of strong and meaningful political, social and other institutions in ensuring benefits of the fourth industrial revolution?
Samir Saran: We require strong institutions and forward-looking policies in which the government’s role is light and one of enablement. Innovation succeeds when we allow individuals to create solutions, devise business models and unleash value. The government’s job is to move away from being omnipresent and to nurture an ecosystem that catalyses opportunities in this new industrial age. These are largely going to be centred around how people are able to create solutions to today’s problems with a clever deployment of new technology, evolving financing arrangements and efficient delivery mechanisms.
The government would essentially play an enabling role rather than a supervisory role — of a catalyst, instead of regulators. We are in a transition when better governance would have to be the mantra for the fourth industrial revolution.
NA: Do you think that effective human rights, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are essential in creating an environment where people can adapt themselves to ever-changing technological and economic advances?
SS: Human rights, the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press should be protected irrespective of industrial or technological transformations. These essential human needs must be respected universally. I am, however, not convinced that these are base conditions for success in the fourth industrial revolution. The Chinese model tells us that you can be a controlled state; you can have disregard for certain kinds of rights, you may not support certain kinds of freedom and yet you produce robust economic models that are based on technology. That being said, the value of rights and freedom must be enshrined and cherished by all.
NA: You have mentioned the necessity of bringing in transformation in governance in preparation for the fourth industrial revolution. Is it possible to bring in effective transformation in governance without ensuring representative democracy in a country? Why?
SS: Democracy is a political choice. It is a political arrangement that people have chosen as a collective. It is not the only model. China is not a representative democracy. It is managed through a one-party system which is non-transparent and certainly non-representative and yet it has done remarkably well on the governance front. It has effectively provided its people with security, health benefits, pension, insurance and amenities such as water, electricity, roads etc. I don’t think governments are going to succeed just by being democratic. On the other hand, it does not mean that if you are not a democracy, you cannot deliver good governance. You have to view governance and democracy as two discrete yet interrelated facets of political arrangements. Although they implicate each other, they are not mutually dependent.
NA: When most of the experts give emphasis on changes in the thought process of bachelor’s students and re-skilling of professionals for multitasking, to what extent are primary and secondary education levels of education important in relation to technological changes to cater to the needs?
SS: The debate is not about the importance of foundational schooling, which is important for human minds. The question is what should be taught during this time? How should we create an educational ecosystem that is harnessing and developing abilities to allow the youth to succeed in a new technological age? These are important questions. Should we follow the old format, which privileges human capacity to assimilate and remember vast knowledge? Or should we privilege the creativity of the individual to deploy that knowledge for practical purposes. We live in a world where the internet offers each individual the ability to tap into vast pools of information. It is our capacity to use that knowledge in a manner that is unique and different that matters. I believe that in 10 years, we need to seriously rework and rethink all formats of education. Primary and secondary education will also have to respond to the demands of this age.
NA: How are cultural changes linked to the fourth industrial revolution?
SS: There are many changes. I will mention three of them. The first is the dislocation of human identity from workplaces. Earlier, people who worked on farms had specific identities. If you worked on a factory floor, you were a blue-collar worker. In a corporate office, you were a white-collar worker. Now everyone is working on a mobile. All of us are delivering goods and services using our personal devices. Now that the mobile is the office, how do we identify ourselves in a professional class system that is defined by the first industrial revolution? We need to rethink our social order. The factory and the farm are no longer very relevant in our social order. Individuals have to relocate their social identity.
The second is that technology and globalisation have enabled the aggregation and mobilisation of communities who may never have interacted otherwise. For example, there were protests in Europe against nuclear power. These are communities with large per capita income that were holding protests from ideological and ethical positions. Thousands of miles away, in a small village in Tamil Nadu, fisher folk also held protests against nuclear power. These communities belong to a very different economic stratum. Their realities were very different. In Europe, people get electricity for almost 24 hours a day, but in villages, access to electricity is erratic and uncertain. And yet the idea of protests against nuclear power appealed to both the communities. Was it the power of communications that allowed ideas to travel quickly to a different location and find appeal amongst different stakeholders? Or was it a coincidence?
The third is the emergence of a new collective identity. Consider, for example, the women’s march that happened after the election of Donald Trump. During the march, criticism of Donald Trump became the rallying point for women, religious minorities, LGBT activists and others that are marginalised from the mainstream. We begin to see a new collective emerging, courtesy the power of social media and the power of communications. In the gathering against Donald Trump, their identity was not defined by religion or gender. All of them were anti-Donald Trump. That was a single identity.
The relationship between identity formation and technologies is an evolving science. I do not think that we have sufficiently studied the implications of technology on society, on our communities and on how we engage. It is fast moving and it is very dynamic. We need to pay attention to this.
NA: Bangladesh and Indian authorities claim that the two countries have been enjoying all-weather friendship since 2009. What imbalances do you see in Bangladesh-India relations?
SS: I cannot speak for the [Indian] government. I speak as an academic. I clearly see three challenges. But these are also opportunities. The first is to completely re-conceptualise our border arrangement. There is no reason that India needs to have an eastern border that adheres to the same rigid and securitised conception of a boundary that we have on our western border. India’s eastern border is an opportunity for both of us to create arrangements that allow free movement of people, goods, ideas and culture. We have a very strong government-to-government relationship. We must now create more layers and more levels of engagement. A more porous border will help this.
The second is that both the governments are increasingly focused on internal challenges of growth and development. They serve their societies. However, If we are so self-obsessed, so inward-looking, do we have enough time, resources and capital to create a bilateral and regional architecture that is urgently needed? We must plan for the long term and create a 10- or 20-year joint vision. This must include areas of mutual importance: human development, trade and economic partnership, the maritime commons and the blue economy and the digital economy. This common long-term vision for the region and for our own individual growth and aspirations has not yet been conceptualised. We still see a rather one-sided conversation on the future of growth and development. We have to make it far more balanced. I think that India has a lot to learn from some of Bangladesh’s’ experiments in improving opportunities for women and using grass-roots communities to catalyse changes. Development processes have to be bidirectional. We have to share common experiences and create new knowledge pipelines that flow in both directions.
The third is that we must engage our youths. A half of our populations are under the age of 25. To ensure that our historic relationship is strengthened, our youths must be engaged with each other. Otherwise, they will forget our historic ties. The next two generations will not see or remember the relationship as we see it today. We will have to reinvent and rebrand our old relationship in ways that younger generations respond to. They must believe that it is worth sustaining, growing and serving. Our people-to-people ties are limited to an old-elite that are either angry with each other or romanticise. We have to unleash the power of youth to create a new constituency that believes, serves and strengthens the bilateral relationship.
NA: A good number of Bangladeshis believe that Bangladesh is the only friendly country to India in South Asia, addressing a plenty of strategic and security problems as well as extending transit and transshipment facilities connecting the north-eastern India to the mainland. Do you think India should reciprocate it? How?
SS: India should ensure that its single-most important foreign policy priority in the coming years is Bangladesh. I agree with the view that Bangladesh has truly been our friends and that India has sometimes not been as engaged as it should be. I do not think that it is the government’s fault alone. India is a country which is composed of multiple actors. We have to ensure that the corporate sector, civil society, academia and the media are more engaged with Bangladesh than they are today. From my interactions in Dhaka, it is clear that there are not enough opportunities to have conversations among the academic and strategic communities across the border. If there was a monthly conversation happening in Bangladesh with Indian visitors, we would understand each other better. Indian views cannot be represented only by its high commission and diplomats. Civil society, academia, cultural artistes and businesses need to do more and should be in this city more often. I think that we have been too obsessed with China, the United States, the European Union and Russia. We have sometimes neglected our most important friends and partners and Bangladesh is certainly on top of that list.
NA: Border killing has not stopped despite repeated assurance from the highest political level of India, and, none other than, the prime ministers, including the incumbent Narendra Modi. How do you see this?
SS: I am not in a position to comment on the security situation along the border. Having said that, we have to rethink our borders completely. I think that it is self-defeating to militarise and securitise borders with a friendly country. Borders should be a place to create economic values, not to create political tension. Friendly countries do not have rigid borders. Our security concerns along the western border are unfortunately projecting on our borders with Bangladesh. We must remove the barbed-wire fences and walls and create economic opportunities along the border. This requires political will from both the governments. But as the larger country, India must make more efforts to make it happen.
NA: Do you find anything wrong in India’s Bangladesh policy?
SS: First, India has to devote far more attention, resources and political capital into ensuring that Bangladesh is completely aware of India’s thinking on matters that implicate it. Bangladesh should never be surprised by our actions. Second, as India grows, our economic engagements must be favourable to Bangladesh. The United States has allowed India a favourable balance of trade. Our balance of trade should be in Bangladesh’s favour. As a bigger economy, we must ensure that our neighbours benefit from our growth and that we do not trap them in perverse economic dependencies. Third, India must see Bangladesh not just as a neighbour but as a partner in the Indo-Pacific. Bangladesh is a country of about 170 million people. How many countries have such a large population? Very few. Bangladesh is already nearly a $300-billion economy and will likely rank among the top 20 economies in the coming decade. Bangladesh has to be re-imagined as an important geopolitical actor that is going to be crucial for stability in the Indo-Pacific. The Quad, which includes the United States, Japan, Australia and India, is good for macro-stability. But the lasting and resilient arrangements will come out of partnership between India and Bangladesh and from engagements with Sri Lanka and through organisations such as SAARC and BIMSTEC.
NA: What actions should India take to settle disputes on shares of trans-boundary rivers, including the Teesta, at the earliest to uphold commitments made with Bangladesh at the highest political level?
SS: The next government in India must keep this on top of their agenda. They must create a favourable climate for conversations between the centre and state governments to ensure that this barrier is overcome. It must be the top priority of the new government.
NA: People in most of the neighbouring countries are unhappy about the hegemony of India, which is expected to emerge as a global power from at least strategic perspectives. Do you think that it is possible for India to achieve this fully, keeping its neighbours dissatisfied?
SS: I do not think that India is now articulating its vision in this manner. For the next 15 to 20 years, India’s priority will be to lift millions of its people out of poverty and then provide them with affordable health care and skills for new opportunities and invest in their future. If we do this correctly for the next 10 to 15 years, our goals will be achieved. The asymmetry of size always creates certain degrees of insecurity. Our problem is that many of the actions are in response to China’s rise. But our actions sometimes adversely affect smaller countries around us. We are in a unique situation where two large countries, each with billion-plus population and with 4,000 kilometres of disputed borders, are rising simultaneously. This is creating a complex political situation. Yes, sometimes our neighbours confront this complexity. We must be sensitive to it. India must go the extra mile to ensure the salience of our neighbours in our foreign policy.
NA:Do you think that the Indian government should mount pressure on Myanmar to take the Rohingyas back to their home in Rakhine State in a sustainable manner?
SS: India is very much aware of this crisis. Over a half a million people were made refugees in an already vulnerable and volatile region. It is in India’s interest that India should ensure that Myanmar and Bangladesh arrive at a fair and reasonable conclusion. I believe that India cannot play a big brother. We have to allow organic resolutions. Our governments must work together to ensure an equitable resolution to the crisis. The host country must push Myanmar to create that condition. And India must facilitate the return of the Rohingyas to Myanmar.
NA: Do you think that the perpetrators engaged in crimes against humanity against the Rohingya people in Rakhine should be brought to justice at the earliest?
SS: We should have zero tolerance towards this as people who believe in peace and pluralism. I think the global multilateral system and institutions that were responsible for preventing this from happening have failed to ensure the security of the Rohingya people. We must provide them with justice and relief.
NA: Anything you want to add?
SS: Bangladesh and India must respond to our legacy issues without losing sight of future opportunities. An India-Bangladesh relationship has a dual imperative. We must build on our past to ensure that we work towards the future together.
This interview originally appeared in New Age.