Sunday, July 13, 2008

The society defining forces

Several things have shaped human societies over time. There have been a few regular themes and then a few which came and went. What we need to understand from here on is which are the drivers now and how do we manage them for a better tomorrow.

In the past religion, natural resources and land have been almost constant drivers of social structure and restructuring. Periodically there have been special themes. The racial anger before WWII or industrial revolution in 19th century imperialism or the outcry against imperialism in 20th century or the rise of nationalism in western world political revolutions in 17th and 18th centuries.

The social structure is built and altered by some of these inherent forces as also some upheavals like war, disease or large scale migration. In the modern times, the drivers shaping us have been predominantly emergence of a new global military order, fossil fuels, international mobility of capital/goods/labor, religion and finally technology.

How the society will evolve from here with the pushes and pulls of these factors is not an easy thing to imagine. Harder still is an attempt to shepherd the course of events in the desired direction - if at all we know what that is.

One of the trends emerging in recent times is the reestablishment of population as a driving force of prosperity. Before the industrial revolution, GDP was almost linearly linked to the number of people a region had. That in turn was driven by resources, rivers and trade along with government spending on massive projects. Post industrial revolution, mass manufacturing enabled the societies with fewer people to catch up and leave behind those with more people. With an edge in military technology of the western powers imperialism followed. Long after the dark age experienced by the colonies is over, these economies are still reeling under the impoverishment suffered during the colonization.

Slowly the things are coming a full circle though. Technology improved so much more in the interim that the mass manufacturing became commoditized, the western world itself is trying to move up the value chain into services economies and outsourcing manufacturing to cheaper locations. Once again population is coming back to the centre of economic activity. The demographic dividends that the populous countries are looking to reap is an evidence of that. As for the western economies, the declining population has started to ring alarm bells leading to all sorts of desperate efforts to get women to have children. The worry is very real.

Where are we headed from here. For more than 3-4 decades the populous countries will probably continue to play catch up on the standards of living of the west. However, post that the populous countries will appear lot mightier than the sparse west. Just as Europe went to the sidestage of the global arena to make way for US, the western world will make way for the populous countries. Once again the world will look more balanced - more prosperous than it was in 1st century, but with pretty much the same relative relevance of various regions.

As an Indian, I am not worried whether India will grow big mighty and prosperous. I would however, like to ensure that the process is smooth and does not encounter the special obstacles of the prevalent times. To do so, the most crucial three things are ensuring access to credit, education and healthcare to the near poverty line people of the country. Else much of the demographic dividend could turn into demographic liability.