• kewal sethi

some thoughts on futurology

some thoughts on futurology

july 2021

the talk last thursday, through imperceptible route , converged on the idea of futurology – thinking of future, distant future. The term futurology is also known as futures studies discusses what may be happening in future and taking decision accordingly. Futurology is also defined as the study of formulating educated and conscious presumptions which will probably and preferably prove to be true in future

there is not much new in this. planning for twenty or thirty years has been talked about quite often. previously it was known as long term planning or perspective planning but the term 'futurology' gives it more meat, so to say. in the past, it was stipulated that a perspective plan must consider a fairly large number of sectors. at any given time there must be harmony between the activities in the different sectors. futurology aims at the same object but a little more comprehensively. the main difference appears to be that while perspective planning thinks of incremental progress, futurology thinks in terms of quantum jump.

despite this attention to the need of futurology (or the perspective planning), why have we not been able to do something about it. the reason advanced is that the governments, of all shades, have lived from crisis to crisis. when you are fire fighting, the idea of long term planning takes a backseat. when india became independent, the first concern of the government of the day was to fulfil its promise to the tiller of the land that land which he cultivates will be his. a number of legislations in different states were enacted. when they ran afoul of the constitution, the constitution was amended. there was hardly any planning for growth in the first few heady years of independence except for saying अब सर पर टोपी नहीं ताज हो गा.

recovering from that, rapid industrialisation was next thought of. but before the efforts could be consolidated into achieving heights, the next crisis came in the form of inadequacy of food grains. this, indeed, merited top priority. luckily the dwarf wheat dwarfed this problem after a while and ir32 did the same for the paddy growing areas. despite this the failure of monsoons would interfere to make it necessary to import food grains and redouble effort to grow more food.

then came the need to save the chair. this became, very naturally, the top priority item. the nationalization of banks started this fire fighting effort, reinforced by liberal use of article 356 and finally culminating in imposition of emergency. despite this the retention of chair proved to be futile but equally futile was the efforts of successor governments to save their chairs despite further fragmentation of society by encouraging divisions in the society via the reservations for the backward classes.

as for the planning, successive five year plans continued their endeavour for progress. but it was with fits and starts. quite often the targets were missed. it might be noted that the period 1966 to 1969 was the period of annual plans but was also called plan holiday. from 1978 to 1980, we had rolling plans which, actually, meant another plan holiday.

all this exhausted the efforts at governance, industrialization and bringing about socialism and the nation was faced with grim situation. regional fissiparous tendencies took hold further damaging any prospects of progress or perspective planning. another annual plan period followed from 1990 to 1992.

the almost total exhaustion of foreign reserves led to a total about turn in the fiscal policy. socialism went out, unlamented, and has not been heard of since then. though the situation improved a bit but the gap was too large to sit down and plan for a longer period. ousting one political party and bringing another and then changing it again, did not leave time for long term planning.

in 2014, one party gaining absolute majority raised some hopes but the disgruntled sections, with their constant snapping at the heels has prevented sitting down to plan for distant future. a change was brought about by winding up planning commission and replacing it with niti ayog which raised hope that instead of being bogged down in day to day approval or disapproval of projects, the ayog will devote its attention to long term goals. this has not happened because the bureaucrats still hold sway. and yet there is hope which lies eternally in human breast.

nevertheless the need for long term planning was never given up. at least in the plan documents. it is noted that we are good at analysis but feel shy to turn our attention to what should be. it is said that first thing to start a successful journey is to know where we are headed. this has been attended to but only in rhetoric like atam nirbhar bharat, saakshar bharat, make in india and of course minimum government, maximum governance.

here is where futurology scores. the real meaning of futurology is, or should be, to visualize what sort of technology we will have, or like to have in the distant future. currently the automation is the idea of utopia just as industrialisation was in the eighteenth century. reduction of need for labour – hard work – is foreseen. just as gadgets have lessened the burden of the housewife, the house builder, the road builder and others, automation will further eliminate the drudgery. with plenty of leisure, the mankind will be able to enjoy life as it is meant to be enjoyed.

but before we can do that, we must proceed from rhetoric to targets. the sustainable development goals give a good guideline. it has to be translated into action programmes say reduction on dependence on fossil resources for energy in favour of naturally available resources like solar energy. wind energy, hydrogen energy. there is a need to have our own technology instead of constantly having to borrow (or purchase) technology (which obviously has to be their discarded one).

and that brings us to the need of research (as opposed to devolvement). research is meant to find new ways of doing things instead of incremental improvements to existing technology though limited improvements also have some limited use. obsession with routine matters is the present trend which must give way to passion for innovation.

research demands dedication and it requires divorce from idea of seniority. a brilliant idea may strike anyone and at any place and at any age. it has to be acknowledged. and not merely acknowledged but celebrated. there has to be a hunger for innovation. the people of punjab are famous for jugaad which has become a term of derision. actually it is the spirit of invention, of putting things to unusual use. it is the basis of research, the exercise of mind to improve, to improvise. this spirit has to be cultivated right from the elementary level of education.

this takes us to the oft repeated need for improvement of standards of education and it has to be done in a warlike situation (just like fighting covid). but what does futurology say about it? what sort of educated persons do we need in thirty to forty years? in the rapidly changing technology era, we have to aim at education which arms the students with these skills, including the primary skill of thinking for themselves, thinking of progress in learning new techniques and applying them and further improving them. .

the base must be laid down in the elementary stage itself. the new education policy (and indeed the old education policy and still older education policy) talks of creation of scientific temper. but actually this scientific temper is merely a subset of spirit of enquiry. each and every phenomenon should be a subject of this spirit of enquiry. this would also cover spirituality and ethics. mere learning scientific theories would not do. the spirit of enquiry has to cover a vast ground. the spirit of enquiry goes hand in hand with vision for the future.

what is the ultimate goal of education for all? futurology has to revert, for this purpose, to the ancient wisdom. shri gita says sa vidya ya vimukteya सा विद्या, या विमुक्तये – education is that which liberates you. liberation from ignorance, liberation from hunger, liberation from want, liberation from pain, and ultimately liberation from dependence. (not going into liberation from cycle of birth and death for obvious reasons).

how will education do it?

the need of the hour is to launch literacy campaigns. 12 % to 75 % is good but when nation after nation report 90 plus literacy rate, it fades into insignificance. one recalls the cuban experiment after fidel castro took over in 1959. 1961 was called the year of education and saw a rise in literacy from 41 percent to 86.4 percent. one can also cite vietnamese experience. between june 1946 and june 1950, viet minh guerrillas, using night classes and "independence hours"- the name given to the rare tranquil periods when french planes were not bombing them – taught basis literacy to some one crore previously uneducated vietnamese while fighting a major war at the same time. by 1980, they had crossed the 90 percent mark while still fighting the americans. .

one can cite other examples but it is never late. the saying is "when you wake up, it is morning" jab jage tabhi savera. as said above 75 percent is good but it does not give satisfaction because there is no quality. the bane of elementary education has been its being spread too thinly. we should have quality instead of quantity so far as number of schools in concerned. schools merely in name or the schools as mere centres of mid day meals should give way to schools with adequate number of rooms and adequate number of qualified teachers, the students can be given assistance to travel to these schools instead of schools travelling to accommodate them. in castro's cuba, during the literacy drive in sixties, the schools were run in two shifts. some of the schools in india are also doing it but the practice can be intensified. compact adequately staffed and adequately furnished schools enable teachers and parents to keep watch on each other and on the outcome of education. but above all, the teachers should be able to develop a spirit of enquiry in the students and the capability of expressing their ideas in concrete terms.

can education deliver the goods. it depends upon supervision and proper timely direction. but that means proper governance. this brings us to ideas about governance. first of all, what should be the final aim of governance? what does futurology think about governance? what is sought to be achieved through good governance? is it to give equality of opportunity (not equality of status) to all the citizens; ; to enable the citizen to rise to the utmost height depending upon his potential; to remove grievances (or at least respond to it) as soon as possible?

i am deliberately not speaking about the hackneyed phrases like 'life with dignity'; 'caring for the last man in the queue'. in my view good governance should aim at maximum good for maximum number of people even if it means inconvenience to some. ideal governance should also mean resolving of disputes promptly, quickly and impartially. good governance should also mean creation of atmosphere for the people and the enterprises to grow, which would include what is euphemistically called single window system. good governance could also mean reduction, if not elimination, of wasted efforts. once again, it is time to shed preconceived notions like separation of judiciary, reservations for the backwards, favouritism for some in the name of secularism. we have to march together towards future. no one can be left behind in time. no one should be left behind in progress and development. if it is necessary to shake up the existing system and taboos, by all means do it without sacrificing what is good in it.

having said all this, the question is how to ensure it. it is axiom that automation and, ultimately artificial intelligence, will take over. prompt registration of grievances will be very natural outcome of this automated response system. the availability of information would be at fingertips for everybody, including the entrepreneur. perhaps decision making will also be taken over by the machines. will this abolish the human touch to a decision? very likely as we have to surrender something to get something better. but will this be a welcome development is a point for consideration.

industrialization brought with it capitalism where money became the overwhelming desirable thing and the ethics took a back seat. the industries were built upon the miseries of the workers. the concentration of wealth, and consequently concentration of power are the outstanding features of capitalism, which is the prevalent system. how far will the automation be able to tackle this problem should be the concern of the futurologist. mere technical progress is not the most desirable phenomenon if it is at the cost of the aggravating the present inequalities.


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