Globalisation and the Civil Society

The happy spell of economic growth has endured for a surprisingly long period and shows no sign of coming to an end very soon. Led by services, manufacturing and business, and reinforced by infrastructure development and the impetus to scientific and technological research, the economy has become the engine and symbol of a resurgent India. It is indeed a cause for self-congratulations that our democracy has proved its great resourcefulness in supporting our economic empowerment in a globalizing world. But one may be forgiven for asking a sobering question: Would the democratic dissent over issues such as the Special Economic Zones and the Right to Information have been tackled in the same way if there had been a single-party majority government at the Centre?

To put it in other words, can we afford to become complacent about our democratic institutions, particularly the civil society? It would be against reason to assume that some countries are innately democratic, resilient and innovative. Democracy, resilience in the face of sweeping changes, and innovativeness are capabilities which have to be cultivated through long practice and which can only be preserved through strong tradition. They do not constitute some mysterious good essence which naturally inheres in some countries but not in others.

It is unfortunate that the whole issue of growth has come to be reduced to that of economic ‘development’ and abandoned to the care of either experts or practitioners of populist politics. The civil society that should mediate the issues of growth and change between the people and the government, especially in a country of India’s size and diversity, has either failed to grow or is presumed not to exist. The dominant ‘pipeline’ mindset (“first things first”) regards development as a sequence. Hence the opinion that the strengthening of civil society can wait until a certain level of economic prosperity has been obtained. But in the real world out there, things are far messier. Economic management does have social consequences: a lesson we are learning at quite a cost.

The point is that the pace at which our economy is changing calls for a comprehensive and complex response. And it has to be far more representative and better dispersed. Let us not ignore the fact that globally it is not just the economy that is changing but whole societies and cultures too are changing in unanticipated ways, and quite a few of these changes are disastrous for the people caught up in them. Since the consequences of economic change are complex and vast, we need to respond with a matching comprehensiveness and complexity of understanding. Otherwise, chaos will follow and it will swallow the happy fruits that economic growth has so far brought or promises to bring.

This is where higher education has a crucial role to play: in providing the intellectual apparatus for dealing with the complex situation which arises out of the globalization-driven changes. This intellectual apparatus is the civil society which comprises of an engaged citizenry with ‘global’ capabilities. It is commonly agreed nowadays that in today’s world higher education is both a feeder of civil society and a major component of it. The challenges of globalization cannot be met naively and spontaneously but require mature reflection and informed debate. The civil society of today has to comprise, therefore, of more than just decently educated graduates and “knowledge-workers”. Like chaupals, coffee-houses and sectors of the media, the spaces of civil society have to include university and college campuses so that the range and quality of informed opinion may improve and the spreading malaise of indifference may be checked.

This would be impossible if we continued to seriously take the walled IT-services zones as “knowledge cities” and the training in technical skills as everything that education means. Is it not a scandal that for most of our students education today practically comes to an end with the 12th standard? In nearly all technical/technological and management institutions, students are imparted nothing more than professional and vocational training. On the one hand, we value them as our precious manpower; on the other, we grant them no worth as citizens. Is it fair to write them off in a democratic country? Do they have nothing to do with their country and the world in their capacity as socially responsible agents of action committed to the values of democracy and justice?

We stridently announce our intention to produce world-class engineers, scientists and managers, but do we not also need to produce world-class scholars in humanities and social sciences? More importantly, do we not need an engaged and committed citizenry with a cosmopolitan vision and ‘global’ capabilities that can critically analyse the changes brought by globalization and by our responses to it? Matters of ecological balance, economic equity, military conflict, human rights, religious identity and linguistic and cultural plurality require a wide-based higher education that is not biased against the humanities and the social sciences. Indeed, higher education has to be conceived imaginatively and without pettiness of any kind. Only then will it be able to contribute to a civil society which the changing world order demands, a civil society in which critical reflection and articulation have adequate space to play freely.

The destinies of countries and civilizations are too valuable to be left to parochial ideologies, narrow commercial interests and technocratic tunnel-vision. It is the civil society that must assume the responsibility. And the civil society of ‘global’ capabilities which alone can bear such a responsibility in today’s world can only be nurtured if higher education has a clear-sighted view of its wider social responsibilities.

November 11, 2006

Rajesh K. Sharma teaches literature and theory in the Department of English, Punjabi University, Patiala (India). His interests include technology, philosophy and education. Email:

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