2006.03.25: March 25, 2006: Headlines: COS - India: India Gazette: India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh praises Peace Corps

Peace Corps Online: Directory: India: Peace Corps India: The Peace Corps in India: 2006.03.25: March 25, 2006: Headlines: COS - India: India Gazette: India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh praises Peace Corps

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India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh praises Peace Corps

India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh praises Peace Corps

"I recall the days of John Kennedy and the Peace Corps where a large number of young, idealistic American youth came, served in very difficult, distant parts of our country and brought to those areas a ray of hope. Then, there was a period of hope. India had just become independent. There was a lot of enthusiasm that we are going to write a new page in the history of development."

India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh praises Peace Corps

PM's remarks at Harvard Alumni Meeting on March 25, 2006.

Photo: REUTERS/B Mathur

I am truly delighted to be amongst you today to inaugurate your Conference, and to share the dais with such distinguished personalities, and my dear friends Larry and Amartya, whom I have the honour and I am proud to call as my friends. The list of participants at this Conference is a fair reflection of both the quality and the number of Harvard alumni with roots in India.

I would like to use this opportunity to pay my tributes to successive generations of American scholars who have kept interest in India alive in the United States. I recall the days of John Kennedy and the Peace Corps where a large number of young, idealistic American youth came, served in very difficult, distant parts of our country and brought to those areas a ray of hope. Then, there was a period of hope. India had just become independent. There was a lot of enthusiasm that we are going to write a new page in the history of development. And I recall the contribution of Prof. John Kenneth Galbraith, the scholars at the M.I.T and other distinguished American scholars who gave to Indian development process the initial push. Later on, I recall in the early 1971, when India was faced with a flood of migrants from Bangladesh because of the atrocities being committed in that region, the American establishment stood silent, but it was the strong resurgent voice of the American academic community which spoke the truth and told the world what was happening in that unfortunate country at that time. I therefore, deem it a great pleasure and privilege to renew our contacts, contacts between the American academic community and the government and the people of India. When I see before me such a distinguished alumni, I recognize the need what a great contribution they have and they will make to further propelling the processes of social and economic change in our country.

India is firmly set on a growth path of 7-8 per cent every year. It is our ambition to ensure that this process of growth is sustained in the framework of an open society and an open economy. It is our conviction that the growth is important, but growth acquires its true significance only if it is accompanied by social justice and where no one has contributed most forcefully to a restatement of this essential truth than my friend, Amartya Sen. I am therefore, truly delighted that he is here to inaugurate this new saga of adventure and enterprise that Larry Summers has launched this evening.

I am of course, a product of the "other" Cambridge and my own personal association with Harvard is more vicarious, than direct. While I did not have the good fortune of being a student at Harvard, I did make in my lifetime several good friends who were trained at Harvard. Much has changed since my years in the academic world and the interaction between Harvard and India has expanded greatly. Larry Summers has made a very handsome contribution to that process and I thank him from the core of my heart.

I greatly welcome the increased financial, intellectual and emotional investment of Harvard alumni and this great institution in India. I am certain all of us stand to benefit from such exchanges.

Harvard's global brand image is widely recognized as being based on a commitment to excellence. But Harvard's commitment to liberal values and humanism is less well known. And yet, so many of you gathered here today, reflect so eminently, both strands of Harvard's personality â" a commitment to excellence and a commitment to liberalism, a commitment to humanism. I do believe that a commitment to excellence does not preclude a commitment to liberalism and humanism.

I will return to this theme in a while.

I believe in any developing economy and modernizing society, it is incumbent upon its social, political and business leaders to combine a commitment to excellence with an equal, if not greater commitment, to equity and access in education. This is a challenge for policy makers to which my friend Amartya has drawn our attention so forcefully through his persuasive and powerful writings, for which we are all very grateful to him. It is easy to lapse into populism, or elitism and pursue policies that may have sectional appeal in the short run, but are harmful to a nation in the long run. The challenge before policy planners is to arrive at a golden mean, which makes both excellence and equity walk hand-in-hand together.

Blending a commitment to excellence with a commitment to equity is therefore a challenge with which modern democratic societies must contend. Liberal opinion is often suspicious of making excellence a principle, for it sees this as elitism. Indeed, excellence does entail elitism because it is based on the notion of a performance pyramid. However, government can and must balance the elitism of meritocracy by facilitating those at the bottom of the social pyramid to rise to the apex of an academic pyramid. Having made that transition, and having acquired capabilities and skills, the socially and economically less privileged can scale the social ladder. That is why I entirely agree with Amartya Sen, when he says that education is one of the most important means of creating and enhancing human capabilities and empowering our people.

Our Government is committed to promoting excellence and improving access to education for our citizens. To some, this goal may appear contradictory, since the pursuit of excellence is sometimes seen as being at the cost of access. We in India have had an interesting debate on the need for academic institutions to strike a balance between the pursuit of excellence and the objective of providing access. Offering scholarships based on merit and means is one way of dealing with this challenge.

Our Government has sharply increased the number of scholarships being offered to students, particularly for higher education, and especially for less privileged sections of society. Our specific focus has been on the most downtrodden segments of society, on economically under-privileged groups and religious minorities. In this whole area of affirmative action, India has proved to be a very versatile laboratory.

I have myself been a beneficiary of the scholarship system. Many of my generation, from my social background, would not be where they are today without having had an access to education through the scholarship route. I therefore, have every reason to believe that in a liberal democracy, Government must invest in human capabilities through scholarships to widen access to high-quality education. However, even as we facilitate access to high-quality institutions, we must ensure that quality itself does not suffer. This is a challenge for all those who manage educational systems.

There is another reason for concern, and that is the rising cost of education in these modern times. The impact of this on meritorious students, particularly the less privileged, can be mitigated of course through scholarships. We should, I believe go beyond our Constitutional obligations to support certain sections of society, where means and social origins are the criterion for scholarships. We must devise complementary schemes based on merit-cum-means to reward excellence, while maintaining schemes that widen access. I believe that the private sector and the wealthier strata of society can do more to fund scholarship programmes.

Private initiative can and must supplement public investment, which is vitally necessary in the sphere of education. However, we must make a distinction between public investment, public support and governmental facilitation, on the one hand and over-regulation, on the other hand. Paradoxically, our educational system faces the conflicting threats of anarchic growth in quantitative terms and moribund stagnation in qualitative terms. We need a balance between populism and over-regulation; between unbridled marketisation and excessive bureaucratization. We need an educational system that is modern, liberal and can adapt to the changing needs of a changing society, a changing economy and a changing world. I sincerely hope that Harvard will be a pace setter in helping us to evolve such an educational system.

It is in this context that I would like to revisit the issue of liberal values. I do believe that in the modern world, educational institutions must make an explicit commitment to liberal values. All societies contain elements predisposed to extreme views, and others inclined to narrow and sectarian views. Such groups seek to use education as a means to increase their political appeal. It is here that mainstream institutions must act to inculcate a liberal and a pluralistic perspective on social, cultural, economic and political issues.

I believe the great strength of multicultural democracies such as India and the United States is that we have both nurtured and fostered a liberal tradition. My own party, the Indian National Congress, has always stood for the liberal values of inclusiveness, pluralism and diversity. An eminent scholar from Harvard in fact, put forward the theory of the "clash of civilizations". This idea has since caught on across the world. However, I disagree with the theory. In my view, the history of the 20th century and, I daresay the 21st, will not be seen as the age of a clash of civilizations. I believe history will remember these years as a period in which humanity made the "confluence of civilizations" possible and I do believe that intellectuals have a very powerful role to make this happen.

I admit that in today's world, this still requires considerable effort to achieve. But I do see this process taking place only within the framework of open and liberal societies. It is true that today, many countries are passing through a phase where the liberal "Middle" is buffeted by the illiberal "Right" and "Left". Ideologies of hate, ideologies of differentiation, ideologies of discrimination do seek dominance in many societies. By portraying reality in black and white, such ideologies ignore the varied shades of gray that I believe actually define reality.

I would therefore urge that the time has now come for us to defend this liberal space. In ancient India this liberal perspective was defined by the concept of "Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam" â" The Whole World is One Family. This concept stands in contradiction to that of a "clash of civilizations". Indeed, the very "idea of India" was constructed on the foundations of an inevitable confluence of civilizations. Constructing a modern Republic on this basis has not been an easy task, given the complexities of India's many diversities. But it is a tribute to our founding fathers that they succeeded in creating a liberal, modern nation state, in which all diversities find their place and where ideology need not be such a divisive issue. We have had our share of failures, but broadly, we have remained true to the vision of the leaders of our Republic and those who led under Mahatma Gandhi's leadership our struggle for freedom.

Thus, I firmly believe that the emergence of India is an idea that has a message for the world as a whole. This is particularly so, as our increasingly borderless world promotes the evolution of more multicultural societies. Therefore, the rise of a modern, self-confident India, with one billion people living lives of dignity, in peace and amity despite reflecting the diversities of the world, is an experiment whose success has great salience to the global community. Thus, I believe it is in our collective interest to promote the confluence of civilizations over the alternative of a clash of civilizations. It is in this context that I would urge that the magnificent experiment that is India needs the support of all right-thinking members of the evolving global community.

In the ultimate analysis, it is not high rates of economic growth alone that will ensure social and political stability and cohesion. A better economic life must be accompanied by the strengthening of liberal values and pluralism. Your conference aims to reflect on the social, political and strategic aspects of South Asia's development. As I have suggested, the underlying strength of this region historically is its commitment to pluralism and liberalism. The Indian sub-continent has been home to all religions and philosophies of the world. For centuries, this land has assimilated all those who have come here in pursuit of various quests. Our history is replete with instances of clashes of outlooks, values and beliefs. But our history also shows that over a period of time, there has been a confluence of contending views.

Today, when I see political battle lines being drawn, between "Left" and "Right", between "Us" and "Them", I derive courage from the fact that our civilization has always been based on the liberalism and pluralism of "Unity in Diversity". This has been and will remain India's strength and our message to the world. I hope you will reflect on these ideas among others in your deliberations. With Amartya here, I am sure your conference will be adequately argumentative!

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