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An Academic View of Vivekanand

I probably belong to a small genre of academics working on the fringes of the disciplines, economics and education, and a specialized area of my research in that common hybrid space is "international migration and skilled diasporas". Even as I set out to speak on the "Relevance of Swami Vivekananda’s Thoughts in the 21st Century", I must begin with the confession that I am no expert on Vivekananda’s ideas. However, I have had a long drawn fascination with one of his thoughts that I came across in the form of a quotation.

Let me keep that quotation for a little later in my talk. For the moment, pardon me for deviating a little and share with you a simple tool of scientific academic research that the pioneer of economics of education in India and my late professor at JNU, Tapas Majumdar, had taught me and my fellow graduate students many years ago. It involved two simple steps: First, to ‘identify’ the variables – both Independent (or Determining) variables, and the Dependent (or Determined) variables. The second step was to ‘measure’ the relationship between the two sets of variables. Drawing upon this lesson, let me delimit today’s universe of discourse to: First, of identifying the single thought of Swami Vivekananda as my determining variable, and a corresponding single aspect of the 21ST Century as the determined variable; and Secondly, to measure the relevance of the former to the latter.

Having thus defined the universe of today’s discourse let me briefly come back to economics of education as an interdisciplinary space that had emerged in the early 1960s. Theodore W. Schultz, then yet to be a Nobel Laureate in economics (awarded in 1979), and a university professor at Chicago (coincidentally the same city where Vivekananda had delivered his famous 1893 "Sisters and brothers of America" speech) had given the argument that skilled labour was a "man-made" produced-means-of-production and, unlike plain untrained labour, not a "gift of nature". He thus introduced the concept of "human capital", which evolved further to incorporate not only returns to education and training, but also to health and fitness, and to migration, urbanization and housing. It is because of these new researches that our knowledge today has become more conclusive about how these investments in human resources determine labour productivity, growth rates, levels of development, and freedom from poverty.

Following Schultz, and later, Gary Becker, Jacob Mincer, Mary Jean Bowman and so on, all from the Chicago School of Thought, the later generations of economists of education have found human capital even more at the centre of the development process globally. For example, with the advent and growth of information and communication technologies, and the national barriers to immigration and return migration getting relaxed at shortening intervals, the human capital, embodied in the scientists, technologists, IT professionals, doctors, nurses, teachers, musicians, artists, chefs, and so on, have been transnationalized at an increasing pace.

Apparently the 1960s’ proposition of Schultz and others was thus correct in underlining the universality of the proposition that human resources are an important input in the production process the world over. It is in this context, let me venture to say, ladies and gentlemen, that the one thought of Swami Vivekananda that I came across early in my academic career seems to have anticipated the concept of "human capital" six decades prior to Schultz and had gone even beyond him. Way back in 1897, when Swami Vivekananda had emphasized the centrality of what he called "strong men" in his "My Plan of Campaign" address at Victoria Public Hall, Madras, on 9th February, he was seemingly talking of "human and social capital" as we understand the concepts today.

He was on his way back from the United States of America and Europe. He said, and let me quote, "Men, men – these are wanted: everything else will be ready; but strong, vigorous, (believing) young men, sincere to the backbone, are wanted. A hundred such and the world becomes revolutionized." It is this thought which incorporates the determining variable in my universe of discourse, namely, Swami’s "hundred strong men".

Let me now come to the determined variable:

The first Census of 21st Century India took place in 2001. It revealed what we all know as the celebrated "demographic dividend". This dividend is embedded in the world’s youngest workforce that India has been projected to have during the first half of the 21st Century. The ‘dividend’ is supposed to arise from the lower wages-bill of the younger workers and therefore lower costs of production of goods and services that India would export to the world. The advantage would also arise from the frontier science and technology being embodied in the younger and younger generations of students, thus leading to the application of latest, cost-effective, and environment-friendly technologies continuously. This demographic dividend would then be my determined variable.

The Age Structural Transformation (AST) in the demographic dividend would indeed constitute a necessary condition for establishing the relevance of Swami Vivekananda’s thought of a "hundred young men" in the 21st Century India in a significant measure. But then what about the sufficient condition? Until and unless the country’s education and health systems are revamped and the immigration policy revolutionized in a significant measure to turn the younger generations of men (and women), including – I would stick my neck out to say - the stock of the so-called ‘illegal’ immigrants from our neighbouring countries that we have learnt to live with (as opposed to the fresh flows, which of course need to be curbed through better border control), into "strong" and "sincere" human and social capital, the necessary condition would be infructuous, and the demographic dividend would turn into a "demographic burden".

Instead, it would be the US, the United Kingdom and Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and South-east Asian countries that would attract our young "semi-finished" human capital (as coined by late Professor Tapas Majumdar) to immigrate, and then turn them into "strong" and "sincere" "finished" human resource. Thus, these countries would reap the benefits of our demographic dividend by providing the sufficient condition for the global relevance of Swami Vivekananda’s "hundred strong men" concept in a significant measure.

In conclusion, I would like to reiterate that in terms of identification, the first step in scientific academic inquiries, Swami Vivekananda’s concept of "strong men" was in a way a precursor to the concept of "human capital" that Theodore Schultz was to coin six decades later in Chicago.

In terms of measurement, the second step in scientific academic inquiries, Vivekananda’s quantitative metaphor of a "hundred strong men" to revolutionize the world at the turn of the 19th Century may perhaps be applied to the requirement of 56 million "skilled men and women" that the US Census Bureau and the Planning Commission of India have projected for 2020 in the 21st Century!

Finally, to make Vivekananda’s thoughts holistically relevant in this context of today’s world, it would perhaps be necessary to try and infuse the qualitative aspects of his idea about "strong men" into the quantitative aspects of demographic dividend, by integrating the concept of "social capital", so to say, into that of "human capital".

Binod Khadria
Professor of Economics and Chairperson,
Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies,
School of Social Sciences,
Jawaharlal Nehru University,
New Delhi.
Email: bkhadria@mail.jnu.ac.in