Swaraj at 70 Part 9: Technology has the potential to redefine social fabric of India, says Siddharth Sthalekar

Editor's note: It's ironic that 70 years after India became an Independent country and a democracy, the invocation of aazadi evokes bitter conflicts. Whether it is on university campuses or in the midst of the conflict in the Kashmir Valley – both calling for aazadi and challenging that call as anti-national arouses mighty passions. By comparison, swaraj is hardly ever invoked in the public discourse. It almost seems like a historical artefact, a fragment of fading memories of the Freedom Struggle. This is the ninth part of a series titled Swaraj at 70 that seeks to take a closer look at this dichotomy.

Siddharth Sthalekar, an IIM Ahmedabad graduate, walked away from a successful job as a stock market analyst in Mumbai to live and work at the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad. He dedicated four years there to rethink and reformulate his understanding of wealth and how it should be measured and stored in the 21st century.

In 2015, he founded Sacred Capital, an eco-system of users and analysts who believe that the world is poised to make a cultural shift towards diverse and multi-dimensional currencies that will empower people through decentralisation. Firstpost spoke to Sthalekar, who explains how and why this unfolding process can enhance Swaraj.

Edited excerpts follow:

What does the word Swaraj evoke in you?
It has meant different things at different times. Initially, it meant independence in the sense of us (Indians) ruling ourselves. Today, for me, Swaraj is the freedom with which someone lives to their own potential, the freedom or the liberty with which one can express themselves, to understand that humans are layered, nuanced, varied, vibrant individuals and not homogeneous – with different feelings, passions, aspirations, values and needs. Swaraj represents the privilege of living all of that.

Could you say something about your own quest and why you quit the stock market?
The design for money, finance and wealth in the past has been homogeneous – based on the assumption that as humans we all want a car, a bigger house and pension. At the dawn of the 21st century, many say that 'roti, kapda and makaan' have been provided for. But what am I as a person? What do I aspire to do? What do I aspire to be?

Today, a 23-year-old working in an organisation runs on a different fuel. As a leader of an organisation, I struggle to think how to incentivise them. You cannot just throw money at them. You cannot say that every year you will be provided with a 10 percent increment. Today's generation thrives on something else – a very deep calling for passion. You have to tap into what their heart is calling for. Even I have been on that path for a while. We are actively saying these are my aspirations, this is my set of values, these are my needs.

But are they all material needs?
Yes and No. I am not sure how to frame material or not. In some cases, it could be a need to have your own space. You will find that today’s generation is happy with a small room but there is a need in them to be recognised in the society. Would you call that a material need? I would say it is less tangible.

How much of this self-expression is within your understanding of Swaraj?
The need for self-expression has increased tremendously. Zoom back 500 years and think about how many people were literate, maybe one percent of the population. Now, most of the world population is literate. Today, we think of it as our birth right to be able to express ourselves.

Similarly, we had to be limited to one kind of currency, one kind of economic system. But technology is enabling every community, every person, every organisation to create its own system for wealth. The change is profound and we can't fathom where this is taking us. I feel more and more human beings are feeling the need to express themselves through their wealth.

How is this connected to your definition of Swaraj?
About 15 years ago, my aspiration was to get married, have children, have a big house, a bunch of cars – the typical 'McDonald's' formula for life. But today, I find that I am passionate about the food system, the environment and helping to solve these problems. I would like to see my wealth representative of these concerns.

In the past, we would have to go to the bank to manage our money. The system was rigid. There was no freedom. But now wealth is becoming more fluid and this is what technology does – it dis-intermediates and when there is dis-intermediation it creates a fluid wrapper around each person.

Can you illustrate what fluid means in this context and how does that fluidity foster Swaraj?
Blockchain technology is deeply profound and it has tremendous potential. To put it in layman’s terms, blockchain technology is an extremely robust and resilient way of maintaining the ledger in a low cost, transparent and decentralised way – so the whole process gets dis-intermediated. Finance in the past has been at the mercy of large institutions but now from any location, you can access currencies across the world.

And how does that relate to Swaraj?
It means I get to express myself through wealth. Maybe my wealth can foster renewable energy initiatives or promote organic farming initiatives. In the past, if I was told to invest in an organic farm, it was a work of six months... finding out whether they have a clean balance sheet, what they do behind closed doors. But if that organic farm is registered on a blockchain platform, no one can tamper with its ledger. I may be sitting in Mumbai and placing my capital in a farm in California.

This throws up incredible opportunities because I can now be more engaged with my wealth. In the past, because of convenience, we used to park the money in a bank as we did not have time to think about what I should be doing – even if it’s (invested in) an oil pipeline that I don’t resonate with. Now on the click of a button on your phone, you could be shaping the world around you. That puts power back in your hands and that is deeply connected to Swaraj.

This peer-to-peer paradigm has the potential to truly empower us as individuals and that's what is connected to Swaraj. In the past, monetary systems have controlled people but now we are flipping it on its head.

These positive trends you see fostering Swaraj – are they harbingers of a new tomorrow or will they be overshadowed by the global political turmoil?
I actually think that the American presidential election last year catalysed a bunch of these developments. A person who has a million dollars in assets in the US thought it was considered safe but they now know it’s not. This kind of conversation was considered fringe three or four years ago – now its mainstream. People have woken up to an urgency that we need to get our act together to start solving the financial system, to create a better governance system and do it now.

I have also seen a sobering of sorts among the millennials – they’ve spent some years building apps that deliver food or get us taxis, but it is the time we solved some real problems. So, the average 25-27-year-old is saying: ‘wow, we need to get real!’.

Do you find this 're-thinking' among your IIM peers in India?
The good news about this renaissance of sorts is that it is not concentrated in one area – like eight years ago the Silicon Valley was where it was all at. Now, there is far more decentralised value creation and innovation. This is better in my opinion because it's less controlled and it is like little shoots popping out everywhere. I have seen amazing innovations coming from India.

It's very heartening to see because we are seeing a very distributed approach to value creation and the rate of change. One of my deepest fears today is that I am not being able to keep up with the pace of change. Literally, everyday somebody pings me with stuff that I thought would take five years and yet here it is.

How much of this daily excitement of new developments is related to life on the ground in India or is the geographical distinction not relevant?
The geographical distinction is not relevant. There are opportunities now for greater financial inclusion. Whether or not that actually happens now is entirely in our hands. This brings us back to Swaraj. When you have Swaraj, the onus is on you. Now, if we are unable to use these technologies for financial inclusion it will only be our fault as people.

Civil society organisations are concerned that the shift to digital transactions will centralise power in the hands of a few players and ordinary people may end up paying more for financial transactions...
Blockchain technology can actually solve some of those problems. It creates systems which are community owned. If a suburb outside Pune decides to create its own micro-banking system, it will be a community-owned system. It would have its own set of depositors and borrowers governed by that community. I know this sounds hippy and idealist but the challenge is whether people can come together to make some of these solutions happen – culturally, can we start embracing some of these technologies.

But in India, it is the cooperatives and local banks which are more often known to fail, so how will technology solve that? And how can we bring non-monetary forms of value?
Regarding co-operative banks, you are right. The technology I spoke about helps address that. The moment you have a robust, transparent ledger you won’t have the problems of fraud, trustees of the bank running way with money etc. These technologies can help shift power back to people. What is the limitation? I would say the bar is the acceptance of technology. At the end of the day, will that community be comfortable embracing technology?

There are communities that are off the grid completely, that don’t know how to engage with smart phones. Implementing some of these technologies is a cultural thing in India. But I fear such people will be not be included in the financial revolution because of their aversion to technology. Honestly, I don't have a solution for that. Even the solutions we are designing are for the very tech savvy, tech friendly audience. This is the limitation.


Since a large of the bulk of India’s population is under 30 isn’t that a potential opening?
Yes, there is potential and you might see these technologies include anyone but if they don't, it will be because everyone is not as tech-savvy.

It could also be that we are hard-wired to have more trust in the centralised system, it may take time for people to put their trust in dispersed systems...
An audience that is under 30 inherently trusts technology more than anything else. So, that age group would see some fantastic financial inclusion.

About non-monetary definitions for wealth – pace of change is so fast that people are more and more ready for this. There are different kinds of capital in the world – not just money in the bank or my ‘net worth’. We are now starting to assign a value to natural capital, like the air that I breathe, what is the quality of it. Fifty years from now, we will realize this when we pay for air that we breathe. The social fabric, for example, degrading social capital is a degrading wealth. People are starting to look at wealth in a much broader sense. Someone we both know, Satish Kumar (editor of Resurgence Magazine in the UK), always says that the root word for wealth is well-being.

Sovereign currencies have been great at creating material value – the roti, kapda, makan, highways, health care – but what about the degrading environment, what about degrading food systems, what about emotional well-being, sense of connected to my community. These problems are real for everyone and they need a more nuanced kind of currency to solve these problems.

Two years from now if you say 'I want renewable energy', you’ll have to hold the environment token. (At present) organic food costs triple of regular food, but if you hold the organic currency it may cost the same as regular food. We are starting to see specific currencies emerge for specific problems. They have been on the fringe but by the end of this year, you will see some of this stuff emerge. For example, in our organisation, we are thinking of running a mother and organic food currency.

But would I have to enter that realm by using conventional currency?
Yes and no. Perhaps you could work at a community farm on weekends and earn that currency. So, that's the kind of solutions emerging. In California farms running their own currency are months away. It sounds like sci-fi but it’s not. Some needs – health care, housing – must still be met with the sovereign currency but my need for organic food can be met by using new currencies. I link this to Swaraj because it means you as a human need to actively think about who you are, what you are made up of and be responsible for it.

What is your reading of social capital in India at present? Do you have hope or do you have anxieties about it?
On one hand, there is no doubt some of us are seeing dangers to social capital, technology is making us more and more self-oriented in the world today. Xenophobia and hate are spreading. But at the same time, the renaissance in technology could also promote social fabric – there could be a currency to help build social fabric and we are seeing this emerge.

Today, the average 23-year-old is thinking about his or her emotional well-being and connectedness in the community. The most heartening trend I’m seeing is the users we are interacting with talk about placing capital in organisations that they resonate with and if you dig deep it stems from a need to belong. 'I want to be part of that organic farming community... that renewable energy initiative in my neighbourhood.'

In the past, we have never looked at money or wealth in that way. That comes from a need or desire for inter-connectedness and that’s heartening. I'm an optimist so for me, this is a great sign that we are going to see the social fabric around us getting regenerated and rebuilt in a good way.

Swaraj at 70: The concept of aazadi is no longer enough
Part 1: Past 25 years are a matter of pride, but there's a long way to go, says Baijayant 'Jay' Panda
Part 2: Not being able to disagree without causing upheaval is dangerous, says Sushobha Barve
Part 3: Alternative brand of politics has disappeared from India, says Piyush Mishra
Part 4: Youth can play a significant role in solving farm crisis, says Kavitha Kuruganti
Part 5: For true freedom, we need to end oppression of handouts and subsidies, says Arun Maira
Part 6: People's aspirations are no longer limited by age and class, says Ashni Biyani
Part 7: India needs a more inclusive model of development, says Vijay Mahajan
Part 8: Politicising of human rights issues has pushed liberal discourse into corner, says Kalyani Menon-Sen
Part 10: Food sovereignty should be ultimate goal of democracy, says Jean Dreze

Published Date: Aug 24, 2017 05:22 pm | Updated Date: Aug 25, 2017 11:43 am

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