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Worm's-eye View

Worm's-eye View

A remarkable account of the stark disparity that exists in India and what policymakers must do to overcome it.

In May this year, the streets of India witnessed a paradox of sorts. While there was much fanfare as the NDA government celebrated three years in power, a disgruntled lot was out on the streets protesting against the alleged atrocities they were being subjected to. As ministers were busy giving interviews and addressing press conferences, with the propaganda machinery working to its full potential, farmers and the Dalit community were crying foul. The contrast was unmistakable. One could not help but question if the establishment was crumbling. How could such starkly different voices emerge from the same country at the same time?

Anirudh Krishna's book The Broken Ladder - the Paradox and the Potential of India's One Billion, attempts to answer these questions. What it definitely does is compel you to look for answers with a different perspective.

The author demolishes the typical portrayal of India vs. Bharat, arguing that India is at the same time a rich country solving rich-country problems and a poor country trying to solve poor-country problems. He doesn't beat around the bush, but puts forth his arguments right from the first chapter 'Dollar Economy vs Rupee Economy'. Although India has seen rampant growth in the past two decades, the gap between haves and have-nots has become wider. These two decades have seen two contrarian views emerge. One, professed by academicians such as Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen, was that the country's democracy provided the basis for more effectively improving the lot of poorer people, and that by making representations, mounting protests, amassing public pressure, and mediating with public officials, civil society organisations would help direct policymakers' attentions toward the concerns of the less well-off. They believed that "democracy, growing stronger, would enable poorer people to climb higher".

The other view was that faster national growth - by creating employment, raising tax revenues and closing the gaps in infrastructure requirements - would help everyone move up the ladder, providing better opportunities to both rich and poor individuals. The likes of Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya supported this view.

Krishna, a former IAS officer who is now Edgar T. Thompson Professor of Public Policy and Professor of Political Science at Duke University, US, believes that both these views are relevant and require immediate actions to be taken. But is there a middle path? The current NDA government is trying to portray that it is working towards the world's biggest poverty alleviation programme and that its discourse is a blend of both.

Krishna uses his grip on anthropological studies and development research to make lucid arguments. Promoting rapid economic growth and strengthening democracy is essential for improving the collective well-being of a nation. In his arguments, Krishna also slips in that only those able to make the connections are able to gain the protection of democracy and benefit from the nation's economic growth. To ordinary people, they are wide-ranging and faraway notions. The reason, according to Krishna, is that these two perspectives also lead to two perverse consequences - setting up of resourceful lobbies to seek favourable contracts or bailouts from a mess, creating an unfair environment. It also undermines the poorer section's ability to invest in its own education and health.

He cites this as the key reason why most Indians are not able to harness their talent and capitalise on opportunities. However, giving rights to the poor, he says, doesn't mean they have developed the capabilities to realise their potential to succeed. Krishna emphasises the need to understand poverty and the poor in a better way. Putting in place a universal guarantee of minimum living standards for all, he is certain, would resolve many of the problems.

The author's writing style is empathetic; he brings in real stories to make his points. Although this form of narrative is conventional now, Krishna excels with his in-depth knowledge on the subject and human interest stories. The book is packed with insightful chapters; 'Beyond-5km Villages: Where the Lights aren't Shining Brightly', 'Up and Down in the City', and 'Preventing Future Poverty' deserve a special mention.

The book contains good research, arguments and critical analyses of counter narratives that India's policy and law makers can refer to. With PM Modi talking about eliminating poverty by 2032, doubling farmers' incomes, bringing in social equality among all sections of the society, the book has come at the right time.