Explaining India, one problem at a time
Srivatsa Krishna December 11, 2008Nandan Nilekani’s Imagining India is a remarkable book of stories, soulful conversations and anecdotes, all trying to explain India, its people and its institutions. Nandan has the right idea, but ultimately the book does not go beyond these conversations and insights, and this is where it fails. However, India unarguably needs educated, honest, middle class professionals without famous family surnames to play major roles in public life and politics. If Nandan is preparing ground to enter the political realm, and his book is a de facto manifesto, then this is a welcome move which should be supported by one and all. Nandan could well be one amongst a few vying to become India’s Obama in 2018.
Here are some questions that Nandan’s book fails to address: For example, why is private investment not flowing into infrastructure despite the fact that most policy barriers to the sector have been removed? Is state funding of elections or other kinds of reforms to the electoral system, which lower the financial barriers to entry, possible? Can political parties introduce a salaried class of professionals to join their ranks so as to infuse ideas and new thinking into public life? If so, how can one make these people ‘electable’? How can a national smart ID card be designed and implemented when the challenge is of collecting and validating a one billion-strong database, which is constantly in flux? How do we ensure that criminals don’t contest elections or come to power? What about industries other than IT, which have flourished post-1991 India, and what lessons do these hold for us? Tackling some of these key issues that face India today would have given the book more teeth. However, the book has some poignant stories to tell. It talks about how a group of fishermen in Tamil Nadu accessed loans to buy fibre glass boats to increase their incomes; a poignant account of India’s unique relationship with the English language, an incisive explanation of India’s democracy and the school system and an expansive analysis of the Nehruvian era and its challenges.
He correctly identifies land as one important constraint in developing infrastructure, but doesn’t problem-solve the issue (or explain why it has not been a problem in Gujarat, AP, Karnataka and TN). Nor does he mention why so few projects get bid out, or why many of those who do get bid out fail at the execution or design stages. Some minor data errors crop up occasionally: Nandan says that government infrastructure spends fell from 3.7 per cent of GDP in the 1980s to below 2 per cent in the 1990s, whereas in reality total investment in infrastructure stood at 5.7 per cent of GDP in 1991 (its highest ever) and plummetted to a 33-year low of 3.3 per cent of GDP only in 2003.
Celebrityhood has its perks. Sharmila Tagore held forth on national TV on her suggestions for changes in the security apparatus to protect Mumbai; Suhel Seth is a permanent fixture on various talk shows, and speaks on a variety of issues other than advertising, his own profession. Likewise Nandan, a software supremo, has weighed in on a whole gamut of issues that plague India. After reading his book, the main issue that lingers in my mind is whether unparalleled success in one field makes us qualified to hold forth on other areas as well.
The author is an IAS officer and these are his personal views