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Thinking about India's Future

Thinking about India

Thinking about India’s Future

Bimal Jalan

N
andan Nilekani is a person of many parts with distinguished achievements in several fields. He is co-chairman and a founder of Infosys. As a technologist, he played a pioneering role in establishing India as a software capital. He is also a distinguished philanthropist, and has contributed substantially to promotion of research and development. Above all, he is a thinker, a member of the Knowledge Commission, and a contributor to policy debate in India as well as globally.

As one of his admirers, I welcome this initiative by him to put all his thoughts about India’s past and future in this book. This is a long and comprehensive account of all that is going on in the country. It contains 485 pages of main text, 16 pages of references and 20 pages of index and acknowledgements. It is in fact many books in one volume with historical details, lots of interviews and authoritative quotations in practically all areas of interest – from philosophy, economics and politics to demography, technology, environment and energy.

Naturally, an “all-in-one” book like this, covering so many different areas, is a difficult one to review. I propose to confine this review to briefly indicating the main contents of the book, and then conclude with my personal reactions to its broad message.

Types of Ideas

As pointed out by Nandan Nilekani himself at a Business Summit on 17 November 2008 (organised by Business Standard), there are as many as 18 ideas about India that he found interesting to examine. These are (a) ideas that have arrived;

(b) ideas that have been accepted but not implemented; (c) ideas that we, as citizens, can argue about; and (d) ideas that we need to anticipate.

Among the ideas that have arrived are those that have made India grow at a rate of 6 to 8%. These are, for example, the changed attitudes towards population (now called human capital), the inclusion

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
january 17, 2009

book review

Imagining India: Ideas for the New Century

by Nandan Nilekani (Delhi: Penguin/Allen Lane), 2008; pp 531, Rs 699.

of entrepreneurs in the ecosystem, the acceptance of English, technological upgradation, and globalisation. Deepening of the roots of democracy is an added factor in India’s success story and its high growth.

Improvement in primary education, infrastructure and urbanisation are among many ideas that have been accepted but not implemented. Not only is urbanisation considered an accident of geography and history, the fact that the British empire was ruled from the cities has made the process difficult.

After having done a good deal of research on philosophy and sociology, Nandan Nilekani believes that the existence of caste, inclusion of the private sector in higher education, and labour are among the “most argued ideas”. He points out that 93% of India’s labour is in the unorganised sector and it can be tapped to create the middle class. In his “safety net of ideas”, de-risking the future is an anticipated idea that can enable India to learn from the mistakes of the developed countries. Challenges in healthcare, for example, can be included in this category.

While acknowledging the tremendous challenges that India faces, Nandan Nilekani ends on a highly optimistic note about India’s future. Thus, according to him, “if we look at the Indian promise today – the combination of universal suffrage, rapid economic growth and a new politics defined by historically oppressed groups – it is clear that we are in the throes of a heady, uplifting opportunity” (p 479). In order to seize the opportunities that lie ahead, it is not enough to be content with what has been achieved in the last few years. A lot more needs to be done. India “will require the courage and optimism to embrace good ideas and not remain imprisoned by bad ones” (p 479). An active media, non-governmental organisations, corporate sector and the rising middle class have the primary responsibility to persuade the government to correct the wrongs of the past, and thus contribute to building the India of the future.

The book is extremely well written. Everything that Nandan Nilekani has to say has been said in elegant prose with a felicity of expression that is rare. In terms of its scope and content, it is more than a book by a single author. It is actually a high class production, not unlike an elaborate software program which has been produced, directed and written by Nandan Nilekani with the help of many experts, specialists and thinkers. As acknowledged by him, he consulted more than one hundred persons with different backgrounds on a range of subjects, including the design of his portrait on the cover. These specialists are also quoted profusely throughout the book to highlight the points made by them.

Concrete Agenda?

While this initiative is most welcome, a weakness of the book is the absence of a concrete agenda to remedy the wrongs that are highlighted so well. Nandan Nilekani recognises merits, or otherwise, of all sides of an argument and it is difficult to disagree with anything that he says. Like every other citizen, he is in favour of improving the working of India’s politics, its governance and delivery of services. Similarly, he would like much more to be done to improve infrastructure, agriculture, rural disparities and education. Like others (myself included), he calls upon the corporate sector, media and the rest of the society to contribute to achieving these goals. No one can, of course, disagree with his call for broadbased reforms. The real issue for the future, however, is what precisely is feasible to do

– beyond generalities – in each of these areas to realise the goals that all of us desire.

I recommend this book to those who are interested in knowing more about the future challenges that India will face. It is left to the reader to decide what parts to read and what parts to skip.

Email: bjalan@sansad.nic.in

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