Tuesday, March 17, 2009

India’s Potential, Seen From the Inside

By HARRY HURT III, New York Times, March 15, 2009

THERE are scores of books by well-known businessmen who pontificate about social, political and economic issues affecting a broad swath of humanity. Unfortunately, far too many of these books are exercises in self-promotion or revisionist history, and with thinly veiled ideological agendas.

“Imagining India: The Idea of a Renewed Nation” by Nandan Nilekani (Penguin Press, $29.95) is one of those rare books in which a businessman proves himself to be a capable expository writer, a balanced social and political commentator, and an innovative economic thinker.

Mr. Nilekani is a co-founder of Infosys Technologies, a business-process outsourcing company based in Bangalore. In the introduction to “Imagining India,” Thomas L. Friedman, the New York Times columnist, credits Mr. Nilekani with inspiring his best-selling book “The World Is Flat.”

“There are not a lot of executives around the world who are known simply by their first names,” Mr. Friedman writes. “Silicon Valley has ‘Steve’ — as in Jobs, Seattle has ‘Bill’ — as in Gates. Omaha has ‘Warren’ — as in Buffett. And Bangalore has ‘Nandan’ — as in Nilekani.”

Like its subject, “Imagining India” is vast and complicated. Its more than 500 pages contain a laundry list of topics, ranging from the influences of the British Raj, Nehru and Mahatma, Indira and Rajiv Gandhi to the intricacies of caste, class, region, religion, family planning, sanitation, urbanization, education, health care and information technology (Mr. Nilekani’s area of expertise).

The unifying theme is what the author calls an “idea-based approach” to meeting the present and future challenges facing the world’s largest and fastest-growing democracy.

Mr. Nilekani divides his book into four idea-based sections. The first, subtitled “Ideas That Have Arrived,” recounts India’s stumbling march toward globalization, its begrudging acceptance of the role of entrepreneurs in transforming the formerly socialist economy, and its even more grudging acceptance of English as the unofficial national language. It also addresses a feature that sets India significantly apart from every other country except China: its population of one billion people.

“The idea of population as an asset rather than a burden has especially gained currency with the rise of knowledge-based industries such as I.T., telecommunications and biotechnology in the 1970s,” Mr. Nilekani observes. “In fact, the information economy is the culmination of what the Industrial Revolution started — it has placed human capital front and center as the main driver of productivity and growth.”

Mr. Nilekani contends that India is uniquely positioned to enjoy a “demographic dividend” because the median age of its population is only 23 while that of China, with a total of 1.3 billion people, is already over 32. “India already has the second-largest reservoir of skilled labor in the world,” Mr. Nilekani notes. “It produces 2 million English-speaking graduates, 15,000 law graduates and about 9,000 Ph.D.’s every year. And the existing pool of 2.1 million engineering graduates increases by nearly 300,000 every year.”

Mr. Nilekani, however, is keenly aware of the contradictions, paradoxes and sociocultural obstacles that may prevent India from sustaining its current annual growth rate of 6 percent. In Part 2 , subtitled “Ideas in Progress,” he notes that even though Indians now widely recognize a need for primary education, the country has the world’s highest rate of high school dropouts. In Part 3, subtitled “Ideas in Battle,” he likewise laments that the nation’s university system still consists of “institutions of sand.”

According to Mr. Nilekani, Indian politics continues to be mired in conflicts between feudalism and secularism, rationalism and traditionalism, and is based on caste, class, regional and religious interests. As recently as 1998, he notes, a political candidate was said to be the reincarnation of Kush, the son of Lord Vishnu.

He says a predilection to cling to statism and bureaucracy creates “the paradox of a nation that is blessed with the most talented and diverse entrepreneurs, but which still does not trust the market to deliver on broad-based development.”

MR. NILEKANI uses the final section of his book, subtitled “Ideas to Anticipate,” to discuss likely challenges for India in coming decades. He puts special emphasis on avoiding the mistakes made by developed countries like the United States.

“We do not need to burn through our forests and drain our groundwater before we realize that abusing the environment has awful consequences,” he writes. “We do not need to grow addicted to oil before we realize the potential of renewable energy.”

“Imagining India” has its flaws. Grandly ambitious in scope, the book touches on so many issues as to boggle the mind. Mr. Nilekani has a tendency to repeat facts, and he often resorts to the rhetorical flourishes of the populist demagogues he decries. (“For the first time there is a sense of hope across the country, which I believe is universal,” he declares.)

Even so, he provides us with a vividly realistic portrait of his native India, a nation with potential that may forever defy the imagination.