The book presents a generalists view of post-independent India. Unlike India Unbound, this book focuses primarily on post-independent India and takes a more pragmatic approach towards understanding problems of contemporary India.  The best parts of the book are the interesting contradictions which the nation went through – love/hate relationship with the English language, fear of technology and neglected urban development.

Imagining India

Overall, the book is divided into four sets of ideas, that have arrived, that are in progress, that are still being debated and finally, that have yet to become part of public debate.

I have highlighted the best sections of the book in bold.

Ideas that have arrived

  1. Realization of the power of human capital (two billion arms to work instead of a billion mouth to feed)
  2. Embracing that entrepreneurs work for the society instead of exploiting it – from Nehru’s contempt for bania civilization to Manmohan’s love for businessmen who are a source of confidence and optimism for India Inc.
  3. Language controversy and accepting English as lingua franca
    Nehru wanted Hindi to be the official language, but due to Tamil Nadu’s resistance the declaration was delayed till 1965, and in 1965, the riots erupted again, ultimately, both English and Hindi were accepted as official languages. For education, it was decided to follow the three-language formula – Hindi, English and a regional language. Even though we have an English-language based economy, a political education policy which tried to suppress English teaching in government schools destroyed the future of several, especially poor, children. Over time, primarily due to outsourcing, liberalization and private schools, the attitude towards English has changed.
  4. Understanding computers are enablers instead of job eaters
    The fear among labor unions that technology would destroy jobs was so great that for computerization of banks, computers were referred to as Ledger Posting Machines. Slowly, computerization of exchanges, NSE, NSDL, and NCDEX and IT companies changed the perception completely.
  5. Positive attitude towards globalization
    From the initial fear of globalization (leading to colonialism) to globalization (which provides more opportunities, improves the standard of living and eliminates poverty)

Ideas that are in progress
People are already aware of these and completing them is now a matter of time.

  1. Better schools
    The government repeatedly missed their self-declared deadlines for attaining 100% literacy but with mid-day meal and a strong preference for education among parents, things are changing for good.
  2. Better cities
    Just after independence, our leaders hated cities, for them, they were a symbol of colonial past. Politics regularly favored rural development (to the extent that states showed their urban areas as rural to get funds from the center) despite the fact that India was urbanizing at a rapid pace.  Badly planned urban agglomerations (and slums) are a consequence of these bad policies. The cities that were built (Chandigarh, Dispur, Durgapur etc.) were more of symbolic importance to the leaders who failed to view the cities as the center of commerce and innovation.
  3. Better highways
    Despite having inherited a huge rail infrastructure from British Raj, the additions to that were minimal (till Konkan Railway project was started in 1990’s), similarity the improvements made to roads were equally insignificant. The author praises NDA for Golden quadrilateral but laments the fact that there is a huge gap between announcement and implementation.
  4. Single markets
    Better infrastructure and better laws like VAT which moves towards unified market are important (“internal globalization of India”) and moves like area-based tax exemptions hurt the economy since they penalize states which have focused on infrastructure.

Ideas in battle
Citizens and politicians are aware but afraid to talk about these.

  1. Economic reforms
    courtesy of 40 years of the socialist era and populist policies like diesel subsidies, it’s still tough for politicians to talk about reforms
  2. Labor reforms
    Archaic complicated labor laws have complicated and prevented job creation (even NERGA violates 37 laws). Unfortunately, no one is willing to fix them. Steps like NREGA are retrogressive.
  3. Higher education
    The author laments the fact that too much political control like reservation and MHRD interference has been a major hurdle for Indian universities. A cultural preference for white-collar jobs promotes theoretical knowledge over vocational training.

Ideas to be anticipated
The ideas which haven’t received their share of public debate.

  1. ICT (Information and Communication Technology)
    E-governance, digital conversion of govt records (primarily land) and national ID system.
  2. Healthcare
    While rural India is still suffering from diseases like TB, malaria (due to poor healthcare), urban India is already in a grip of lifestyle diseases (obesity, diabetes). The twin problems have to be handled simultaneously.
  3. Social security (or lack thereof)
    While India should not follow the western model of the welfare state (which has already drained the treasuries of most western countries), the assumption that the trend of children taking care of their parents at old age will continue is equally invalid. Therefore, the author criticizes laws which makes it mandatory for children to support parents and favors contribution based pension schemes like NPS and suggests that these should be made available to the unorganized sector. The author also notes that while the pension fund of US, UK, Australia, South Korea and even European Parliamentarians invests in Indian stocks, Indian EPFO buys low-return government bonds instead.
  4. Environment
    When the western countries were growing, they were able to slowly outsource their industrial pollution to the third world (through colonization and then globalization), since that option is simply not available anymore for the developing world, they have to develop while taking care of the environment.
  5. Energy
    India had three major revolutions – Green (which made Haryana, Punjab and west U.P. prosperous), White (which made Gujarat, Maharashtra and A.P. prosperous) and IT (which impacted educated population across the country primarily in south), the time has come for the fourth revolution in biofuels can positively impact M.P., Rajasthan, Bihar and east U.P. . A public-private partnership oriented energy grid from which people can buy as well as sell power to can not only reduce power shortages but will also encourage adoption of renewable sources of energy.

[ashishb’s note: I find it weird that the issue of internal and external security is completely missing from the book despite heavy losses of life to regular terror strikes.]