Books | ‘THE’ book for our PMO!


From the perspective of being an Indian, the time that we live in – that is, the start of the twenty first century – has been called a lot of things. While some people have called it a turning point in the history of the county, others have called it a crossroad for the economy and the administration. While some call it a bad time for an Indian, others have termed it as the best time to see a new India taking shape. Before you form any opinion of your own, or take a dive into the pool of thought about the state of our country, Nandan Nilekani’s ‘Imagining India’ is a book you might want to read.

Not because it is the Bible of the-India-story. Not because it sketches a blueprint of what the India story could be in the coming time. But because it gives a pragmatic, unbiased view of what India has gone through the ages and what it can or cannot become in the times that will fall on the generations to follow.

Nandan Nilekani, the co-founder of Infosys, one of India’s most successful companies – and probably the top most IT company – has written ‘Imagining India’ as his compilation of ‘ideas’. Hailing from the southern part of India, Nilekani has seen India as a boy, been educated about it and the Indian society by his parents, travelled and studied in it as a mature person and made his fortune by climbing through the various hassles and hurdles, eventually establishing Infosys as a hallmark of his life’s story. Much of the book is his personal account of how he has seen the world. But the beauty of it all lies how he synthesis it all – the technical, political and social bits – and presents it to you as an Indian. So the account that you read is not that of a capitalist, not that of a corporate biggie but that of a fellow Indian.
The book begins with a chapter for the reader by Nilekani. Quite aptly titled ‘Notes from an accidental entrepreneur’ the small read sets the right tone for what is to follow. The manner in which Nilekani portrays his story of establishing Infosys is a smaller picture of the general Indian scenario itself. The way the economy and the society is striving to come out of convention and the preformed ways of going about things and mustering the courage to stand up for itself, take bold decisions on all front and launch itself to the world is essentially the idea that Nilekani has tried to cultivate and convey to the readers.
The book is divided into four parts that compile the various changes that India has seen or could and should see in the coming times. These four parts dissect and analyse the revolutions – big and small – that have continued to transform India for the better, celebrates them and underlines the importance of the smaller things that have led to big improvements. For example, Nilekani rightly dismisses all the policies and struggles by the government to change
the Indian society’s take on caste and the other associated issues. He goes on to say that the one discovery that has singlehandedly done anything to improve the caste scenario in India is the invention of dry toilets by Bindeshwar Prasad, which finally abolished the involvement of lower caste individual from the act of waste disposal.
Nilekani discusses many such local, regional and national ‘ideas’ that have helped wage mini and mega revolutions of their own kind in different parts of the country and have arguably brought it to the improved stand that it today stands in. We shall discuss the four parts of the book in detail in the following lines and try to browse through the line of thought that Nilekani has tried to instill in the minds of the Indian audience and the world.
Ideas that have arrived
– The human capital is a boon and not a bane This is the part where Nilekani takes a shift from the belief of two decades ago that regard the growing population as a burden on the country. He calls the large population of India as an excellent ground of limitless opportunities. The Indian masses can today serve as the single largest ground market audience in the world. Very rightly he appeals to the audience to look as the population with two hands to work instead of a single mouth to feed.
– Demographic dividend Nilekani has, in this part of the book, highlighted the qualitative power of the population and its importance against the traditional belief of seeing a large population as a thorn in the skin. He describes how the populations in the Americas and in Europe have been ageing through the times. They have innovated and have thrived on their younger populations and reached their near maximum potentials. Even Russia is growing old. The calls to chain the population – by the various inhumane and ‘unofficial’ ways – go down the drains when he compares India and China and goes on to say that the Chinese will enjoy a good supremacy over the world but only for a brief period of time only because of the demographic dividend. The Chinese have limited their population growth by wonderful scales but this has also limited their capacities and in the few decades to follow, their average population will be too old to carry on the legacy that is left to them. On the other hand, India – where the average age of the population is still very young – will continue to steadily progress and develop while at the same time recycling its average age; thus paving way for a continuous development.
– The rise of entrepreneurship in India Here the author describes how the country has shifted its view from Nehru’s bania civilization to one where you see Manmohan’s love for businessmen who are source of
confidence and optimism for India Inc.
– The eventual adoption of English Nehru wanted Hindi to be official language, but due to Tamil Nadu’s resistance the declaration was delayed till 1965. When the riots erupted in 1965, both English and Hindi were accepted as official languages. However, with time, especially due to outsourcing, liberalization and private schools, the attitude towards English has changed.
– Positive attitude towards globalization In this section Nilekani talks about the transition from the initial fear of globalization (leading to colonialism) to globalization (which provides more opportunities, improves standard of living and eliminates poverty).
– Technology as a giver and not a replacement of human capital Nilekani very brilliantly outlines how after the initial fears of introducing technology and computerization in the country – the phase where telephones were seen as a luxury and were a subject of wonder and fear for the rural populace, from a time when Rajiv Gandhi was ridiculed for his insistence on computerization; to a time where every rickshaw-wallah uses a mobile phone and every household is incomplete without a computer system – the country has taken a big step ahead and embraced technology, with the benefits to be seen all around.
Ideas that are in progress
– Better educational institutes Nandan Nilekani here goes on to describe how the country is waking up to the importance of the education and how it could go on to shape and avoid many benefits and hassles, respectively. He stresses on the importance of the intellect of the youth in the colleges and other educational institutes, especially schools and how they are a big tool for the upliftment of the poor and those people in the rural areas – thus bringing all of them into an inclusive fold.
– Better highways This is a big realization of the developing India. A large number of other infrastructural changes can be speedily covered with the help of better connectivity. While computers and mobile phones are doing their bit, roads and highways are also a major factor in bringing together resources from the far stretches of the country for a uniform and
unified growth.
– Better cities Smart cities is the new buzzword. While the topic is not ridiculed like technology was, in the bureaucratic circles, two decades ago; the idea of smart cities still faces a huge debate in the prioritization ranks. Though the subject is still in discussion, the big relief is that the idea of self equipped cities with tangents of infrastructural benefits for citizens has finally trickled down.
– Single markets The author discusses how better infrastructure and better laws – like VAT – which move towards unified market are important and move like area-based tax exemptions hurts the economy.
Ideas in contention – Economic reforms While every new government faces a lot of heat in every step that it takes in this regard, Nilekani lauds the effort and the courage to do it. Economic reforms are a major catalyst for the country – especially in today’s times – and the government today faces challenges on two fronts; to assert India’s economic prowess on the global front as an economic superpower and to include the ignored sections of the society and the population divide for a combined growth. – Labour reforms Archaic complicated labour laws has complicated and prevented job creation. Unfortunately, no one is willing to fix them. Steps like NREGA are retrogressive.
Ideas still to arrive – ICT Nilekani goes on to highlight the importance of E-governance, digital conversion of government records and a national ID system; and how they are instrumental in any country’s success story. The importance of these subjects is still in the shadows of the other major ideas that are facing debate, but Nilekani is positive about their arrival to the front sooner than later.
– Social Security While Nilekani is sure that India should not follow the western model of welfare state, the assumption that the trend of children taking care of their parents at old age will
continue is equally invalid. Therefore, he criticizes laws and policies which makes it mandatory for children to support parents and favors contribution based pension schemes like National Pension Scheme; and hopes that these should be made available to unorganized sector. Very importantly, Nilekani 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. – Environment Environment has been a major cause of concern in the international circles in the past decade. When the western countries were growing, they were able to slowly outsource their industrial pollution to the third world, that option is simply not available anymore. He calls on India to take the lead in the regard in the coming years and set a system which becomes a benchmark for the rest of the world. – Energy Nilekani celebrates the three revolutions that the country has seen and that have made the various benefactor states and stakeholders prosperous for the longer run – Green revolution, White revolution and IT revolution – he, on a note as serious, advocates for a call for a fourth revolution – Energy. He suggests 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. – Healthcare One of the aspects that always remain in the hindsight while we discuss the progress of the country is healthcare. Nilekani however, does not miss out on this front. He notes that while on one hand, rural India is still suffering from diseases like TB, malaria due to poor health care, the urban India is already in a grip of lifestyle diseases like obesity and diabetes. The twin problems have to be handled simultaneously and efficiently for a sustainable growth story.
These are broadly the four folds in which Nilekani’s book discusses the story of India thus far and that in the times to possibly come. However, while he has efficiently and brilliantly covered the most important aspects of the Indian situation, Nilekani’s work does have two major problems. Very surprisingly, there is no mention of internal and external security and its affects on the Indian scenario and the development story. An issue of such grave importance being left out without a mention was a major disappointment. Especially so when in the recent years we have had more and more internal insurgencies in succession and while we have faced troubles from our neighbours throughout the decades.
Also, Nilekani has left most of the onus of the development and betterment on the government and thus lost out on the essence of democracy that we everyday celebrate. Despite these loopholes, Nandan Nilekani’s work is not just a delightful read – and also a very informative one! – but is also a handbook for the administration and the people in the years to come.