Imagining India is an ambitious book. It aims to take an inventory of India’s successes and failures, and set the agenda for its future direction. While the book is interesting and worth reading, I am afraid it falls well short of its ambition.
Nilekani has divided the “ideas” in the book into four sections – The first section is for ideas that have already “arrived”. The second comprises those that are “arriving”. The third involves areas where pitched battles are being fought in the war of ideas, and the in the fourth section, Nilekani tries to give notice of ideas that are far away, but are fast approaching.
So, according to Nilekani, the idea that India’s population is a resource rather than a liability is an idea that has arrived, and is in the first section. That cities are engines for India’s growth is realization that is slowly dawning on us, which places it in the second section. Our wretched labour policies are holding back employment among India’s poor, and we aren’t yet close to reforming them – this fact places labour reform in the third section. The idea that we need to have sustainable social security for India’s senior citizens is, apparently an idea that hasn’t even started, but it had better arrive fast if we are to avoid the problems that the more developed nations are facing.
Nilekani devotes a chapter to each idea and devotes considerable space to trace the historical background for each one. For a collector of interesting facts, this makes the book interesting to read. For example, I am particularly interested in understanding my country’s complicated relationship with its cities, and Nilekani’s description of British attitudes and policies towards town planning was quite illuminating.
The problem with the book, however, is that it ends up as a prisoner of its structure. Because some ideas don’t fit neatly into one section, he ends up splitting them and presenting them as separate “ideas”. For example, the “deepening” of our democracy is in section 1, while in section 3, there is a chapter on the agitational nature of our politics. Both aspects are true, of course, but we’d have been better off discussing them in one chapter. Likewise, primary schooling is said to be an idea that is “arriving” while our inability to provide higher education puts it in the section for ideas in battle. The fourth section includes healthcare, which makes no sense till you realize that Nilekani is referring to lifestyle diseases that will concern us when we become a developed country. Some ideas that I think ought to be there are missing or underemphasized. For example, Nilekani has nothing to say about internal security, rule of law, the speed of our courts or our ability to enforce contracts. Given that obtaining land for setting up business is an important concern for Infosys, I would have expected a complete chapter on it. Nilekani, however, chooses to barely mention it under ICT for India. But surely, the problem with property rights on land goes beyond just the difficulties of recording them?
The other problem is that Nilekani somehow forgot that when he writes a book, he cannot adopt a journalist’s approach. Readers will be interested in his thinking on those issues. There are just too many factoids, too many “views” from experts and too little attempt to synthesize them into coherent ideas. If you plan to read the book, you will have to live with these limitations. You will be reading a book by Nandan the quizzing enthusiast or Nilekani the journalist, not a book by the ex-CEO of Infosys and a pioneer of the IT revolution in India. You may think that this is a good thing, and if you do, you will find the book worth reading. It is not, however, a book that you absolutely must read.
Update: Nilu asks me if I want to get Nilekani into a bind – if he had expressed too much of opinion and too little of facts and views from others, wouldn’t I (or someone else) have accused him of arguing from authority rather than from facts? This is a valid question, but I don’t want Nilekani to argue from authority. My problem is that he does not do much of arguing at all.
Here is one example. (I am quoting from memory as I don’t have the book handy right now) In his chapter on urbanization, he quotes Ramesh Ramanathan saying that India has an advantage in that its population is spread out in many small towns and villages, which have an opportunity to ensure equitable development of its cities. But in the chapter on healthcare, he has quoted Dr Reddy who calls for development of dense, more walkable cities so that Indians can walk more and drive less.
Let’s ignore the casual totalitarianism here. Let’s also ignore the fact that Dr Reddy is trying to solve in India what is a problem for Americans. The point here is that this is a valid debate – should we have dense cities or sprawling ones? Remember that we do not have a suburbia like the US. We have lots of small and large villages, small towns and large cities. We can either provide urban facilities to villages and towns so that people do not migrate to large cities, or we can encourage migration to large cities. If we go for the former option and if we also connect these small cities, we will end up with the same suburban sprawl that the US has. If we go with the latter option, we will just repeat the mistake that we have been making so far. So what should we do?
I would have liked to see this and similar such issues being debated in the book. I don’t see them. The way Nilekani frames the issues, it is almost as if the only question relates to how much they have “arrived”, i.e. to what extent they have been adopted by Indians.