Slow advance towards development goals, or lumbering inertia? (Book Review)

Title: The Turn of the Tortoise: The Challenge and Promise of India’s Future; Author: T.N. Ninan; Publisher: Penguin Books/Allen Lane; Pages: 368; Price:Rs.699

Countries, when they reach a certain level of economic growth (say per capita income of around $6,000) and development (some spectacular high-technology projects), seek to celebrate their hard work towards achieving these standards by hosting the world’s biggest sports event – Japan in 1964, South Korea in 1988, China in 2008. Will India, which is striving towards this goal, reach it in time to bid for 2028 Olympics?

And is economic growth the sole criterion for being ready to shoulder this responsibility?

The main question actually is whither India? Is it time – finally final – when it will live up to its promise and potential, and put in place the measures that will take it to the status of a developed nation, and ensure a better quality of life for its teeming billions? Or is it is likely to retain the same haphazard journey of fits and starts with a crisis spurring a flurry of frenzied action, but then return to the same old somnolence? More importantly, is its route correct, and does it know when a course correction is needed?

These are some of the questions that eminent business journalist T.N. Ninan seeks to discuss – rather than answer – with a skillful use of a combination of statistics, case examples and real stories, reasoned analysis, keen insight – and a telling anecdote or two too (of the response pre-reform and post-reform Indian finance ministers got from their global peers is amusing but poignant) – which will make it hard to believe that this is just his first book.

The author, who reveals that this was originally destined to be a joint work with Oxford-based economist Vijay Joshi before both concluded their different styles would not coalesce and amicably parted ways to pursue separate works, calls it his attempt to “understand where India is, midway through the second decade of the twenty-first century, why it has emerged as it has, and what the coming decade might bring”.

Lay readers will also be relieved to know it “is not all economics”, and also deals with some key social and political factors that impact on a country’s economic performance and prospects.

These include (but are not limited to) the paradox of how inequality coexists with surging aspiration, the difficult task of estimating size of the middle class (once you can define it properly!) and assessing its impact, and how the government can improve itself – if it wants, that is – and keep from repeating the same old mistakes that have led the country to where it is – for good and bad.

Ninan, whose career spanned India Today, the Economic Times, Business World and finally Business Standard, also makes clear it is not an “‘Indian superpower’ book”, or a diatribe against the public sector, and not at all “shy at accepting India’s many failures” but also argues that despite them, the country held together and performed well.

Starting with shooting down the significance given by some sections as to India’s supposedly vibrant pre-colonial economy, he goes on to deal lucidly with a host of other key themes – is India’s size a help or hindrance, the validity of policy objectives chosen for the newly-independent nation, and presents an array of insightful and informative comparisons with not only China, but many other countries – expected and unexpected.

Subsequent chapters deal with the chequered history of Indian industry, the role and performance of the state in governance and development (and the accompanying malaise of corruption), attempts to deal with poverty (the chapter is one of the book’s high-points), the economic development-environment protection balance debate, the contours of emerging politics – especially the emergence and impact of caste-based social justice and Hindu nationalism (more pronounced since the victory of Narendra Modi in 2014), and the key question of relations with the neighbourhood and the wider world. An assessment of prospects for the next decade round it off.

Ninan, who ends up with an optimistic but realistic view of India’s prospects, also makes some prescriptions – chiefly involving political courage and bipartisanship, but it is a moot point how many will be palatable. But the book still needs to be read by both policymakers and the common man not to find out not only what went wrong but also what they need to do!

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at )

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