India 2030: Aggressive hippo or agile gazelle? (Book Review)


Kiran Karnik, who describes himself as a “public unintellectual” has, over a four-decade career as an administrator, been acknowledged for his work in the broadcasting and outsourcing spheres – and his steerage of Nasscom that raised the IT lobby group to new heights.

Thus, when he authors a book titled “Decisive Decade – India-2030: Gazelle or Hippo” (Rupa), it certainly makes you pay heed to the fresh perspective he offers.

“India’s image is currently of a large, lumbering elephant. It threatens to become a hippopotamus: an aggressive, loud, slow creature, which is the world’s deadliest large land mammal. In our positive scenario, these images will be replaced by that of a gazelle: agile, smart, adaptive, fast (capable of short bursts of extreme speed and sustained periods of moderate speed) friendly and likeable. Indians will cease being aggressive jaguars and touchy porcupines: the ‘angry Indian’ will be replaced by the friendly, compassionate and wise one,” Karnik writes, as he lays down the agenda for the future.

Noting that the 2020s will “set the course for India” just as the 10 years from 1950 “laid out the path for the country in the 20th century through the enunciation of values and the creation of key institutions”, the remaining years of the present decade “are when we will go through a reiteration or a re-set of many vital parameters”, of which there are nine, the author maintains.

What, then, are these parameters?

1. Democracy and Politics – Ensuring Justice and Freedom

Political parties, Karnik writes, are known to quickly pick up signals sent out by the electorate. Therefore, it is certain that each party will begin to modify its strategy to meet voter expectations. Social harmony in a cohesive society, with full freedom and a vibrant democracy, are pre-requisites for the country to realise its full potential. In a positive scenario, all political parties will recognise this, and those that do not will be promptly punished at the polls.

“Given this, the decade of the 2020s is likely to see a transition, a movement away from the hate-filled, divisive, communal and intolerant political scenario seen in the latter half of the last decade. It will also witness governments that are less corrupt, more transparent and accountable than those of the past. New political formations may emerge. Forward-looking and younger people will be leaders, and will promote flowering of creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship. Economic growth will be more sustainable, equitable and inclusive than in the last few decades. Decentralisation will be a key philosophy and not just states, but municipalities and panchayats will be the major stakeholders, enabling grassroots participation in decision-making.

“This is truly the decisive decade, and will determine the velocity – both direction and speed – of India’s progress,” Karnik writes.

2. Security – Maintaining Social Harmony and Peaceful Borders

“The main challenges to India’s security – and therefore, the ones that will shape its posture and outlook – in 2030 will be terrorism (especially from untraceable sources, and including cyber attacks), energy security and personal security/safety (which includes health and livelihood security). The external challenge needs to be neutralised through clever diplomacy and statesman-like long-term strategic perspective; if not, the biggest and most daunting challenge would be the possibility of a joint China-Pakistan attack,” Karnik says.

At the same time, “maybe, somewhere in the mid-20s, India will have the self-assuredness and confidence to propose an agreement between India, China and Pakistan to freeze the borders of Kashmir and Ladakh in keeping with the reality on the ground”, he adds.

3. Health – Adding Years to Life and Life to Years

One lesson from COVID is the importance of agility and flexibility in decision-making based on specific situations in small geographic areas. There is also need for a large increase in investments in public health so as to ensure free, universal, high-quality healthcare.

“There are those who argue that while this is desirable, India cannot yet afford it and we must await economic growth. Recent research provides a direct counterpoint: it shows that while happiness does vary with gross domestic product (GDP), the effect of health and life expectancy is larger. A one-year increase in longevity has the same effect on national happiness as a 4.3 per cent increase in GDP. Even if the figure is overstated by a large factor, the very fact of a relationship is significant.

“So, through this decade, ensuring the health of all Indians must be very high on the agenda, For, a healthy country is a happy country,” Karnik says.

4. Education – Building a Knowledge Society

Fourteen “vital steps” are necessary, among them, liberating the education system from the stranglehold of excessive and obsolete regulations, with the NEP-2020 falling short; giving universities and institutions full academic autonomy, including the design of their own credits structure; mandating a Higher Education Promotion Commission (HEPC) to ensure complete transparency of universities and ensure healthy competition; recognising the importance of inter-disciplinarity, existing ‘specialised’ institutions (in medicine, law, management, technology, architecture and design) to become full-fledged universities; industries are given incentives (for example, tax benefits), for investing in education and collaborating with academia.

“At a time when education, knowledge and skills will be the true wealth of nations, India is well-positioned to be amongst the wealthiest. This decade will be the crucial one for making the necessary reforms and ensuring excellence in education. If this is done, by 2030, India should be well on its way to being a knowledge powerhouse,” Karnik writes.

5. Economy – Eradicating Poverty, Reducing Inequality

One scenario for the 2020s would be a more holistic approach to development, where health, education, inequality and poverty get as much attention as GDP growth rates. The other scenario would be singularly GDP growth but this will almost certainly result in social ferment, especially given the growing awareness and the revolution of rising expectations, both of which are amplified by what is seen through the media.

Thus, the growing importance of social and environmental factors “and the more widespread awareness of them is also likely to push a shift of emphasis in the 2020s. A more human-oriented, inclusive and holistic view of development will be preferred, rather than a mechanistic, purely GDP focused one. The fact that this also means greater freedom and a more vibrant democracy are added advantages,” Karnik writes.

6. Demography – More Age-Care Homes, Fewer Anganwadis

While there has been strong focus on the young – their energy, dynamism and innovativeness – for their potential contribution to economic growth, the elderly have been ignored. Thus, the health and well-being of elders needs attention. Loneliness, neglect and even ill-treatment of elders is not uncommon. Related to this is the need to evolve ways by which elders feel wanted and involved.

“Overall, the demographic transition to an ageing population requires re-orientation of thinking, mindset and policy within government as also amongst civil society organisations” as the scenario in 2030 is likely to include a large population of around 1,479 million, yet growing, but at a slower rate than in the past; a large urban population, with a few massive urban agglomerations, but a new trend of reverse migration from urban to rural areas; the world’s biggest working age population, with about 1,025 million in the 15-64 age-group; and a very large number of elders: 195 million above 60 years, of which 23.7 million will be above 80 years.

“Whatever it may be, demographics is a key issue and must figure prominently in the projections and planning for India 2030,” Karnik states.

7. Society And Social Dynamics – Changing the Status Quo

These are areas that, through the 2020s, are likely to be marked by, among others, a part of society that continues to be divided caste, with this becoming an identity that people try to benefit from; political parties that seek to build larger vote banks by emphasising religious affiliation that cuts across caste, and demonising the ‘other’; increasing crime, fuelled by growing economic inequality, ostentatious displays of wealth and rapidly increasing aspirations; division based on class; gender conflict, especially in rural areas; and a greater equality among the young, countering to some extent the class and other divides.

“A roadmap from 2020 to a more ideal 2030s must be formulated, so as to create a more inclusive, compassionate, caring and harmonious society through appropriate policies and actions. If these are initiated now, they might make a difference in the course of the decade and the country can, in 2030, be in a far better place,” Karnik writes.

8. Jobs And Livelihoods – Will a Machine Steal Your Job?

Clearly, fresh thinking and a new strategy are required with regard to jobs through a 10-point plan of action that includes providing universal and free school education, healthcare and social security to all, supplemented by a universal basic income (UBI); redesigning structures and processes to decentralise and ensure efficient delivery of services at points closest to the user; evolve a model of decentralised development; promote local entrepreneurship; create an ecosystem for training, skilling and local livelihood opportunities in rural India, especially related to new technologies; through high quality education and training, position India as global talent source; build new human-mediated user-to-technology (machine) links; promote innovation, design-led manufacturing and efficient global service delivery rather than mass manufacturing; give an impetus to people-intensive services like education, health and tourism; and evolving and promoting human-plus-machine/AI models that fully leverage new technologies, even as they create new jobs.

“Quality livelihoods for all should be the focus of the country in the 2020s. Well-conceived and effectively implemented plans can help achieve this goal. By 2030, we predict, India will do so, creating a new development model for itself and a path for others to follow,” Karnik writes.

9. Technology – Every Breath You Take; Pervasive Tech

In this area, the agenda for the 2020s for India is clear; invest heavily in R&D on storage (batteries), encourage a phased switchover to electric vehicles and develop the ecosystem for them, including extensive infrastructure for charging and battery exchange. Simultaneously, there is need to incentivise cycling and walking.

Also, given its size and population, India is badly in need of a efficient and fast long-distance mass transportation system.

“Technology must also help in reducing drudgery, find solutions for mechanised cleaning of drains and sewage pits, and facilitate ease of living. India must marshal its innovation and tech talent so as to be the global leader in such models that leverage technology for inclusive development and an improved quality of life.

“The next 10 years can be the ‘techade’ which focuses on ‘closing the gap’ (between inequalities of income, knowledge and opportunity),” Karnik maintains.

Is the scenario envisaged for a rosy future “merely a wish, a dream? In many ways, it is. Yet, there is no reason why it cannot be actually realised. Already even today, almost every one of the elements of it is in evidence in one or the other part of India itself. All that needs to be done is to adapt and scale these positive examples,” Karnik concludes.

(Vishnu Makhijani can be reached at


vm /in