Atanu Dey On India's Development

Sequencing — Part 2

A few days ago, I wrote about sequencing of interventions for development. Now it is time to ponder the question of leapfrogging, a buzz word very much favored by some who write about emerging economies. For instance, there is the claim that India can leapfrog into a service economy from an agricultural economy without the intermediate stage of a manufacturing economy. I have delved into this matter in the development path of economies and agriculture and development. My position is that India cannot leapfrog from an agricultural to a service economy: it has to have a robust manufacturing sector as well.

Leapfrogging is possible but mostly it is restricted to technologies. For instance, areas of India which had absolutely no telecommunications infrastructure don’t have to go through the sequence of first getting telegraph and then wired telephones and then move on to wireless: they can leapfrog the now obsolete technologies and go directly to wireless. It is always possible – indeed necessary – to leapfrog technologies because advanced technologies are cheaper.

Advances in technologies provide the same functionality at a lower cost and reduced complexity for the user. Consider the VCR. When it was first introduced, they used to have little tuning wheels which needed to be fiddled with before they worked. Later models became plug-and-play.

Unlike technology, you cannot leapfrog the various stages of development. A century ago, to be educated, one had to be literate and numerate. Same holds for today even though we have digital gizmos and computers. Indeed, to be able to effectively use the products of high-technology, literacy is an absolute necessity. Functional skills required for using high-tech all involve the ability to read and reason. I grant that illiterate idiots can use a cell phone, but that is not what I would call the effective use of high technology.

The so-called “digital divide” cannot be bridged by simply installing lots of PCs in areas where they don’t exist and connecting them up to the internet. If the people are unable to use them, they serve no purpose other than to enrich the peddlers of hardware and software. Furthermore, there is the opportunity cost of spending limited resources on useless high-tech gizmos.

You cannot leapfrog development. It cannot be done at an individual level. And it cannot be done at a societal level. Although development paths may differ, the sequencing within a path cannot be radically altered because there are strict dependencies. Basic functional literacy is a pre-requisite to pretty much anything that one does. The use of high-tech depends on literacy and therefore if the population is illiterate, even gifting them with free hardware will not make a difference. The pre-condition for bridging the digital divide is therefore the bridging of the literacy divide.

Of course, there are those who will argue that high tech be used for bridging the literacy divide. In a conference that I had attended some time ago, the question “Can ICTs be useful for rural and remote areas of developing countries, especially the poverty-stricken regions?” was seriously asked. I wrote:


We need to examine that question for a moment. At one level of analysis, it is hard to not answer that question in the affirmative. At another level, it is a meaningless question. Merely because it is syntactically correct does not imply that it has any content. Consider the question:

Can magnetic levitation superfast monorail transportation systems be useful for rural and remote areas of developing countries, especially the poverty-stricken regions?

Clearly, yes. Not just magnetic levitation superfast monorail transportation systems, but an almost unending variety of things would be useful for the development of poverty-stricken remote areas. Not merely for those areas, all of those unending variety of things would be useful for the development of not so remote and not so poverty-stricken areas of any developing country. Thus that question is actually content-free.

I think that the fundamental problem of development is one of sequencing, of prioritizing. It is the same question that one has to ask in one’s own personal development: what is the important next step?

  • http://www.beyond-reason.blogspot.com sudhir

    Nicely put, Atanu.

    A cursory glance at development patterns in the west also is illuminating. The industrial revolution took some 150 yrs to raise living standards and social indices to their current uber levels.

    Tech can at the least help shorten that gap. Another 25 yrs and i suspect urban india will a/c for 50%+ of the country’s population. And it will also be in urban india – concentrated areas of high density & high wealth creation – that tech will best impact people’s lives and skills.

    Many What ifs will remain. Energy production is fundamental to sustaining economic activity and given styeady growth in production and efficiency of energy use, our economic activities will only bloom and flower.

  • http://ajju.us/blog Ajju

    FWIW, the auto components industry, the textile industry, manufacturing generic drugs are all moving (back, in some cases) to India because its cheaper to produce these things in India.

  • shashwat

    well manufacturing is growing too http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/articleshow/1063545.cms
    it is just that indian IT and service sector is outshining everything else

  • Kirthi Ramakrishnan

    Since you have been on the topic of literacy, and it is a topic close to my heart, here’s my 2 cents. It is about time that we value literacy as a fundamental human right just like food, clothing, and medical care. Hypothetically, if a literate person is asked to give up his/her literacy in exchange for all the riches in the world, I doubt that the bargain would be an easy one to comtemplate. To use literacy as a means to some end is (by the very Buddhist standards of economics you quote below) quite irrational. It is an end in itself, and a very necessary one to live a full, rich life as a human being.

  • http://www.deeshaa.org Atanu Dey

    Kirthi, I agree fully that literacy (and education) has a role beyond the instrumental; it is a good in itself, not just a means to economic development. One can also argue that education is a human right. But I wonder if making it a human right has any practical implications. Will it ensure that all get educated? Perhaps not. Food, in my opinion, is a fundamental human right (and if it is not, it ought to be a right.) But millions die of malnutrition and hunger. Perhaps on paper food is a human right but words don’t feed people. C’est la vie.

  • Kirthi Ramakrishnan

    Agreed, just by saying so doesn’t make it happen. I just used “fundamental right” for rhetorical effect to underscore the argument to delink literacy & education from economic growth. There is a line of argument among some who say literacy is good because it promotes growth, which is fine, but what if it does not? Same thing with food, we can say that a well-fed population can produce more, but even if they don’t the argument in favor of a well-fed population does not go away. To link everything to economic growth as an end is irrational. Now, if the argument is that economic growth leads to better literacy, such a line of argument makes more sense.