Atanu Dey On India's Development

Me Write Pretty Some Day — Part 2

{A continuation of my previous post Me write pretty some day.}

My obsession with fully comprehending a problem before attempting to solve it springs from a simple personal trait: I am unbelievably lazy. How to get something done with the least effort is my constant obsession. My motto is work as little as possible to get only those things done that cannot be avoided. So of course I have to identify a minimal set of things that are unavoidable and then figure out the most efficient way of getting them done. Easily enough stated, my creed is not easy to follow. Sometimes I misidentify the set of things that need to done, and sometimes even after properly identifying the set, my method is imperfect. But by and large, I do get by and have managed to keep body and soul together—with a little help from my friends, of course.

Though I have a tendency to avoid unpleasant truths, I could not evade the conclusion that something was radically wrong with India. Even while I was in engineering school, I was aware of the poverty around me and figured out that being born poor was like getting a very poor outcome in a random draw. I went to a good school because I was lucky to be born to middle-class professional parents; the cleaning lady’s kid would never see the insides of a school and would probably end up with a much poorer life through no fault of his. Having had good schooling, I was able to study computer science at one of India’s premier institutions (IIT Kanpur) and was even paid to do so. Who paid for my education? The unlucky kids from poor families who got dealt a lousy hand in life’s random draw.

The IITs are a portal to the US. I ended up at Rutgers University to do a PhD in computer science. But grad student life sucks compared to that of a yuppie in the Silicon Valley and I quit within a short time with another master’s degree to work for HP. California lies pretty much at the other extreme of the world from India, both geographically and economically. With a population of about three percent of India’s population, its economy was double the size of India’s. Why was California so rich and why was India so poor? I had sufficient time to ponder that question. What distinguished the two? What was the reason for the totally different ways of living: the thoughtless affluence of the few compared to the grinding dehumanizing poverty of the many? I came up with the hypothesis that per capita resource availability had something to do with it. The cause of India’s poverty, it appeared to me, was due to an imbalance between resources and people. As a first approximation to the statement of what India’s basic problem was it was not too bad.

In northern California living is easy and my work at HP was a breeze. I spent a lot of time reading and thinking about India’s problems. I soon realized that economics informs that fundamental question: Why is India poor? I liked the way economists thought (Thomas Schelling was one of the first economists I read) and I wanted to be one so that I could either justify or reject my hypothesis. A PhD in resource economics would do very well, I thought. And since the University of California at Berkeley was just up the road from me, I pestered the admissions committee sufficiently that they admitted me against their best judgment about allowing in someone with not a single economics course in their background. In case you are wondering, they liked having me there and I made lots of friends and even though I changed topics three times, each of my advisors was unhappy to see me go.

Enough of this biographical aside for now.

In all my readings about India, one thing that struck me was that no one appeared to ask the more fundamental questions such as:

  • What is wrong?
  • Where did we screw up?
  • Why did we screw up where we did?
  • How can we avoid such screw-ups?

It appeared to me that those at the decision making level in India did not have any clue about what was wrong, and they had even less than a clue about what to do about it. Even to an average seventh-grade student it is clear that problems have causes and exhibit symptoms. By examining the symptoms, one can figure out the causes of the problem. And by addressing the causes of the problem, the problem can be solved and thus bring about the removal of the symptoms.

The problem in India was that most people were not even very clearly perceiving the symptoms (poverty, illiteracy, corruption, overcrowding, etc.) to say nothing of understanding the problem and eventually solving it. The decision makers, especially, were evidently living in a separate universe which bore little relation to the universe the great unwashed masses inhabited. The government made plans that applied to their parallel universe and I don’t think they were the least astonished when their schemes did not work in the real universe. They were not astonished because they told themselves that their plans had worked marvelously and so they made even more of those idiotic plans.

Like individuals, countries also get hands dealt to them from a random draw. In one, you get leaders who are superhuman, and the country prospers; in another, you get puny unimaginative egomaniacs and the country ends up with malnourished children and illiterate adults. Can something be done to change the effects of the luck of that draw? I think there is.

For now, let me close with a quote from John Kenneth Galbraith (A Journey Through Economic Time, (1994)):

Ignorance, stupidity, in great affairs of state is not something that is commonly cited. A certain political and historical correctlness requires us to assign some measure of purpose, of rationality, even where, all to obviously, it does not exist. Nonetheless one cannot look with detachment on the Great War (and also its aftermath) without thought as to the mental insularity and defectiveness of those involved and responsible.

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  • Mel

    Atanu,
    At some point of time everybody feels our system is wrong. But, who makes it? most of the time we educated people behave as ruthless uneducated hypocrites. We indians are selfish, why to blame a system? we have corrupted it. Thsi is the reason, why i said this.

    My brother got admission to IIM, Ahmedbad. Ours is poor family, but my father gave his best to get us good education. My brother aproached one of the bank in India for education Loan(We thought he will get) but bank manager refused it saying we need someone need to assure for the repayment(But then my sister gave that), he rejected it saying many of the IIM guys did not re-pay the amount. I got surprised to hear this. Is this the way we want to build India? Ye forget about bank peoples belief that these guys will re-pay the amount, but they made bussiness with true belief(Which is very costly), what about the those who took the loan for the purpose and ran away?. Everybody believe that we have to improve, but we need a step to carry that, a small steps to reach the destiny, it is responsibilty of each of us to do that irrespective of region in india, then we could be proud ourselves. I always believe that a small candle is enough to give the light to the whole room.

  • http://www.ankushblogs.blogspot.com ankush

    Mel

    “boond boond se hi sagar banta hai” or “the small candle is enough to light the whole world” is an antiquated philosophy, pleasing to ears and senses and nothing more. Today we have reached a junction where we definitely need more than that.

    I guess what Atanu is trying to convey is that in a society like ours, the bureaucrats hold lot of clout and power that controls the destiny of this nation. It is important that they are wise and honest people and serve as role model for your IIM guys who ran away with the loan. It is natural for people or common man strives day and night for subsistence only to find out that his hard earned money is being spent in providing luxury to the bureaucrats and supporting their junkets. Many do lose faith and turn into IIM guys you mentioned. “Why not me?” they say and to some extent they are justified in doing so. Isn’t is kind of a reaction to oppression?

  • http://chutneyspears.blogspot.com/ Shivaji Das

    My struggle to increase eyeballs
    One month into blogging, my blog statistics read something like this: 28 site visits, 43 page views, average visit length of 53 seconds. Not only are few people reading my articles, the ones who are reading are probably just glancing through them. Or may be they are such frequent readers that they just read the latest post and move on. Some fans (fans ????) have consoled me saying that may be I am part of that “Long tail”. But I am concerned whether I am really part of the tail or just the flies moving around it.
    Whatever it is, I am convinced that I need to do something to increase my blogs popularity. I have several really good ideas to do that and I am sure they will succeed. Expect some of these in my next postings:

    * More sex; my blog will from now onwards give you just what you need together with a viagra pill.
    * I shall change my name and write under the pseudonym of a young girl. Then my postings will give you all a peek into the woman in me (as a fan?? suggested)
    * More of the customary intellectual bashing: Yes there will be lots of protest articles against George Bush, Laloo, Saurav Ganguly, Gujarat riots, call center working hours
    * More of the customary intellectual support: And lots more of support postings for orange-red-tulip-rose revolution in the ex-soviet republics, gay rights, IIM fees-hike, genetic feminine superiority etc.
    * Lot more page 3 : Yes, more remix articles. I shall give you the details of what happened beyond those glamorous parties.
    * More remix: I shall remix the more famous blog posts (So you will se post like “Indian IT sector shines- Lost in the bathtub mix” and so on.
    * More scandals: Yes, I shall reveal how Maikalal Jaikisan handled me when I was a kid….Only on this blog

    Suggestions are welcome. Help me reach you better

  • Navin

    Shivaji Das,

    Why do you take such painstaking efforts ? Throw it and enjoy life !!

  • http://www.deshkapoor.org desh

    Nice Post Atanu.

    I am addressing some of the same issues on my blog too with respect to Rural Development and Poverty Alleviation.

    http://www.deshkapoor.org/archives/2005/06/_indias_poverty.htm

    and

    http://www.deshkapoor.org/archives/india/rural_development/index.htm

    Cheers,
    desh

    my blog: http://www.deshkapoor.org

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