Atanu Dey On India's Development

The Future Past

Flashback

The year is 2020. For nearly 12 years, India has seen an average annual GDP growth rate of over 12 percent more than quadrupling the per capita GDP from US$500 in 2008 to $2000, placing India in the league of middle-income economies. Stark poverty is a thing of the past. In much less than a generation, the population transitioned from being 70 percent rural to being less than 20 percent rural. Agricultural labor is only 15 percent of total labor participation, down from 60 percent in 2008. Farm incomes are six times what they used to be. The $3 trillion economy shows no signs of slowing down.

So how did this seemingly impossible transformation happen, I asked the man on the street.

“The cities. I am hazy about the details but it appears that there was a change of tack. Somehow they figured that they had to think different, think big. They had been stuck in a rut created by a poverty of imagination. The problem was that there was no compelling vision to light a fire in the bellies of the hundreds of millions of people. Then somehow inexplicably they got out of the rut.”

Can you be a bit more specific? What was the turning point? What did they specifically do? What made the difference? Who was responsible?

“I was coming to that. Like I said it was the cities. But that was just the instrument, just the visible part of the transformation. The creation of the cities was the equivalent of the challenge to land a man on the moon. Remember all that talk about an Indian manned mission to the moon? Well, how lunatic was that? Nothing new in attempting to do in 2012 what the Americans had done over 40 years ago. Not just that, with all their trillions of dollars, the Americans themselves thought it was a pointless waste of money to keep doing manned missions to the moon. And yet, impoverished India was willing to spend a few billion dollars repeating that. I ask you, how retarded is that?”

Why drag in all this talk about missions to the moon?

“Actually, think about it for a second. The challenge that JFK presented to the nation was the important bit. Recall his words. Quote: We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. Unquote. You must read that speech to get a sense of what the articulation of a real vision is all about.

“The bit about doing something not because it is easy but because it is hard is important. And the bit about choosing. The operative word is “choosing” – you choose to do this as opposed to that. The Indians finally woke and decided to choose. It was a choice. They thought through what the options were and then made a choice to do what made the most sense. And the choice they made best organized their resources and their skills.”

But tell me, how did it all begin.

[This is part eight of a ten-part series. Part 7 was "Pune DeCi." Part 9 is "A Forest Fire." You will find the entire series and previous posts on the subject in the category "Cities and Urbanization." ]

  • Abhinav

    I am impressed by the sense of optimism you display here. A nation of a billion simultaneously awoke “somehow”, forgot caste, creed, religion, language and other barriers that had prevented it from coming together and miraculously decided to strive forward. A nation that doesn’t believe in free will “chose” to move forward.

  • http://sudiptachatterjee.blogspot.com Sudipta Chatterjee

    This is getting interesting — and that difference of choosing to do something as opposed to doing it just because it is a fad seems very promising!

    Wonder how the monkeys in your basement manage to think aloud so well :)

  • Pavan

    70% rural to 80% urban in under a generation?

    I think you’re underestimating the social and cultural impact such a massive demographic shift would cause.

    There are political and social instabilities inherent in these sorts of transitions that ensure the outcome won’t be all sunshine and roses. The problems of tomorrow may not be as bad as the problem of poverty, but it’s still worth considering so you don’t end up stifling the happiness of your new urbanized populace.

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