Atanu Dey On India's Development

A Forest Fire

Flashback (Part 2)

“It began with a simple realization that no one is as smart as we are. That is, a collection of very smart people is smarter than any one person however smart. Experts and expertise matters, and therefore amateurs and novices cannot be as good in figuring out the choices that confronted them. The collective wisdom of a group of smart people articulated a vision and an associated roadmap.”

Who were they?

“The best. From every field such as industry and business, development, economic growth, urban planning, resource management, science, technology, governance, finance, etc, they got the best from around India and the world. They got the most successful entrepreneurs and business tycoons to add to the group of experts. They got the most respected academics. The challenge to this group was simple: what is the best way for a large economy to transform itself given the resources available? The expert committee took their time and in one year came up with a recommendation.”

How much did it cost, this bunch of experts? And why experts? Don’t we know that amateurs do make amazing contributions?

“That was the problem. India was stumbling around because every amateur and his brother was coming up with vision which with 2020 hindsight we can say was … how shall I put it … amateurish. It had become a cottage industry of sorts. Sit around, write a book, and there was the so-called vision. That changed when a few industry leaders said enough is enough. They got together and put in I think some paltry sum, I guess around $10 million to convene this panel of experts. And then they aggressively sold the goal to the country. Of course, they did not do it for altruistic reasons. They all became fabulously wealthy from the accompanying growth. But that is another story.”

Surely, $10 million is not paltry?

“Actually it is. If you consider that the spending was crucial in generating more than $10 trillion of wealth which would not have otherwise happened, that is what makes it paltry. Do the arithmetic.”

And the recommendation was?

“Like I said, cities. Transform India by building new cities designed and built using the best planning. Just by credibly committing to build these, it engaged every resource available. Recall that India was a very “young” country demographically. The people came from there. The capital came from everywhere. Businesses around the world realized that here was a market that the world had never seen. There was a mad rush to invest in India. On average, US$1 billion a day was the foreign direct investment for the last 10 years. India mopped up a significant part of the investment that used to flow into the US and China. So it was not just internal resources but global resources that flowed into India.”

But why didn’t that happen before?

“India was there at the right time. The demographics were right. But until the credible commitment to actual economic growth was made, there was no reason for investors to invest in India. So when that commitment was made, it galvanized everyone. See, the thing is that wealth is created by human action. But human action is goal directed. Setting a good goal requires deep thinking, not political amateurism. If the person doing the thinking for the country is an illiterate scamster, you are in trouble.

“But if skilled people put their minds together and set the agenda, then the goal is interesting enough, difficult enough, rewarding enough to channel all sorts of resources to its fulfillment. It creates it own dynamic, like a forest fire. The more it grows, the more resources it sucks out from the surrounding and grows even more. The wind feeds a forest fire while the same wind would snuff out a candle. To make use of the winds of change, we needed a forest fire, not a candle which we were protecting from the wind that far.”

So how does one start a forest fire?

[This is part nine of a ten-part series. Part 8 was "The Future Past." Part 10 is "Make No Little Plans." You will find the entire series and previous posts on the subject in the category "Cities and Urbanization." ]