Atanu Dey On India's Development

India Needs New Policymakers

| 38 Comments

Here’s a comment that I believe requires a detailed answer. It was made in the post Manmohan Singh Epitomizes Evil. First, though, here’s the comment by Aaren:

Very well articulated; you completely and correctly clarify why you write the way you do or indeed the focus on MMS .

I only wonder – there used to be a time when this blog was not exclusively dedicated to ranting about the Congress party, but also focused on themes including economics, urban development, education policy in India and the ‘glories’ of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, among other things.

It’s your blog and you can choose to write only about whatever you think matters. If focussing on repeating to readers here that MMS is bad for our present and future is where you want your blog to be, that’s fine. I just miss the fact that this blog used to be a place for intelligent discussion in matters other than Congress-bashing as well.

Thanks, Aaren, for the comment. Now for the answer to the question implicit in it.

This blog is about India’s economic development. Economic development is neither impossible, nor is it inevitable. I mention that repeatedly to underline the fact that India could have been developed but it didn’t and therefore it isn’t.

Development is a complex problem. But that does not imply that the way to bring about development is equally complex. Development happens provided a number of simple steps are taken to allow it to happen. Let me repeat that. You don’t have to do a huge number of complex things to allow a hugely complex thing like development to occur. What you have to do is reasonably simple to do and what is more, is generally known to a fairly large number of people.

Allow me an analogy. The development and growth of a baby in the womb is perhaps the most complex process in the whole universe. From a single cell emerges a living being with trillions of cells that are awesomely specialized to do mind-bogglingly complicated stuff. We cannot even begin to imagine how this happens. A PhD in embryology only allows you to appreciate how pathetic our understanding of the process is relative to how much there is to know. We just don’t know to much about that complex process. Therefore, if someone thinks that he can direct that process, he is clearly out his mind.

(Please make appropriate gender identification substitutions as needed — I just don’t want to write “he or she”, etc.)

The point is that in the process of making a baby, you can only initiate the process (which is fairly easy to do since people have been doing it for a while), and take care of a few minor things. Such as, seeing that the mother has adequate nutrition; does not do things that can harm the baby such as smoking and drinking; has the required rest, exercise, and peace of mind, etc. In short, initiate the process, make sure of a few simple things, and then get out of the way. In a few months, the most complicated process in the world will take place all on its own and you will have a bouncing baby.

(Why babies bounce is not entirely clear.)

Let me repeat that. We don’t know how it works actually at the detailed levels. So let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that we can somehow direct it. What we can do is to make sure we understand under what circumstances does the process work best, then try to make sure that we provide those. And most importantly, don’t mess around in the process itself — it will happen and it will happen as best as it can provided we get out of the way.

(As the Buddha said to Shariputra, “Stop messing around with things. Just sit on your hands. The world will evolve as it should.” And talking of the Buddha, he said some other cool stuff as well, which I have recorded on this blog. There’s the “Tathagata’s Sermon on Economics.” Read that first. And then, “It’s the small stuff, stupid.” They are from 2004.)

Now back to development.

Development is a complicated and complex process. A PhD in development makes you realize how friggin’ complicated it is and that no one has too much of a clue as to how it all works. It makes you appreciate that the best thing you can do is to get out of the way. Only clueless people imagine that their interference in the process will improve things.

For development to occur, there are a few things that are needed. These are fairly well known, and does not require that you have a PhD to appreciate. Top of the list is that there is economic freedom. If people don’t have economic freedom, no development is likely to occur.

Then there are a few other things. Education, energy, transportation, urbanization. Basic infrastructure. An efficient legal system. That’s about it. Not embryology at all.

The point here is that there’s nothing really esoteric or mysterious about what we have to do to get India developed. Like I said before, what needs to be done can be articulated by any competent economist, and indeed volumes have been written on it already. Even on this blog, I have written about what India needs to do to develop.

Knowing what should be done and actually doing it are entirely different things. The problem is that those who are in charge making those things happen don’t have an incentive to do them.

Which brings me to the matter at hand. India needs development. Therefore, it needs to get those bits done that are necessary for development. Therefore it needs policymakers (political leaders and bureaucrats) whose objectives are development oriented. But India has policymakers whose objective is personal enrichment, development be damned.

Therefore we — you and I — have to see that we have a different set of policymakers. This we can do if we use the only thing we have: our numbers. If we can organize and take collective action, we can replace the current set of crooks with people who care about India.

I focus on corruption, the evil that the Nehru-Gandhi family represents, the handmaiden of the whole bunch of corrupt politicians Dr Manmohan Singh, to make people aware that we have to bring about political change. I have written already more than enough about what needs to be done. What I pay attention to now is how to get leaders who will actually do what needs to be done.

Let me repeat that. (I am doing a lot of repeating today.) If the problem was that we really did not know what we had to do to become developed, it would have been a simpler matter: we could have learned from others. The matter is that we do know but that knowledge is useless since our leaders the crooks will not do what is needed. I am done with exploring what needs to be done on this blog. These days I focus on how we can go about replacing the crooks with people who care.

  • http://sanjeev.sabhlokcity.com/ Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Glad to hear you are moving from mere whigeing and cribbing to some action. When you are ready, Atanu, you can join the Freedom Team of India or at least guide your readers to it.

    I’ve been working on this problem for over 13 years now, and my main problem is not that the knowledge for good policy does not exist, but that Indians find it satisfying to speak about good policy and show off, doing nothing after that.

    I’m a karamyogi, if that’s the word. Don’t care about mere talk.

    When Indians will DO what they claim to follow (the message of the Gita) then India will change.

    Sanjeev

  • http://www.yayaver.blogspot.com/ yayaver

    No one can be replaced by challenge only, it requires a substitute to change conventions. The aspect of policy implementing is from where are we bringing those accountable leaders who can replace our leaders (the crooks).

  • http://socioproctology.blogspot.com vivek

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  • TiredProf

    @vivek — Good analysis. A crude summary is that India has become too diverse to avoid paralysis. The development wagon is attempting to bludgeon through that paralysis by forcing one kind of development on all. Not sure it can maintain steam in the face of severe resource shortage. The only hope seems reduction, not increase, of system complexity. Of which a corollary is immediate attention to reducing population. Somehow, even if you consult people with very diverse notions of development, none of them will say (uneducated) population stands in the way of development. Not surprising. Pro-natalism clearly had an evolutionary edge throughout history so the gene pool is thus enriched. But it’s coming to the point where pro-natalism is now facing an evolutionary disadvantage. If you assume evolution as not turning humans into termites, that is.

  • http://socioproctology.blogspot.com vivek

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  • A

    > There are big problems with this analysis. Firstly the notion that ‘India needs development’ is itself a source of mischief. The problem here is that development means different things to different people.

    This is one of the big intellectual fudges of our lifetimes and has been used, time and again to stall any and all new developments.

    If you ask 90% of ordinary indians, the drivers of development are exactly the same:
    being developed means the following to most people:
    - of having a reasonable chance of not dying or killing ones mother during ones own birth.
    - of having a reasonable chance of being able to reach 5 years without death
    - of having a reasonable chance of being disease free throughout life in general and in childhood and old age in particular
    - of having access and availability of reasonably proximate principles to live a life BETTER THAN THAT OF GENERATIONS BEFORE you in hard measurablee terms — nutrition, education, income and so on
    - i can give very simple, similar examples in other spheres — economic, social, security, education and so on.

    That gandhi thought khadi and villages and vandana shiva thinks something else is irrelevant.
    irrelevant, for these problems exist in all countries irrespective of development.
    second, they do not represent a doubt about the final goal — they represent different beliefs, that can be debated, tried and refined.
    further, development is not a single path — different countries have done it differently. WHAT IS IMPORTANT IS THE DIRECTION.

    At the risk of sounding like Atanu’s advocate, i think he is making a simple point — we know what we want to achieve. we also know ways in which it can be achieved. we now need to programmatically remove the obstructions to this proces. of which our current government in general and people in particular are a major stumbling block.
    they are the metaphoric clamp that is strangulating the umbilical cord and hence the baby.

  • http://socioproctology.blogspot.com vivek

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  • Pranav

    All discussion may end if we can elect 50 MPs like Narendra Modi.

  • larissa

    When you read Will Durant’s book written in the 40′s he speaks of India’s population of slightly more than 300 million. Can you imagine India with this kind of low population? We cannot even concieve of it today, imagine walking in big cities without fear of getting trampled over! When the standard of life is so low as in India, mere survival takes precedence. With absolutely no social planning, this is what the Congress has turned the nation into–a teeming population with no direction as to where they are going, a kind of mass that keeps reproducing itself without plan or direction, mediocre semi-literate mass like the family that has been ruling them for decades…Can you have thinking, can you have proper culture when a nation simply resembles a crowd, also behaves like a crowd in terms of its directionless breeding? When most people simply jostle for mere survival over scarce resources? A start would be to show how India has retrogressed badly when it comes to quality of life, we need policy makers who are willing to confront the truth however politically incorrect it might be, otherwise, development will mean continuing a termite like existence for millions of people…India never had a population problem like China at the time of independence, today lack of social planning does not even ADDRESS that problem…

  • larissa

    Also how does a population that tolerates everything even concieve that there is something wrong? Talk to most people, and they seem placid with the thought of the economy growing at 9%. When a people is so used to termite like existence, living in slavery at the mercy of politicians and feeding off the meagre handouts they get, how can there be a change of mindset? When was the last time someone walked in the cities, and was deeply disturbed by people who are born in the streets and die in the streets? Is this not an animal like existence fit for cattle? This is what existence is like for millions of Indians, even the orphan population of India is 30 million, larger than the population of most countries…I wonder what can change the mindset of calluous Indians? You see when a nation is not really a nation in terms of fellow feeling and outrage at the plight of fellow citizens, it does not deserve to be a democracy. A democracy is only meant for free people with a sense of community and sharing…

  • TiredProf

    vivek and larissa are much more patient than I am. I will just quote “If you ask 90% of ordinary indians…” and ask “Why is that a good idea?” Do you ask a 8-year old if he really wants to go to school? Where statecraft and social engineering are concerned, 90% of ordinary Indians are below the maturity level of an ordinary Danish or Swedish 8-year-old.

  • http://yayaver.blogspot.com/ yayaver

    Please check this podcast: Daniel Kaufmann and Mushtaq Khan debate the role and importance of tackling corruption as part of a development strategy.

    http://developmentdrums.org/284

  • http://yayaver.blogspot.com/ yayaver

    Debate on development: Transcript of Daniel Kaufmann, previous Director at the World Bank Institute leading the work on Governance and Anti-Corruption and Mushtaq Khan,a heterodox economist and Professor of Economics at the School of Oriental and African Studies(SOAS), University of London.

    http://developmentdrums.org/wp-content/uploads/DD20Transcript1.pdf

  • sumitreddy711

    Atanu,
    Hassan Ali confesses that money he has in swiss bank is laundered
    for top maharashtras top bureaucrats and politicians including three former Maharashtra CMs betn 1990-2000.

  • Oldtimer

    >>‘India needs development’ is as meaningless a statement as ‘tomorrow needs to start after today ends.

    Are you sure, Mr Vivek?

    >>The whole problem with saying ‘India needs development’ is that an argument is being made for a collective impetus towards some contested or perhaps quite nebulous terminus

    I find the above sentence quite .. err .. nebulous, like it’s straight out of: http://dev.null.org/postmodern/

  • larissa

    I think Bihar might be leading the way in addressing corruption. Government servants now have to provide service within a stipulated time or have to pay a penalty and citizens can complain against the bureaucrats; this is to prevent people from having to bribe bureaucrats for every service. Set to be implemented on April 1. I wonder why do other states not want to do such a thing? I wish success for this scheme; maybe Bihar can shame the other states to follow suit…
    http://www.dnaindia.com/india/report_in-bihar-services-on-time-a-citizens-right_1518402

  • http://socioproctology.blogspot.com vivek

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  • auldtimer

    Hello Vivek,

    >>I’m sure that the statement ‘India needs development’ is meaningless

    Which part of that statement is confusing you? Is it “India” or “needs” or “development” or any of those words in combination?

    Does it also confuse you when someone says: “Sweden is a developed country”? Do you think whoever claims that the US or Switzerland is a “developed nation” first needs to the nail the great debate on the “contested” “definitions” of “development”? (and maybe of “nation” and “country” as well)?

    >>You imply it might have something to do with Derrida’s brand of deconstruction

    Derrida’s brand of deconstruction!? Is that what you found when you clicked on that link? I only found some high falutin nonsense! Can you reproduce here what you found please?

  • http://themmindset.wordpress.com/ The Mindset

    What India needs is a group of tough people who are not hesitant of taking tough decisions.
    Population control we have seen, doesn’t work when government asks people to follow it. It must be imposed on them. For the good of a few we can’t let everybody suffer.
    And then we need some changes, change in politics change in constitution and change in judiciary and change in education system.

  • http://socioproctology.blogspot.com vivek

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  • Oldtimer

    You disappoint me, mate. A scholarly person such as you who wanted to debate the “contested” definitions of “development”! Descending into plebeian profanity!! … a let down. I was hoping you’d at least say: “speaking in a postcultural sexual metaphor that by contesting elitist consensus on narrativization of human frustration arrives at a popular discourse representing collective terminus: I suggest you do a copulation off”. But then you’re a bit of a humbug, aren’t you. :(

  • http://socioproctology.blogspot.com vivek

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  • K P Ganesh

    I think the usage of Nehru-Gandhi family needs to be stopped, for simple reason that no one from Nehru family is alive and serving Congress as of now. It’s Sonia’s dynasty that’s running the show. The only member of Nehru family, the first phoren bahu Fori Nehru is close to 101yrs. And we very well know, Maneka Gandhi along with Varun Gandhi is out of the Nehru household for ages. Let’s as well stop giving any of these people the Gandhi surname and sully FATHER OF THE NATION. That’s the least of respect we can show to a man who fought for Indian independence hoping, India will walk along the path of dharma.

  • Aaren

    Thanks for the detailed response, I really appreciate it.

    I think you summed it up best in saying “Knowing what should be done and actually doing it are entirely different things. The problem is that those who are in charge making those things happen don’t have an incentive to do them.”

    The problem, to my mind, is not solved by changing policy makers, because replacing this set of crooks with another set will not solve the problem, as long as incentives are not aligned with preferred outcomes (as you so correctly pointed out).

    Yes, Sonia Gandhi and MMS may be venal thieves, but short of promoting revolution and taking to the streets to bring in a genuinely new political leadership (one which would have come to power through violence, if I may point out), focussing on throwing them out is merely going to bring in equally bad alternatives.

    A party run through RSS diktat or by Sushma Swaraj / Arun Jaitley in the name of a nearly-senile Advani as PM hardly inspires confidence. And the lesser said about the Communists / Mayawati / Karunanidhi and the ilk, the better. And whoever out of that sorry lot leads our future, their incentives to be corrupt liars who steal from the country are the EXACT SAME ones that MMS and Sonia have today.

    So, the question is, how do we align incentives and outcomes for our political leaders? I can think of multiple options – pay our leaders better, set bigger penalties for getting caught, legalize lobbying, encourage people to vote, promote autonomy for states and cities – and watch how people migrate to the better governed ones… these are all potentially do-able solutions. They will take longer to implement and even longer to have impact, but they will work.

    I agree with your concern, but worry that focussing on throwing this lot out does not solve our problems. In a best-case scenario, available replacements from our current polity will be equally big thieves and about as competent as this lot to run the country.

  • http://socioproctology.blogspot.com vivek

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  • Aaren

    @Vivek – you think Sen got the Nobel as a ‘consolation prize’? As opposed to what?

  • http://socioproctology.blogspot.com/ vivek

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  • http://socioproctology.blogspot.com/ vivek

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  • http://socioproctology.blogspot.com/ vivek

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  • http://socioproctology.blogspot.com/ vivek

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  • Deep

    Atanu, thank you for banishing this peculiar character called “vivek” from your blog. I never comment here, but I read your blog regularly, and this move on your part deserves a special commendation.

  • PS

    Dear Atanu,

    “I am done with exploring what needs to be done on this blog. These days I focus on how we can go about replacing the crooks with people who care.”

    That was exactly what I was looking for on this blog :)
    The question that bothers me all the time is: How to replace the crooks with the people who care? And there aren’t many of those who do.

    3 years is quite some time for a new government to be elected. As you already know the numbers, India is illiterate. And has poor memory. What should be done NOW to make the current government answerable to their scams? And make people remember their misdeeds? A lot of people who vote (many illiterate) don’t understand economics. Quite likely they don’t understand anything. How can awareness be created about electing the right people? It is well within the reach of a democracy to elect anyone it wants. Yet why is it so difficult to make it happen?

    As an example, you have been in praise of Narendra Modi all along. Honestly, I am quite skeptical that he would ever make it to top. Even though I wish he does. What do you think can be done NOW to make the country see the usefulness of people like him?

    I would appreciate if you help find answers to some of these questions. And if you already have, please point me to those.

  • kk

    Atanu,

    You might have already see this. Here is Milton Friendman in 1980 discussing with other economists (including a young Bhagwati) about free trade and they discuss about the planned economy of India.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z3IXGZaYqfU

    The whole series is awesome.

  • rishi

    “These days I focus on how we can go about replacing the crooks with people who care.”

    The problem is that the only viable options available to the Indian voter is between crooks and other crooks.

    What I am basically saying is if not the Congress then which mainstream party would be good for India? And why would they have better policies than the Congress?

    Because from where I am standing they are all a bunch of crooks.

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  • Sj

    Hi Atanu,

    We do need new policy makers now. And as you correctly mentioned the government’s responsibility is to provide the right environment and then get out of the way.

    But at times, you tend to think that the policies of control and license during the period 1947 to say 1970, was there to protect the small trader/entrepreneur and unskilled labour force. At that time, or perhaps till 1960, the advent of foreign capital and the control of some big players on industry would have not created opportunities for SMEs to flourish (based on my limited interactions – I see a number of people who took part in government policies for smes and set up their own units).

    If the government would have adopted a laissez faire approach would not have big capital blocked resources and limited spread of know how? I mean even for giving birth to a healthy baby you have to be of a certain age.

    We can definitely argue that the way to stop people from blocking crucial resources and becoming too big to stifle development is to make policies is to tackle them once they reach there.. and not to stop it altogether. And we definitely know now that it has bred corruption. But how could it have been done and saved the transition pain for mostly unskilled and uneducated largely rural indian populace?

  • http://bpraveen.posterous.com Praveen


    The point is that in the process of making a baby, you can only initiate the process (which is fairly easy to do since people have been doing it for a while), and take care of a few minor things. Such as, seeing that the mother has adequate nutrition; does not do things that can harm the baby such as smoking and drinking; has the required rest, exercise, and peace of mind, etc. In short, initiate the process, make sure of a few simple things, and then get out of the way. In a few months, the most complicated process in the world will take place all on its own and you will have a bouncing baby.


    For development to occur, there are a few things that are needed. These are fairly well known, and does not require that you have a PhD to appreciate. Top of the list is that there is economic freedom. If people don’t have economic freedom, no development is likely to occur.

    Then there are a few other things. Education, energy, transportation, urbanization. Basic infrastructure. An efficient legal system. That’s about it. Not embryology at all.

    Nice one. Just as the mother leads a billion cells towards a bouncing baby, the highest office in this country needs to lead the billion people towards a developing economy (and eventually a developed one, of course). I am pretty sure all of us, are willing to wait for even 9yrs, as opposed to the regular 9 months. Once the economy takes shape, we just need to continue the same analogy. Ensure that the baby grows into a child in a protected & an open environment. Give the child his place to form his own opinions during his adolescent years. Essentially ensure whatever it is parents today do to turn their children into responsible citizens tomorrow.

    Here is a quote from The Matrix:
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0133093/quotes?qt=qt0324277

    And as you rightly observe, there is no incentive for the highest office to do these simple things and just watch them evolve. Essentially let the newton’s first law take over, rather than meddle using the second law.