I am on a 2 week annual vacation to India. I have often written about seismic changes in Indian reality, realty and perceptions. On this trip, I came across Nandan Nilekani‘s book – Imagining India. A thick tome but a book that captures how India has transformed, is transforming and the challenges and opportunities for its future transformation. Anyone looking to understand India must read this book.
I am not going to try to summarize the book but here are some key points that touched me and where I agree with him almost entirely:
The Demographic Advantage
Growing up in India, you were deluged with the message – India is overcrowded and getting worse – and that the reason we could not get a telephone connection in time (it literally took months if not years) was because there were too many people; the reason our roads were always poor was because there were too many people; the reason only 1 in 1000 people could get into an engineering school of choice was because there were too many people. And the solution was to prevent “The Population Bomb” from exploding. This did not make sense to me as I saw crowded cities like Delhi and Bombay offer better lifestyle than my grandparent’s villages in Himalayan foothills. And, from the limited exposure to foreign media – I could see that places like Japan and New York had more people per square mile but did not have starving populations. Something was wrong with the picture.
In reality, the problem was not population but the system governing the population – a thinly veiled socialist rule that tried to optimize our lives every 5 years in the famous five year plans. Nothing much changed except the face of the politician that claimed to be solving all of our problems through the magic of socialism while fighting off evil capitalism and foreign hand in trade. This translated into very tangible effects on me and my family’s middle-class existence:
- No Books: While we were upper middle class by Indian standards, I distinctly remember that while I went to the best Indian private schools (some Catholic schools, some private run) – our textbooks were rather poor. And for a nerdy kid like me wanting to learn about everything from gravity to super nova, the only books I could lay my hands on were highly subsidized Russian books sold at Russian book fairs.
- No Car: Our first car was a Fiat (that was based on a 1950’s design) bought my father in 1988 for what was at that time his one year’s salary. Imagine that – it would be the equivalent of an upper middle-class American paying $100,000 for a 2009 model car based on a 1960’s design.
- No Phones: When I went to undergraduate school 2000 miles from my hometown (like going from East Coast to West Coast for college), I had no communication with my family for entire semesters except a solitary phone call from a manned phone booth. These phone booths usually had 2 hour long lines and a 10 minute call could cost you hundreds of rupees.
Things are Better
- No middleman means he gets to keep 100% of revenue and not 20% to 50%. This essentially at least doubles his income.
- Being able to respond to calls while working, he claims he now visits 2 to 4 times more customers a day.
- We, the customers, get immediate and personalized service which is greatly more accountable.
All of this is changing millions of lives. Watch Hans Rosling’s TED India talk to see how rapidly this change is happening.
And watch the following video to see India’s glorious technological past – water harvesting techniques perfected hundreds of years ago showcasing great engineering feats.