Book review: An Uncertain Glory

5 Dec 2013 by Tom Otley
An Uncertain GloryThe progress India has made in the past few decades is remarkable. As the authors make clear in the opening pages, "After two hundred years of colonial domination, combined with almost total economic stagnation, the [Indian] economy seems well set to remedy the country's notorious and unenviable condition of poverty.” Not only that, but during that economic rise there has been “…maintenance and consolidation of democracy in one of the poorest countries in the world makes India's achievements particularly noteworthy.” Nevertheless, as anyone who has visited India in recent years can testify, there are nagging doubts about the country and its progress, and this book investigates the grounds for those concerns. Chapter by chapter the authors (academics) look at everything from education to healthcare to the government and the media, and it is hard to disagree with their prognosis that the concerns and welfare of the majority of Indians is being ignored. A fundamental argument of the book is that a narrow focus on GDP growth is not enough to solve India's problems. As they point out, “… even though India has significantly caught up with China in terms of GDP growth, its progress has been very much slower than China's in indicators such as longevity, literacy, child nourishment and maternal mortality.” More damning, although India has grown much richer than Bangladesh, with a per capita income double that of its neighbour, that country has overtaken India in a wide range of basic social indicators such as life expectancy, child survival, enhanced immunisation rates, reduced fertility rates and even some (not all) school indicators. The book was written before the recent unrest in Bangladesh (and published in 2013), and the country is clearly not without its problems, but that does not lessen the effect of the comparisons. The discussion about the merits, or otherwise, of the private sector in improving conditions for the citizens of both countries is informative, as are the examples of when things go wrong. To take one example, in July 2012 a power blackout temporarily obliterated electricity in half of the country, “wreaking havoc with the lives of 600 million people”. What was less remarked upon was that “a third of those 600 million never have any electricity anyway (an illustration of the inequality that characterises modern India, whereas two-thirds lost power without any warning (an example of the country's disorganisation)”. The book is valuable not just because of the incisive arguments, and the way the authors deal with each sector or subject in turn, thereby avoiding broad brush generalisations, but also because in its 430 pages, 140 contain detailed notes, graphs and the hard data from which their observations are derived. It isn't a dry read, however. Everyone from Pankaj Mishra to Arundhati Roy is quoted. The authors aren't afraid to point out unpalatable truths, from the fact that corruption is such an endemic feature of Indian administration and commercial life that in some parts of the country nothing moved in the intended direction unless the palm of the delivered is "greased" to the fact that in 2011 half of all Indian households did not have any access to toilets, forcing them to resort to open defecation on a daily basis. Such observations have ensured that both authors have been openly attacked for this book. Sen might be a Nobel Prize Winner, and Dreze an Indian citizen since 2002 (having lived there since 1979) but it has'’t ameliorated the ferocity of the backlash. The bias in the media with regards to focusing on the rich and all but ignoring the poor was particularly depressing to this reviewer. “As one leading editor put it to a group of children's rights advocates at a meeting in Delhi: 'Don't have any illusions, you will never be able to compete with the wardrobe malfunction of a model on a runway.'” As the authors point out, this bias is shared by most media in most countries around the world. “But what is special about India is that an overwhelming majority of the people in the country would have little idea what a wardrobe is, or what a malfunction would mean in this context.” If this sounds trivial, the authors make the case that issues of accountability, fed by the bias of public discussion in everything from inequality to the politics of India, is one of the reasons why despite a vibrant and growing press, so many issues in India seem intractable. It leads on to questions as to the products and services the government chooses to subsidise (imports of diamonds and gold) over what it does not (child welfare), the dominance of the privileged, the disaster in healthcare and education, corruption and the peculiar nature of Indian inequality when compared with other countries (from Bangladesh to China). The authors are also clear that while the whole book is concerned with India, there are important regional variations with Tamil Nadu achieving rapid progress in recent years through the initiation of social programmes such as universal midday meals in primary schools and putting into place an extensive social structure — schools, health centres, roads, public transport, water supply, electricity connections and much more. The achievement is all the greater when you hear that the population of Tamil Nadu in 2011 was 72 million. This is an excellent book, and provides not only food for thought, but the data to back up its argument. Worth reading as an antidote to all the boosterism of the country. Allen Lane £20 Tom Otley For more business books, try GetAbstract – BT Plus Members get one month's membership free.
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