It took Europe and America more than three centuries to go through three successive industrial revolutions: manufacturing, services and digital,” observes Mira Kamdar in her new book, Planet India. “India is going through all three industrial revolutions at once. At the velocity of the information age, the country is being transformed from an ancient agrarian society into a modern manufacturing hub and global services provider. People are being propelled away from a world they understand towards a new world they have yet to define.”
The thesis of Kamdar’s wide-ranging book is that, nearly two decades after liberalization, and as the world’s largest democracy, India is now at a “critical historical moment”. The manner in which it copes over the next two decades with its many urgent challenges—that of lifting several hundred million people out of poverty, achieving economic growth with a degree of equity and without violent environmental degradation, radically improving existing standards of education and healthcare, developing sources of renewable energy, tackling massive urban migration and managing the HIV crisis—is not only crucial to its own long-term health, but also that of the rest of the world because, as one of Kamdar’s respondents puts it, India is “a microcosm of every important policy question the world faces.”
Everywhere she goes in India, Kamdar finds the mood bullish, the figures promising— “grew xx per cent” is a phrase that appears most frequently in Planet India. But she also argues that although India has embraced capitalism and free markets, both Indian business and Indian consumers need to be aware of the perils of the American model, the costs of which have not yet been sufficiently emphasized.
She cautions—as Indian writers such as Pankaj Mishra and Ashis Nandy have done previously—that India and China, the two rising world powers, “cannot blindly imitate the American model: the earth simply cannot sustain billions of people consuming finite resources at American levels, nor churning out pollutants at the rate Americans do.”
At the same time, speaking to leading figures of Indian industry—N.R. Narayana Murthy, Anand Mahindra, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw—Kamdar finds a section of Indian business keen not just to do well, but to do good. India’s needs, she argues, are too pressing for government to handle them all on its own. In initiatives such as ITC’s e-choupal programme, which empowers farmers by connecting them directly to markets, the Arogya Raksha Yojana, a trust started by Devi Shetty and Mazumdar Shaw to bring low-cost healthcare to the poor, the Azim Premji Educational Foundation, which is working to improve the quality of rural government schools and ICICI Bank’s microfinance initiative, Kamdar discerns signs of an “alternative paradigm” of capitalism, mindful of social inclusion and environmental sustainability. Such ventures, she suggests, are “representative of what is most exciting in India’s renaissance”.
The value of Kamdar’s analysis is that it is neither too starry-eyed nor unreasonably negative—it is not her aim to compose a polemic. Though she is at best a workmanlike writer, more comfortable marshalling statistics than describing people and places, her level-headedness and balance make up for this.
In a section called The Other India, Kamdar focuses on the faultlines of India’s ascent. Noting how television in India has led to “the democratization of aspiration”, she counsels that India must swiftly find a way of bringing its restless poor into the fold of opportunity or face collapse. She points out other troubling dichotomies.
Although the urban construction boom is a marker of prosperity, lakhs of labourers on those very construction sites are not only victims of distress migration (the subject of a good recent work called Locked Homes, Empty Schools, published by Zubaan Books), they have practically no rights in their new environment and are treated as if they are “completely disposable”.
Kamdar can sometimes overstress her thesis, which is that the new India is a “laboratory for the world”. Her emphasis on “inclusion” makes her, on occasion, too credulous of the declared goals of government. She praises the UPA government for its “politics of inclusion” without showing a connection between its rhetoric and reality, or asking if its chosen means of wealth redistribution—such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act—are really achieving the desired ends. But this is, on the whole, a judicious and insightful survey of the awesome churning and many silent revolutions of planet India early in the 21st century.
Write to Chandrahas Choudhury at firstname.lastname@example.org