Building India one miracle at a time
On American Thanksgiving Day last week, I had the good fortune of spending a morning with my mother at Dubai’s Miracle Garden (DMG). Set in about 70,000 square metres of space it houses over 150 million flowers. Petunias, marigolds, snapdragons and violas adorn different frames in a “miracle” riot of colour in the middle of the desert. And for a few hours on a brilliantly sunny desert morning it gave a mother and son great joy.
The field of development economics does not have much literature on whether development is best done by stringing a bunch of miracles in a bouquet. Empirically speaking many East Asian “miracle” economies—China and Korea in particular—have followed the method of piloting a few successes and then generalizing them. China, for instance, opened up its economy in miracle spurts, first in Shenzhen and Zhuhai and then by adding cities in the coastal belt from Dalian in the north to Pudong in the middle to Xiamen in the south. These city “special economic zones” were then generalized into the Pearl River Delta and the Yangze Delta with Shanghai-Pudong as its “dragon head”. Korea’s initial development, called the Miracle on Han River, followed a slightly different model of sectoral industrial policy—first energy then chemicals then electronics—together with macroeconomic stability.
India has had a few modern “miracles” of its own. Operation Flood—popularly but incorrectly known to many as “Amul”—the Delhi Metro, the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Management (IIMs), the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) and perhaps a handful of others. Let me take a moment to describe each to deduce the “miracle” factor.
“Amul”: Following its success as a federated cooperative in Gujarat, Operation Flood (OF) by the National Dairy Development Board became the largest dairy development project in the world. It delivered India from chronic milk shortage to a country with the largest milk production and consumption in the world today. OF was led by one man, Verghese Kurien, with a vision and on a mission. He demanded and was granted autonomy to spread his cooperative vision with built-in quality control for dairy production which he did with great dedication and elan for three decades. Much more needs to be done since India’s per capita milk consumption is still low, but OF has lost steam after Kurien’s death and milk production is now moving towards the private sector.
Delhi Metro: The Delhi Metro was built in phases from 2002 to 2011 and now represents the 12th largest metro system in the world in terms of length. The metro is clean and modern and runs on time. It was delivered on time and within budget and was again led by one man, Dr. E. Sreedharan, who like Kurien demanded autonomy and non-interference.
Metros in other cities in India have not managed the same success mostly because they did not have the same focus on costs and delivery.
IITs and IIMs: These institutions of higher education were built and operated by many capable people over the years. The IITs today are governed by an IIT council which has significant government participation but operates with a fair degree of autonomy. Time will tell if the expanded set of IITs and IIMs will match the original excellence.
Isro: Space research and exploration in India owes much to the inspiration provided by Jawaharlal Nehru and the pioneering efforts and culture of autonomy and technical excellence established by Dr. Vikram Sarabhai. Isro continues its trajectory of taking India faster and further than other space agencies, with a budget that is a small fraction of those programmes.
Others: Of the newer miracles in India, Aadhaar, India’s population-wide biometric identification system, is one. Even though many Indians are currently annoyed by the thoughtless overreach by the government through banks and telecom companies in demanding the linking of their accounts, Aadhaar will help in providing an identity to millions and reducing the mis-targeting of national resources. India’s private sector led by its technology, healthcare and private financial companies with strong return on capital collectively represent a mini miracle for the country to build on.
The argumentative Indian will suggest that it is no miracle to ship pots thousands of miles and pour 700,000 litres of water a day into the desert to grow flowers. They might add that India’s miracle is its vibrant democracy and its continuing union despite the odds. All true. But that does not negate the fact that we must string our microcosmic miracles and learn from them to scale to the rest of the country.
One lesson is that large-scale projects need to be free from generalized governmental interference: the common factor is autonomy with accountability. Most often the success is led by individuals such as in the case of OF or the Delhi Metro but not exclusively–organizational culture has also led to world-beating success. Less recognized is that specialists with experience are required to lead specialized projects like Sreedharan, Sarabhai and Nandan Nilekani. Political willingness and air cover are critical but so too is specialty.
There are many talented and specialized people in India. We must tap into them to make a million flowers bloom here.
P.S. “If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change,” said the Buddha.
Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs. Read Narayan’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/avisiblehand. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
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