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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Book Review: ‘The Turn of the Tortoise’ by TN Ninan
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Book Review: ‘The Turn of the Tortoise’ by TN Ninan

The story of India and its growth is one of hits and misses, according to this lucidly written book

In India, 43% students are in private schools. Photo: Hemant Mishra/MintPremium
In India, 43% students are in private schools. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

India’s economy usually attracts metaphors involving animals. So it has been variously called a slumbering elephant, caged tiger, sleeping dragon. The lion is the mascot of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Make in India programme. Now journalist T.N. Ninan introduces a reptile as a metaphor: the tortoise.

Ninan is an optimist. But for over 300 pages, he painstakingly examines the problems that bedevil India’s economy: an underperforming state, rising cronyism, growing graft, hobbled manufacturing, populist politics and the prickly debate over growth or environment. Ninan is a perceptive analyst who also writes lucidly, and that alone makes this book an engaging read for anyone interested in India’s present and future.

“India’s is very much the tortoise story in the fable—a story starter coming good over a time," writes Ninan. He is neither a triumphalist, nor a naysayer. But some of the facts speak for themselves. India is already the world’s seventh largest economy. It is a $2.3 trillion ( 152.67 trillion) market growing at 7% annually. Even an annual growth of more than 6% would help catapult India to become the world’s third largest economy, some years before 2040. In the coming five years it is projected to be the third largest contributor to world growth after China and the US.

But the tortoise walk is fraught with age-old problems. For one, India’s size, believes Ninan, has led its policy makers into confusion about objectives. It was not enough, for example, to set up a big solar power generating capacity, but also to ensure that the solar cells and panels were made in India, even if it meant higher costs. “If multiple objectives are pursued simultaneously, compromises have to be made on the main objectives—mathematically, it is impossible to maximize more than one function." The result, as Ninan says, is a country of bizarre contrasts—it can’t make a decent razor blade or fountain pen, even as it builds atomic power stations and sends rockets into space.

Then there are price distortions—industries made unviable by artificial prices. Rigid labour markets stifle job creation. Radical reforms happen only when there is a sense of crisis. “The reality in India is that there is no sense of crisis or of an urgent need for change, especially after growth rates were upped."

So it is difficult to determine what reforms mean to most people. “What India does not have is reform flowing from political conviction, such as when a political leader campaigns and creates the climate for change," writes Ninan. So India opts for easy choices: relatively painless solutions—like the application of technology to deliver government services faster, better and cheaper.

Then there’s the worrying retreat of the state in sectors where the state is needed the most. Already 43% of India’s schoolchildren go to private schools. By 2025, 60% would be going to private schools. This is unprecedented: no country has seen public education dwarfed by private education. Then, 60% of India’s hospital beds are privately owned. The quality of private education and healthcare may be better, but imposes exorbitant costs.

India’s liabilities can also turn out to be the country’s strength. Size, Ninan believes, will shape India’s destiny. Even if only a third of Indians enjoy discretionary spending power, its middle class would be larger than the population of all countries other than China. India’s market for cars is the world’s sixth largest already, although less than 5% of households owned cars in 2011. All this could also easily lead to the most unequal society in the world, riven by social tensions and unrest.

Ninan addresses other important questions as well. Will India’s constitutional liberalism give way to less than liberal democracy? India has a long tradition with bans when it comes to uncomfortable books and films, and intolerance is on the rise everywhere. “Some of the points of conflict are the result of social churn that is linked to modernization. Traditional hierarchies, boundaries and authority get challenged in a freewheeling world where more women go to work, where youngsters mingle without concern for caste or community, and where old identities get fused into new ones that might seem deracinated," writes Ninan. He is also reassured by the fact that new and liberating technologies help foster more freedom. “At the same time, one must not rule out the danger of complicit majorities operating to impose constraints on different minorities."

“The reassuring facts in a broadly hopeful scenario are that the directions of change are overwhelmingly positive, and that the system as a whole has a bedrock of stability that is not affected by the surface churn," Ninan writes. What is in grave doubt is the quality of growth—foul air, mediocre teachers, weak regulation, blighted cities, appalling criminal-justice system, strained social relations. That is really the big challenge for the tortoise on a brisk trot.

Soutik Biswas is features and analysis editor with the BBC News website.

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Published: 28 Nov 2015, 12:20 AM IST
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