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Book Review: How To Fix India

The book is audacious in its approach; it advocates steamrolling “reform” in a mission mode with a readymade solution

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There are 10 grand challenges, and they need 10 start-ups within the government, with a crack team of 10 handpicked persons per challenge, to solve the most significant problems. There is evidence that this can be done, as evidenced by two “problems” for which solutions are considered “firmly established, large scale”. These ideas would transform India and realise a billion aspirations.

Does this sound ambitious, audacious, boastful or like it’s a pipe dream? Well, Nilekani and Shah think it is possible to meet these challenges in a timebound manner if we adopt a mission mode and get going within the government, bypassing several checks that a democracy would have — the checks that necessarily slows the process of development.

The ideas of Nilekani and Shah are largely rooted in the use of technology to solve many of the asymmetries that might be existing in the system. The arguments are that most of these asymmetries are solvable by technology. Decades ago, we had a similar initiative within the government when Sam Pitroda revolutionised the telecom network, much before the advent of mobiles and then the same frame work of a “mission” was used across multiple sectors with relatively modest achievements.

There are two problems with the arguments extended by Nilekani and Shah — they assume that the template they have in terms of the art of the possible — that of Aadhar — is a success; second, this template is largely applicable to solve other problems. In fact, most of the solutions offered in the book pertain to building on the Aadhaar base — which is now termed by Nilekani as India Stack. The authors admit that the person who got the first Aadhaar number, Ranjana Sonawane, did not benefit much from the number because there are multiple government systems that need to work in tandem to achieve her inclusion. But Aadhaar, nevertheless is declared a success story. This is precisely the problem with the approach and tonality of the book. It offers simple solutions, and simplifies the problems. This approach is somewhat surprising because Nilekani himself had to deal with multiple complexities when he was at the helm of the Aadhaar project and the potential of Aadhaar is yet to be tested at scale. Only the enrollment numbers in the Aadhaar system are successful. This is impressive and stands close a billion; but what needs to be tested is the biometric verification at scale on a real-time basis. When that system is stabilised, we certainly can claim victory, subject to the other hurdles the project faces from the courts and the challenges to privacy.

Irrespective of the reservations over the overall simplicity and the “achievability” of the solutions presented by Nilekani and Shah, the chapters on electronic toll, and other ideas that are at “early stages” of experimentation show promise and look plausible. The long-term aspirational ideas need much more than the fixes that are provided through the technological interventions. Education and healthcare, for instance, are not just about entitlements, vouchers and choices, but also about the multiple systems that need to work in tandem so a s to build the back-end infrastructure to service these entitlements, irrespective of whether this infrastructure is in the private sector or run by the State.

The book is audacious in its approach; it advocates steamrolling “reform” in a mission mode with a readymade solution. Dissent and debate is seen as a necessary element to “win over” opposition. That there might be some merit in the dissenting voices is not taken seriously. Dissent is treated as a necessary constraint in a project chart that needs to be addressed in a manner that it does not stall the “progress”. It is this approach that is jarring in a book that is so wonderfully full of ideas.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

M.S. Sriram

Prof. Sriram is Visiting Faculty, Centre for Public Policy

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