INDIA, BY ITS PEOPLE
Imagining India : ideas for the new century/ Nandan Nilekani; New Delhi: Allen Lane an imprint of Penguin Books, 2009. (38-61, 158-175, 256-282, 363-383 p.) INDIA, BY ITS PEOPLE
IN DELHI THIS Monday morning, it is chaos. Despite its pristine new metro and expanding highways, the city can barely contain the morning hubbub, the swarm of people all trying to get somewhere. By the time I reach Kaushik Basu's home—set a little apart from the highway, on a quiet street that is empty except for a single, lazy cow who stops in front of the car, in no hurry to move—I am very late, a little grimy, but exhilarated. Kaushik and I chat about how the crowds in the city look completely different compared to, say, two decades ago. Then, you would see people lounging near tea shops, reading the morning paper late into the afternoon, puffing languorously at their beedis and generally shooting the breeze. But as India has changed— bursting forth as one of the world's fastest-growing countries—so has the scene on the street. And as Kaushik points out, it is this new restlessness, the hum and thrum of its people, that is the sound of India's economic engine today. Kaushik is the author of a number of books on India and teaches economics at Cornell, and his take on India's growth—of a country driven by human capital—is now well accepted. India's position as the world's go-to destination for talent is hardly surprising; we may have been short on various things at various times, but we have always had plenty of people. The crowded tumult of our cities is something I experience every day as I navigate my way to our Bangalore office through a dense crowd that overflows from the footpaths and on to the road—of software engineers waiting at bus stops, groups of women in colourful saris, on their way to their jobs 38
at the garment factories that line the road, men in construction hats heading towards the semi-completed highway. And then there are the people milling around the cars, hawking magazines and pirated versions of the latest best-sellers.* Looking around, I think that if people are the engine of India's growth, our economy has only just begun to rev up. But to the demographic experts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, India's population made the country quite simply a disaster of epic proportions. Paul Ehlrich's visit to Delhi in 1966 forms the opening of his book The Population Bomb, and his shock as he describes India's crowds is palpable: 'People eating, people washing, people sleeping . . . people visiting, arguing and screaming . . . people clinging to buses . . . people, people, people'. But in the last two decades, this depressing vision of India's population as an 'overwhelming burden' has been turned on its head. With growth, our human capital has emerged as a vibrant source of workers and consumers not just for India, but also for the global economy. But this change in our attitudes has not come easily. Since independence, India struggled for decades with policies that tried to put the lid on its surging population. It is only recently that the country has been able to look its billion in the eye and consider its advantages. 'MILLIONS ON AN ANTHILL' For most of the twentieth century, people both within and outside India viewed us through a lens that was distinctly Malthusian. As a poor and extremely crowded part of the world, we seemed to vindicate Thomas Malthus's uniquely despondent vision—that great population growth inevitably led to great famine and despair. The time that Thomas Malthus, writer, amateur economist and clergyman (the enduring term history gave him would be 'the gloomy parson'), lived in may have greatly influenced his theory on population. Nineteenth-century England was seeing very high birth rates, with families having children by the baker's dozen. Malthus— who, as the second of eight children, was himself part of the population explosion he bemoaned—predicted in his...
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