Times of India

My next Men and Ideas column

Curse of seniority

Two weeks ago I was invited to a glamorous event in Manhattan celebrating the launch of a special issue of the prestigious Foreign Affairs magazine titled The Rise of India to which I had also contributed. A knowledgeable and well heeled audience heard our moderator begin with Jim Rogers' famous line that he wouldn't invest in India because “it had the worst bureaucracy in the world”. An odd note to begin an event honouring India's rise! It soon became apparent, however, that we must be celebrating the rise of a “private” India. A worrisome question hung over the whole evening--is India rising economically despite the state?

A highway called India

Homi Bhabha, the distinguished professor of English at Harvard, recently described India as a multi-lane highway. This is a happy metaphor, I think, because it captures nicely our diverse multilingual, multicultural, open society in which all are moving forward, albeit at different speeds. At the same forum Amartya Sen added that India had experienced huge gains from the economic reforms and everyone seemed to be rising. The only question is if those in the slow lane are gaining enough from the reforms. He went on to remind us about the English philosopher, David Hume's astonishing thought--market expansion makes us aware of others' lives and thus expands our ethical horizon.

A question of merit

In the recent debate on reservations we have heard much talk about merit. Ever since the decision by the cabinet to extend reservations to the OBC, I have been deluged by anguished email whose common refrain goes like this: Just when things were going well for India, just when we were building a competitive nation based on merit, why did this tragedy have to fall on us?

A hot summer of envy

Ever since the state election results, there has been more than the usual talk about “soaking the greedy middle class” by the emboldened Left. As it is, this government has been obsessed with redistributing poverty, and has done too little to create prosperity, which will only come through genuine reforms. Meanwhile, Arjun Singh, smelling an opportunity to become a Left immortal, has trumped his OBC coalition partners and declared a caste war. It promises to be a long hot summer of envy.

Scholarships, not quotas

 

When the cabinet meets to consider the proposal for raising caste reservations in institutions of higher learning from 22.5% to 49.5% it should imagine itself to be the admissions committee of one of the Indian Institutes of Technology. It has to choose whether to admit the son of a backward caste businessman from a posh South Delhi address who received low marks or the son of a poor brahmin schoolteacher in Muzaffarpur who got much higher marks. Under Arjun Singh's proposal, the IITs will be forced to admit the privileged son of an OBC businessman and reject the high scoring schoolteacher's son.

Best and worst of times

We are so jaded with the India versus Bharat story that nothing surprises us anymore. Yet even a surfeited soul like me blinks with amazement at this incongruity. When people from abroad are beginning to come to India for high quality, low-cost medical care, there's a 70 percent chance of being prescribed a harmful therapy in a government primary health centre in Delhi for a common ailment like diarrhoea. This is the finding of an extensive study by J. Das and J. Hammer. We had long known that two out of five doctors were absent in our primary health centres, but we didn't know that doctors in these centres were less competent than in an African country like Tanzania. Hence, even the poor now depend on private solutions and India's share of private spending in health is double that of so called “free-market USA”.

A metaphor of India

Raghav FM Mansoorpur l is a radio station which used to beam Bhojpuri and filmi songs, give community news and advice on all sorts of things, including AIDs and polio. Raghav Mahto, a 22 year old radio mechanic, started it three years ago. Bored with running an electronics repair shop in Gudri Bazar near Mansoorpur village in the Vaishali district of Bihar, Raghav stumbled one day on an innovative way to broadcast radio from his thatched roof shop by slinging a transmitter on a bamboo pole with a total investment of Rs 50.The do-it-yourself community station became an instant success.

In praise of the right brain

Last year I was on the jury of the McKinsey Award for the best article in the Harvard Business Review, a monthly journal for managers. This wasn't easy work because I was forced to read every single article in the magazine in 2005 when I would much rather have been reading a novel. Besides, I have always believed that business is more about doing and less about reflecting. I was amused to find so many of the best articles had Indian names attached to them, and I thought with a smile, India is not only producing spiritual gurus but also “business gurus”. But I am sceptical of this latter 'guru', and sometimes wonder if the acronym stands for someone “Good at Understanding, but Relatively Useless”.

Deeper into India's soul

'How is it that so many Indians are making it in the global economy?' This was a common refrain during President Bush's recent visit.   I looked for answers in India's education system for a recent essay for an American magazine, and concluded that success belonged to students rather than teachers, and the real victory might lie with parents and their middle class insecurities—it's a rare Indian mother who will step out of the house in the evening during exam season.

A great nation

For a country that was widely regarded as 20th century's great disappointment, it must feel good that the 21st has begun rather nicely. India is today one of the world's fastest growing economies, and there is even talk of it becoming a great power. No doubt Mr Bush will also remind us of it this week. I must confess, however, that such talk leaves me cold.