The Indian Economy Blog

November 7, 2008

India’s Development Prospects: Between Doomsday and Utopia?

Progressive critiques of India’s recent development prospects are often marked by schizophrenic worldviews – between what is and what ought to be.

Mira Kamdar’s recent piece in the World Policy Journal illustrates this well. By Ms. Kamdar’s account Indians are heading down an inevitable path to doomsday. Malthusian population pressures, resource scarcity, global warming, environmental degradation, industrial capitalism, and political corruption have combined with an inherently fractured society that is likely to erupt in caste, religious, and class warfare, terrorism, and self-destruction. Mix in the recent US-India civilian-Nuclear deal and the presence of unstable neighbors – Pakistan, Bangladesh – along with an aggressive China, and Ms. Kamdar offers up all the ingredients for a nuclear holocaust. The only uncertainty we are left with is: which doomsday will India break into first — internal implosion or external explosion?

And if this is not enough, Kamdar has one more concern: Indians are taking to cars rather than following the example of bicycle aficionados in Amsterdam, Paris, and New York.

All this, because Ms. Kamdar wishes to disabuse her readers of taking too seriously the rosy-scenarios painted for India in the 5 year old Goldman Sachs BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India- China) report. Perhaps the BRICS authors expected a less fundamental critique of their growth-accounting models? Instead, Ms. Kamdar offers her own BRICS dream in the very last para of her piece: India’s under-class and lower castes having finally usurped political power will magically transform Indian democracy, to root out corruption, poor governance, and “…will have delivered quality education and healthcare, housing, clean water and sanitation…. Its policies will reflect the active civic engagement of an informed electorate, becoming a model for the world of the advantages of truly democratic governance. Now that is what I call dreaming with a BRIC.”

An ongoing doomsday scenario in India that ends in a future utopian vision for India: Ms. Kamdar offers no intellectual bridge from here to there. So how can one trust the reality of either worldview?

Perhaps if she had considered the half-century lost under the unproductive haze of the License Raj; or the pernicious harm done to Indian polity by a caste based reservation system that actually reversed upward caste mobility and institutionalized caste divisiveness in Indian society — an outcome that ironically is the one real ingredient in Ms. Kamdar’s utopia; or, if Ms. Kamdar had considered the woeful neglect of land markets in India instead of choosing to paint the Nano plant site controversy in West Bengal in class-warfare terms; or, that even assuming the worst case global-warming outcome and its impact on agricultural productivity in India, opening up the rural economy to trade and investment offers the individual farmer more, rather than less, options – of goods, technology, and mobility – when dealing with a changing environment.

All of the problems Ms. Kamdar touches on are real and require incremental but genuine responses – to be provided by markets, entrepreneurship, leadership, and good governance. And these responses will by necessity emerge from what India is and not from some radicalized new society that Ms. Kamdar dreams.

Too bad Ms. Kamdar has chosen to neglect the reality and promise of progress in India, while conjuring up wild lurches between doomsday and utopia. One can only hope that the readers of WPJ are more grounded than the author.

Guest post by Nimai Mehta, Assistant Professor of International Trade and Business at American University, Washington DC.


  1. Wow! Looks like sky is falling. I hope Ms.Kamdar will tell us where to run next. Seriously, I would consider her piece waste of resources(bandwidth, hard disk space, etc).

    Few years ago I read a book “Planet India” or some such thing, written by same author(I think). If I remember correctly, she was bullish about India then. Oh well, why bother.

    Comment by Sri — November 9, 2008 @ 8:58 am

  2. In fact, the data she uses in her analysis were known even during the mid-2000s, when the much-hyped BRIC report came out. I wonder why it wasn’t important to look these facts then.

    I think Kamdar should have waited a little longer before jumping into the doomsday (or in the mid-2000s, the gung-ho) bandwagon.

    If I were to be charitable, I would say she adapts her writing to reflect her present mood. At worst, I would suspect her competence as a researcher. In either case, I won’t take her writing seriously.:)

    Comment by photonman — November 10, 2008 @ 10:19 am

  3. In her book “Planet India” , Ms Kamdar did present a very bullish view on India. However she has also presented a vision of how India should achieve greatness, different from American model, as she sees it.

    In my view, India is not going to get there by following any one vision, like hers. It is not going to be a nation of ‘one people’. It is probably not going to be great by removing casteism or religious differences. The model of a powerful central government leading all its people to greatness is also not going to happen. It will grow economically, carrying all its imperfections along,producing world class scientists and astute managers on one hand and the blind beggars on the other.

    Would it be a great nation 30 years from now? If a nation with Aircraft carriers and rockets is great, then India would be great. If a nation with mammoth multinationals is great, then India would be. If a nation with great wealth is great, then India would be.

    However the slums and the beggars and poor would probably still be there.So the question is: Thirty years from today, do we want a great nation that also carry these miseries or a poor one that carry these miseries?

    Comment by Unni panicker — November 16, 2008 @ 10:00 am

  4. A devil’s advocate question to Unni panicker:

    You acknowledge the beggars will still probably coexist next to the world-reknowned and CEOs in a typically Indian juxtaposition in 30 years’ time too. But would we rather have this gross inequality, but globe-conquerers; or a slightly more sedentary success on teh global success, but a sharp and sustained reduction of poverty as a feature of inclusive growth?

    It’s a trade-off that depends on your preferences – inclusive, but slightly slower growth; or more exclusive, but marginally higher growth?

    Comment by pratik — November 16, 2008 @ 3:06 pm

  5. Several months back, the GOI announced 40,000 crore debt relief to farmers. While it is unclear how much of it benefited the ‘good economy’,it is clear the Government could afford it. Be it tax receipts from corporations or income tax from the high salaried professionals, there was money they could throw around. So it is the money from ‘exclusive’ growth that drove money to the ‘inclusive’ growth.

    Inclusive growth is good, but I do not think it is possible in India. A vision or a model will work only in pockets in India as it is vast and complex. So, in my view, you have to let all these different models to work.

    Matthew Hayden called India a ‘third world’ country. Unfortunately, he is not informed enough to know that the word is obsolete from the world of business and economics already, as far as India is concerned.For that reason, his statement does not sting us as much as it would have,a testament to the fact that we do realize we have far more billionaires, wealthy corporations and er, far richer cricket board. Highest defense spending in the world, Chandrayan, nuclear weapons…

    Now, what does this mean to the child getting his body disfigured to increase his market value as a beggar? How do you take him out of the street and make him a productive citizen?

    Where would that money and energy come from? May be after we have accomplished many of our world conquests, we would be ashamed enough to act. May be the democracy will draw the money towards the drown-trodden, even they have voting rights. But my point is this: At least the money would be there.

    Comment by Unni Panicker — November 16, 2008 @ 8:08 pm

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