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Imagining India

Is India ready for global leadership?

(Page 2 of 2)

Meanwhile, however, technology, that great flattener, has by no means leveled the playing field for all citizens of India. Caste-based access to education and government jobs still keeps worthy aspirants out of the game. Creating wealth-generating enterprises will allow more citizens to participate in the growth story.

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But India’s earlier marriage to socialism makes it hard for entrepreneurs to run profitable enterprises smoothly to this day. Dismantling ingrained, failed structures will require a swathe of policy reforms, Nilekani writes.

However, he does offer some practical solutions.

Technology could empower individuals trapped in the vice of antiquated systems. The government counts its citizens but does not store information about each of them – regarding, say, their health, land holdings, and finances – in an integrated, national database.

Once this is set up, giving every citizen an electronic card, with a unique digital identity, would allow the state to deliver what is due to its citizens and vice versa, writes Nilekani. Such a system could remove the sway of corrupt middlemen. India also has a unique opportunity to leapfrog technology by learning from the experiments of the First World and becoming an innovator in public healthcare or alternative energy.

Interspersed with interesting ideas are heartwarming stories about individuals working to make a difference in the flawed framework. Nilekani writes unflinchingly of challenges ahead. “Imagining India” manages to strike that fine balance between hope and caution.

This well-researched book – with its extensive bibliography, footnotes, and timeline – is a must-read for any India-watcher, although modern India’s national obsessions – Bollywood and Cricket – are not discussed here. For these topics, the reader has to look elsewhere.

This book does provide answers for those curious about India’s chances vis-à-vis the other contender to the superpower title: China.

Reading these chapters, it quickly becomes apparent that Indian policymakers face constraints their Chinese counterparts do not. The Indian government cannot implement far-reaching, top-down reforms precisely because the nation is a democracy where elections take place every five years. Many powerful lobbies want to maintain status quo, Nilekani points out. Still, this is the information era and knowledge could be a powerful catalyst for change.

So, those rooting for India – and as an Indian-American, I am one of them – can take heart in Friedman’s response on the India-China match-up: “I don’t think that this century can belong to a country that censors Google.”

Vijaysree Venkatraman is a Boston-based science writer.

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