By Amitabha Bhattacharya
Amitabh Kant, one of Indian bureaucracy's high-profile officers who is associated with eye-catching initiatives like Make in India, Startup India, Incredible India and God's Own Country, especially since his days with Kerala tourism, has been an incorrigible optimist. Optimism that his four rigorous decades in the IAS could not diminish, and which shines through the 37 essays collected in the book, Incredible India 2.0: Synergies for Growth and Governance.
When bureaucrats take to reminiscing, generally after retirement, their accounts rarely make a wave, for being anecdotal or boastful, suffering from the I-disease or dry officialese. But this is not a conventional narrative. Based on the author's wide experience in public service, the book encompasses within its hard covers most of the key issues concerning national growth and prosperity.
Many of the essays, with attractive titles, had earlier been published in leading newspapers. Clubbed into five sets-Governance, Business and Economy, Social Transformation, Infrastructure, and Judiciary-the articles are so suffused with adjectives that, on first glance, one would think of them as highfalutin publicity material for government programmes. The contents, however, are sober, interesting and often futuristic in outlook.
For those who lament the passing of the Planning Commission-shaped by the finest of visionaries like Jawaharlal Nehru, PC Mahalanobis, PN Haksar, BS Minhas and Sukhamoy Chakraborty-the book gives a fair impression of what its successor entity, NITI (National Institution for Transforming India) Aayog, has been engaged in. It also provides a snapshot of various major initiatives such as Ayushman Bharat Yojana or Aspirational Districts Programme that the current dispensation is grappling with. Finally, it provides an idea of what the country is heading towards, viewed by a mind that is passionately involved with this process and yet not bogged down by its complexities.
Interestingly, Kant takes on the judiciary as well. He pleads to 'Stop Adjourning Justice' and shares his ideas about how to 'Speed Up Judiciary'. Not fully supportive of the Supreme Court judgment on Aadhaar, he also urges that our courts should take into cognisance the economic impact of their judgments. In the context of the Supreme Court suspending environmental clearances and stopping all work for the second airport at Goa, Kant explains the huge economic cost of the ruling (reportedly, the Supreme Court lifted the suspension on January 16). These are issues crucial to India's development that require to be widely discussed.
The essays, disparate as they might seem on initial viewing, fall into a pattern, as explained by the author in the introduction. The priority areas for the government to focus its energy and resources on, in order to leapfrog from a lower-middle-income economy of less that $3 trillion to an upper-middle-income one of $5 trillion in the next five years, have been broadly outlined. As pointed out, "In purchasing power parity terms, our per capita income stands at $6,430, whilst that of China is $15,308. What is remarkable about China's growth story is that, in 1990, China's gross domestic product per capita stood at $1,526, whereas India's stood at $1,754..." Economists and political analysts have deliberated extensively on the causes of such a widening gap in prosperity between China and India over the last three decades, often ending up with a sense of despondency. Kant does not seem to have lost hope and argues for the kind of interventions needed and reforms to be undertaken in various sectors. Herein lies the strength of the book.
He cites many stories showing, for instance, how technology is driving efficiency and effectiveness in government: "A recent study predicts that digital transformation will add $154 billion to India's GDP by 2021… In 2017, about 4 percent of the country's GDP was derived from digital products and services created directly through the use of technologies like Cloud, Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence." We are told that about 25% of domestic medicines are estimated to be fake and that "NITI's drug authenticity project will empower consumers to verify the genuineness of drugs sold as their manufacturing will be tracked on the blockchain". We learn how a most backward district like Dantewada is making strides, having "an Education city that houses 18 institutions, a project that KPMG has ranked as among the 100 best innovative infrastructures in the world".
These are words of hope in an environment that some influential critics and intellectuals find despairing. Lucidly written, the book exudes positivity without being facile. The book would have, however, benefitted from an index and references added at the end of each contribution.
The author is a former IAS officer who has also worked in the private sector and with the UNDP