Let it be said straightaway: Imagining India by any reckoning is probably the best study in recent times on the situation in India as of now and what needs to be done in the years to come to make things better. There is no question but that Nilekani has done a tremendous amount of home work. He says that he had held discussions with some 120 people from all walks of life like thinkers, scholars, bureaucrats et al and quotes their views liberally to emphasize a point.
His analysis of the contemporary situation in India, then, is not an exercise in recording one'spersonal predilections as much as an objective analysis of how things are now and what they could possibly turn out to be, given the necessary attention. He has no axe to grind, nor is he unduly pessimistic about the future. In fact, he is full of hope; even when he presents India'smany shortcomings, such as they are, with fitting open-mindedness, his faith in India is touching. He notes, for example, India'sannual growth of over six per cent since the early 1990s as unique in history surpassed by only one other country, China. He admires the fact that India has revealed itself ?to be a keen, chaotic and incredibly entrepreneurial economy? and quotes one of his intellectual friend as saying that ?you can'tbottle up India'seconomy again?. He gives credit to ?ordinary people? for exercising ?more influence than ever before in shaping Indian attitudes towards a variety of issues? and asserts that the most encouraging change noticeable in the country is that it is ?spreading across the country and reaching villages and small towns?.
Indeed, he holds, ?we are closer today than we have ever been to a truly effective ?deliberative democracy? where individuals and groups across the country are chipping away at the once-absolute power of the State?. It is not that he is unaware of the horrendous errors committed in the past by our politicians and leaders. They are discussed with a detachedness becoming a scholar and a concerned citizen. But it is Nilekani's final assessment that India re-discovered is on its way to greatness. As he aptly puts it: ?It is young, impatient, vital awake a country that may finally be coming close to its early promise?.
The book is divided into four parts: Part I discusses issues where our attitudes have changed radically over the years as in the matter of birth control, anti-business politics, Nehruvian concepts of socialism, rise of English as the ?emerging language of aspiration?, all of which are presented in their historical context. Part II examines those issues that ?are still in the ether but are now widely accepted?, like the need to spend more on quality education, the vast possibilities of literacy, the rise of cities leading to the liberation of people from caste tyranny and the need to strengthen infrastructure so essential for economic growth.
Nilekani is all for urbanisation and for coming to terms with the fact that ?cities are both inevitable and necessary for our economic health?, which is a total rejection of the Gandhian: an theory that India lives in its villages and should be rural-centred. Part III makes a study of our educational institutions, the low standards of our universities that show when it is realised that hardly one of the makes it to the top 400 in the world and world is spread that 75 per cent of our graduates are unemployable for the work they were ostensibly trained to do because they have only ?bookish? knowledge.
Nilekani is highly critical of the system presently prevailing and, one suspects, rightly so, which is why, as a consequence, India today has the highest number of students abroad?nearly 200,000?who are literally subsidising universities in host countries through their fees. Indian foreign exchange reserves are thus unnecessarily trained. Why cannot the money students are permitted to draw be spent on upgrading our own study centres? This and other questions are discussed in great detail.
Nilekani is not happy about the reservation policies pursued by our politicians and avers that ?our universities are being shaped by the worst of India'sfactionalism and feudal ideas?. He quotes Sam Pitroda as saying that ?reservation has probably set us back several years in our ability to carry out the reforms we need to? and no wiser words have been said. Part IV discusses Information Technology that is, of course, Nilekani'sspeciality, and how it can be made effective use of in many fields of activity through setting up ?Information Infrastructure?. Nilekani is emphatic in saying that a combination of an open society and its positive attitudes to IT can transform India to an unbelievable extent.
Nilekani sees concepts of security changing. He has words of advice on how to meet our energy needs and while he does not have any specific views to offer on nuclear energy, he thinks ?biofuel? remains a most promising alternative energy source, especially for India'srural sector.
The point is that Nilekani talks of what is readily available. The massive research that he has apparently effortlessly put in allows the facts and figures adduced to speak for themselves. We don'thave to go through cumbersome reports prepared by successive Planning Commissions. Reading Nilekani gives us enough material to set up sustainable planning. His book is an education in itself. Importantly, it is reader-friendly and unpretentious. It is as if he is sitting in his drawing room discussing everyday problems with his unnamed reader on what has gone wrong in our country and what can be done to set things right.
One wishes Arvind Adiga, who wrote the Booker Award winning work White Tiger had spent some time sitting at Nilekani's feet to learn not how to find fault but how to correct them. Policy-makers both at the state and central level would do well to read this book to set their eye sights right. Nilekani does not preach. His optimism for India'sfuture is even more contagious as befitting a man who, as co-founder of Infosys has a trust in his fellow countrymen that is as alluring as it is enforceable as practicable as he himself has personally shown in the field of IT. Frankly, this is a work that is un-put-downable for its easy style, its high content and its soaring vision and its unwavering faith in the common people of India, for which God and Nilekani be praised.
(Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd. 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017.)