TECH TALK: Good Books: In Spite of the Gods

Let us move on from world history to a brief history of the New India. Our guide is Edward Luce, the former South Asia bureau chief of the Financial Times. Luces book is about the strange rise of modern India. The title is a bit weird at first glance: In Spite of the Gods. But if one looks past that, it is an insightful book about what has changed (and is changing) in India. Sometimes, those of us who are on the ground in India, cannot easily understand these changes. An outsiders perspective is what Luce brings in and does it very well.

Here is a brief about the book from Random House:

India remains a mystery to many Americans, even as it is poised to become the worlds third largest economy within a generation, outstripping Japan. It will surpass China in population by 2032 and will have more English speakers than the United States by 2050. In In Spite of the Gods, Edward Luce, a journalist who covered India for many years, makes brilliant sense of India and its rise to global power. Already a number-one bestseller in India, his book is sure to be acknowledged for years as the definitive introduction to modern India.

In Spite of the Gods illuminates a land of many contradictions. The booming tech sector we read so much about in the West, Luce points out, employs no more than one million of Indias 1.1 billion people. Only 35 million people, in fact, have formal enough jobs to pay taxes, while three-quarters of the country lives in extreme deprivation in Indias 600,000 villages. Yet amid all these extremes exists the worlds largest experiment in representative democracyand a largely successful one, despite bureaucracies riddled with horrifying corruption.

Luce shows that India is an economic rival to the U.S. in an entirely different sense than China is. There is nothing in India like the manufacturing capacity of China, despite the huge potential labor force. An inept system of public education leaves most Indians illiterate and unskilled. Yet at the other extreme, the middle class produces ten times as many engineering students a year as the United States. Notwithstanding its future as a major competitor in a globalized economy, American. leaders have been encouraging Indias rise, even welcoming it into the nuclear energy club, hoping to balance Chinas influence in Asia.

Early on in the book, Luce writes about the ultimate Indian fascination the village. He rips apart those who talk of trying to keep villages the way they are, and comes out in favour of urbanization. In an interview with The Hindu, he had this to say: There is a very strong and deeply rooted cultural romanticism about the village in India. It’s primarily upper caste urban people who are the keepers of the flame of this romanticism. I want India to develop and development means urbanisation. It is an inescapable fact. I don’t believe that urbanisation means liquidation of culture. France is 90 per cent urban. France is quintessentially French. India has a great urban civilisational heritage. It’s not as if India’s cradle of culture is purely the village. But partly because of the distortions of the colonial era and partly because and this is not an original point I’m making the villages are the least tainted and least interfered with by the colonial presence, the village became the repository in the freedom movement dialectic of Indian culture. That romanticism which I think is very conservative is still quite widespread. It is not stopping India urbanising but it’s making the urban experience far more callous and bloody than it could be. Urbanisation can be done well. It can be anticipated. Demographic trends can be projected and you can start putting infrastructure in place without having to be Japanese.

Reading this reminded me of my colleague, Atanu Dey, and his ideas about RISC (Rural Infrastructure and Services Commons). It was nice to see an echo in Luces thinking.

Next Week: Good Books (continued)

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.