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Book Review | The dirty underbelly of Indian development

The picture the author paints is at wide variance with the image we have of India as a vibrant emerging power

January 20, 2021 / 10:41 AM IST
(Image: Reuters)

(Image: Reuters)

  • Title of Book: Despite the State, Why India Lets its People Down and how They Cope

  • Author: M Rajshekhar

  • Published by Context; 289 pages; Rs 499

What are the sources of political patronage in India? Why is the education system in such a mess? Why do state governments gift bicycles for students but neglect to recruit teachers and why do they offer compensation when a family member dies but nobody cares about not having enough doctors? How deep are the roots of democracy in the country? What explains the plight of small scale industry? How do politicians extract rent?

M Rajshekhar spent 33 months doing in-depth reporting on the political economy of six states—Mizoram, Odisha, Punjab, Bihar, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu -- to try and answer these questions. This excellent book is the outcome of his efforts.

The author travelled the length and breadth of each state, talking to business people, politicians, activists, religious leaders, academics and ordinary people to get a feel of the changes happening in the state at the grassroots level. This is reporting at its best. The picture that emerges is of a democracy that has been hijacked by vested interests, interested only in power and pelf. In state after state, Rajshekhar found an unholy nexus between politicians and crony capitalists.

In Mizoram, he found an unviable economy, surviving on handouts from the Centre. After the siphoning away of funds from road contracts and populist programmes, the state had no money to pay the salaries of doctors and health workers, despite its AIDS problem.

In Odisha, blessed with huge mineral resources, the masses benefited little from the iron ore boom. The reason, sums up Rajshekhar, is because "the state had supported capital at the cost of its own people".

In Punjab, the author chronicled the shuttering of small businesses in the once thriving industrial hubs of Ludhiana, Jalandhar and Amritsar. One reason, says Rajshekhar, was the "predatory extraction" by the political party that ruled the state at that time, the Akali Dal. Whether it was in liquor distribution or stone quarrying, the predatory tax had to be paid. Rajshekhar writes: "That the Badals owned businesses was not a surprise. What was intriguing was that most of this business complex, spanning not firms but entire sectors, came up in just nine years."

In Tamil Nadu, he exposed the rot in education by uncovering that the state had a targeted pass percentage in the board examinations -- in 2016 and 2015, the percentage passing in for English, Maths, Science and Social Sciences was exactly the same. He also explores the power of the sand mining mafia in the state.

In Bihar, the author writes about the siphoning off of development and welfare funds and the rule of local strongmen whom people turn to in the absence of the State.

And in Gujarat, Rajshekhar described how, instead of becoming self-reliant in oilseeds as it had set out to become, India became the world’s largest importer of edible oil because, tellingly, "the government policy has…hewed to the needs of whoever is the biggest player in the supply chain". He writes about how politicians have muscled into the state’s famed co-operatives.

Apart from dissecting the impact on the economy, the author also cites numerous instances of the erosion of democracy, the rising communal tensions and the attempts to stifle dissent.

Rajshekhar’s summing up: "In every state, democratic institutions, ripped free of the founding values of a young idealistic democracy and hijacked by power structures, are declining into disorder and unaccountability."

This is a picture at wide variance with the image we have of India being a vibrant emerging power. It belies the optimism of the stock markets, the success stories of the start-ups and the rosy outlook we have for the long-term prospects of the Indian economy.

Far from corporate boardrooms or cloistered academia or the anodyne prescriptions of think-tanks and op-ed writers, Rajshekhar’s book brings us the stories of how India is changing at the grassroots level. It’s a story about the grim reality behind all those airbrushed pictures about development.

The problem is not simply that we have one India that is prosperous and one that is in distress. While we have some success stories, there are many more who slip through the cracks. That is rather obvious. The growth rate in real incomes of the top 10 percent of the population is more than twice that of the rest of the population. The top 10 percent own three-fourths of the country’s wealth.

But this book goes further. It says that many of those so-called successes are built on rotting foundations. It says the Indian state, far from being a developmental state or a benevolent one, has instead become a malignant growth on society, sapping its lifeblood. Hence the book’s title --‘Despite the State’.

Manas Chakravarty
Manas Chakravarty
first published: Jan 20, 2021 10:41 am