Different strokes of reforms
V. Krishna Ananth

India: Some Aspects of Economic and Social Development
Eds S.Mahendra Dev and K.S.Babu, Academic Foundation, New Delhi. Pages 316. Rs 795

India: Some Aspects of Economic and Social DevelopmentThe fallout of the economic reforms programme, initiated in July 1991, on the social, economic and political walks of life in India is indeed a subject matter that calls for some focused study. In the decade and a half after the new economic policy has been in force, the direction of the debate on this has moved from being one where scholars merely took positions for and against the reforms to one of nuanced discussions. The shift, in a sense, is the result of a consensus that the reforms are irreversible.

This sense of consensus seems to form a thread connecting the various essays, being lectures delivered at the Centre for Economic and Social Studies (CESS), University of Hyderabad as part of its silver jubilee celebrations. And it so happened that the celebrations coincided with the 60th anniversary of India’s Independence, giving the editors of this collection of essays a basis to introduce the volume.

That the CESS, unlike many other departments in our universities, lays stress on an interdisciplinary approach to the study of economics seemed to ensure that the choice of topics and the speakers during the lecture series were drawn from across the disciplines in social sciences rather than economics alone as the discipline is taught in most universities. It is only natural, then, that the collection contains essays on a variety of issues beginning with the idea of caste based reservations, human development and the working of the democratic constitution along with essays on India’s agrarian crisis, the problem of unemployment and a comparison between India and China.

Andre Beteille, whose arguments against caste as a basis for positive discrimination and affirmative action are far too well known has used this space to build up a case to universalise access to education rather than caste based reservations in institutions of higher learning. The problem with this argument is that it presumes that the institution of caste is a synthetic creation rather than looking at it as a means, used by the elite over the years, to sanction a discriminative socio-economic order. Beteille goes to the extent if celebrating the society in late medieval India (or the early years of British rule) as egalitarian. This is not only without basis but also far from the truth.

The fact that access to education, in the early years of the British rule were based on caste as much as they were on the economic status is far too well known and this is what characterised the minds of the generation of Indians who gained English education. Beteille, in his enthusiasm to celebrate an egalitarian order where it did not exist ends up skating on thin ice. But then, Beteille has taken this position for too long and there is nothing new in this essay. The collection also contains a personalised talk by Bhanoji Rao in which he makes a strong case for making the right to housing a fundamental right if the Millenium Development Goals are to be realised at all.

Former bureaucrat and political activist, Jayaprakash Narayan’s lecture, making a strong case for absolute involvement of the state in the field of education is persuasive and convincing. But then, he goes on to extrapolate the case and stretches it to the idea of fiscal decentralisation and it appears that Narayan holds localisation of the administrative set up as the only way to escape undemocracy in India. The problem is that such unqualified glorification of the local politician as the epitome of all virtues and the national politician as the fountainhead of all of India’s ills is a problematic approach. And the lecture, thereafeter, meanders into an exercise in plain rhetoric.

Jayati Ghosh’s essay, comparing and contrasting the experience in India and China in the past decade is clinical and logical. The fact that both India and China are poised to face a serious crisis in their agrarian sector due to the persistent fall in the employment growth in this sector in the two nations is presented by her as the biggest challenge before the two nations. She makes it a point to stress on the fact that this challenge could be more intense than it looks given the fact that the regimes in both the countries had neglected social sector reforms in the past few decades.

M.Govinda Rao’s lecture lays out the problems faced by India in the area of fiscal federalism and locates the possibilities of this problem intensifying with the increasing prominence of the regional parties in the national political discourse. And T.N.Srinivasan, making a case for labour law reforms – to make hiring and firing possible without sanction from the state – and argues that this is the only way to ensure a positive growth in the employment. The point is that this is an argument raised by a whole lot of economic thinkers including Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, over the years.

K. Subba Rao’s paper, being a comparative study of the response to disasters across the world and the record of capacity building measures in these countries and its impact on the livelihood concerns of the people is informative and must be of immense use to those who stress on the need to place thrust on the idea of reforms with a human face. Deepak Nayyar’s lecture, is substantive in both the organisation of the subject as well as its treatment. This lecture, being a historical narrative of India’s economic development trajectory, is in fact, only a version of his earlier lecture at the University of Cambridge and published elsewhere as early as in April 2006.

And Gerry Rodgers makes a case, as made by a number of economists, for globalisation with a human face. Prabhu Pingali and Terri Raney have dealt with the changing face of the farmer between the green revolution and the gene revolution. The essay, however, fails to capture the several dimensions of this transition, including the most pronounced one being the larger crisis in the farm sector and the impact of the Bt crops in this larger crisis. This is the fallout of treating technology as an autonomous category and free from ideology. And Ashok Gulati’s essay addresses this crisis in a manner that makes sense.

The collection, on the whole is useful notwithstanding thee fact that it is disparate.