So who’s afraid of growth?
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We often use obvious truisms to run away from deep truths. Nothing exemplifies this better than our constant anxieties about growth. It is obvious that we ought not to fetishise GDP numbers: the quality, composition, distribution and sustainability of growth are important. It is also true that growth may not automatically translate into other forms of development that we cherish; an excessive focus on the instrumental aspects of growth can elide serious ethical and political questions. But we are letting these important concerns elide one deep truth. Even as simplistic a number as GDP growth contains within it nothing less than a social revolution. India's tragedy is that its elites do not want to ride this revolution; they use the limits of growth as a pretext to stop massive social change in its tracks.
There is short-term policy pessimism in India. It often looks as if critics are talking down India. Nothing could be farther from the truth. A lot of the anger against the current paralysis comes from the fact that for the first time since independence, the horizons of what can be achieved have dramatically changed. We used to have criticism borne out of an underlying resignation that the more things change the more they remain the same; now it is criticism borne out of a sense of what we can achieve. This is an inchoate but massive shift in our historical consciousness that the experience of sustained growth has brought about.
The psychological transformations that growth brings should not be underestimated. There is a world of difference between societies where per capita incomes double every eight years or so, versus a society where per capita incomes double in twice that time. Look at some of the underlying dynamics growth has unleashed. Even as recently as a decade ago, we used to have endless debates about the demand for education. That debate is now over, in part because nothing gives education more of a fillip than actually seeing returns to education. Of course, there are massive quality failures in our system, but the underlying demand dynamics are nothing short of a social revolution.