Two ideas of India

A fortuitous coincidence caused me to hear Amartya Sen talk about what he believed was wrong with the Indian development model in the same week that Narendra Modi expounded his economic ideas before students of Delhi University. And, it was for me as if I had accidentally come upon a two-sided mirror that reflected two completely opposite images of India. The image that Dr. Sen conjured up at the Kolkata Literary Festival was bleak, old, sad and hopeless. The one that Gujarat's Chief Minister conjured up for the gathering of students was vibrant with hope, dreams and possibilities.

Dr. Sen was not wrong in what he said. He pointed out the horrors of half of Indian households not having toilets and of half of India's children being malnourished. And, he talked of the need for drastic improvements in public healthcare and education. It was his analysis and solutions that were worrying. He appeared to believe that healthcare in India had been privatised. 'India is the only country in the world that is trying to have a health transition on the basis of a private healthcare that doesn't exist.'

The truth is that more than 80 per cent of Indians are forced to use private healthcare because public healthcare is so appalling. The same is true of schools. Dr. Sen saw the National Advisory Council's new food bill as the solution to malnutrition in Indian children. It is not. It will be just another expensive mistake because the solutions to malnutrition in children cannot come from massive centralised schemes but from interventions at the village level.

It is Dr. Sen's ideas that have prevailed ever since Nehruvian socialism became the Indian state's economic ideology. It has been a return to 'socialist' economic policies in the past four years, and big government spending on supposed poverty alleviation that have brought us down to 5 per cent GDP growth which is the virtual equivalent of the old 'Hindu rate of growth'. And, it is schemes like MNREGA that have revived the 'maibaap sarkar' mentality.

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