Should India’s economic take-off rightfully be dated to 1950 when annual growth rates soared in a relative sense after near-stagnation in the first half of the century? Corbridge et al do not subscribe to the view that India was blighted by the so-called Hindu rate of growth from 1950 to 1980. Slow growth in the 1950s and 1960s is understandable given difficult colonial legacies; and, unarguably, the institutional advantages built up by the 1970s enabled small policy shifts to be converted into large economic gains in the 1980s and 1990s. However, while institutions matter, the authors hold that politics matters more. The non-threatening business reforms introduced in the early 1980s triggered the unleashing of the private sector, and corporate capitalism was further unbound by the “elite reforms” of 1991 in trade, industrial licensing, FDI — areas which did not directly menace ordinary livelihoods and could be pushed through easily.

The outcome evidenced today is of growth that has been much less effective in India than in other countries in pulling people out of poverty. Rapid economic growth in the past two decades has not delivered commensurate benefits in terms of improved levels of well-being. India’s non-income indicators of development remain depressingly low, raising questions about the nature of its polity and society as the country emerges as an economic power-house. India Today examines the trends of the past 20 years, the underlying reasons for adopting the particular paths that India has taken and the challenges of the future.

The book sets out to answer 13 specific questions: When and why did India take off? How have the poor (and others) fared? Is the state delivering on inclusive growth and social justice? Has India’s democracy been a success? Does caste still matter? How have things changed for Indian women? These and other questions are addressed through systematic analysis. In each chapter, the authors consider the answers suggested by contemporary research and area studies alongside theoretical and comparative work in social sciences, before venturing conclusions of their own.

The authors, Corbridge, Harriss and Jeffrey, are scholars of long standing in South Asian studies. Having field experience in different parts of India, they bring together extensive knowledge of contemporary India and the “new scholarship”. The book will be equally useful to peers for its exhaustive research as to lay readers for the topicality of its content. It is invaluable in making sense of the contemporary Indian scene.

Inequalities

While poverty incidence has declined in India and will likely fall further, and faster, in the near future, the absence of an accompanying reduction in inequalities is striking. This reinforces the idea of an elite revolution benefiting the top 15 per cent of the population, to the virtual exclusion of the rest from dynamic sectors of the economy.

Agriculture — the mainstay of the languishing segment — is increasingly becoming ‘feminised’ and ‘Dalitised’, as employment opportunities outside agriculture go to workers having greater mobility. Nor has higher growth generated “good jobs”; the bulk of new jobs being in the casual sector, mainly construction. The authors conclude that India’s transition is indeed “tortuous”, and “there remains ‘a marginal mass’ of labour that barely survives without welfare provisioning by the state”.

“The Indian state’s failure” to provide free and compulsory education for all children “is perhaps the most damning of its failures in the post-Independence period”. The authors are inclined to attribute this to the values of India’s political elites, even as they see economic reform itself as “an elite revolt against dirigisme”.

Ruling political elites have promoted reforms that allowed emerging economic elites to take advantage of the new opportunities to accumulate wealth. Reforms have been effected through political stealth and manipulation taking care not to provoke confrontations.

As Government has become ever more responsive to the needs of big business, the “corrupt grip of corporate oligarchy” has extended its reach — as is so much in evidence today. But, the argument goes, with growing empowerment of the marginalised mass and with the low-hanging fruit, so to speak, having been harvested, the next phase of reforms must centre on the more contentious issues of mass politics — on land rights, agriculture, education, health and labour laws — involving far higher chances of confrontation.

Rising aspirations, especially of the huge youthful population, impose added pressure on the Government, handicapped as it is by distressingly inefficient delivery systems built on patronage and rent-seeking. Decentralisation has brought a “silent revolution” in the countryside, but its impact varies widely: exhibiting remarkable vibrancy in some states, while accentuating traditional structural imbalances in others.

The success of Indian democracy will lie in providing access to resources to the poorest households and ensuring effective governance in the poorest districts in the weakest states. The authors caution that India’s vaunted demographic dividend must necessarily be utilised quickly, and that it could easily be “squandered” through poor physical infrastructure, educational decay, corruption and feeble health systems.

In discussing whether caste still matters, the authors point to the decline of the hierarchical system founded on pollution and purity. Instead, castes are getting arranged “horizontally” on the basis of different cultural identities. While political mobilisation, even by mainstream parties, is increasingly caste-based, the entry of caste groupings into electoral politics has de-radicalised them, as witnessed in Mayawati’s ‘social engineering’ efforts. On the extent of caste and gender discrimination, the authors conclude that little has changed for the Dalit labourer, for “the increasing numbers of women left behind in rural India, or for illiterate women”. The Maoist insurgency is “a response to the appalling structural violence that has been perpetrated historically, and that continues to be perpetrated by elites supported by the state, against landless and poor peasants, Dalits and adivasis”.

India Today provides a balanced exposition of contemporary India: acknowledging the many successes and delineating the challenges. Encompassing a vast canvas succinctly and incisively, the book is a worthy addition to the scholarship on the subject. Not least, the comprehensive 50-page bibliography will be an asset to scholars.

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