William Bissell has many ideas about “Making India Work”

Everyone’s always complaining about what’s wrong with India, so William Nanda Bissell decided to do something about it.

“Everywhere you go, people are saying ‘this is wrong, that’s terrible’, whether it’s the roads or politics,” says Bissell, managing director of Fabindia, and son of founder John Bissell. “I decided to look at what’s right, and build on that.”

The result is Making India Work, a book that functions on the premise that India isn't poor, just poorly managed, and follows that up with a series of ideas for change. In Chennai for the book launch (an ultra-posh event at Full Circle, the bookstore at Chamiers), the author admits that those ideas have been called impractical by some, while others have been excited by their possibilities.

“Typically, youngsters under 30 said, ‘Wow, I love these ideas, that’s the way I want India to be’, while those on the other side of 30 called them Utopian,” he says. “It’s been fascinating to see the difference in perception.”

Radical proposals

The idealistic proposals — community ownership of natural resources as a way of giving power to the poor, for one — are a pretty radical departure from the way things have been done, but that’s what’s needed, says Bissell passionately. “You may say the book is full of impractical ideas, but I say, is it practical that our cities are becoming a living hell? People fear taking a radical leap, but the truth is that major, sudden changes do happen all over the world, much more frequently than we realise.”

Many of these ideas have evolved over the course of a long and varied career, during which the author has been an environmental activist, a journalist, a businessman, and even briefly worked with a U.S. Senator. When he returned after studying in the U.S. in the 80s, he started an artisans trust in Rajasthan, and more recently, as the MD of Fabindia, he’s experimented with one of the core ideas of Making India Work — community ownership — in his company, making the artisans who supply the goods shareholders.

“I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve been exposed to different ways of thinking all my life, which has taught me to look for solutions outside the traditional framework,” he says.

Those solutions aren’t always well received, of course — at the Delhi launch, the author says he was accused by the Far Left of being too far to the Right, and by the Far Right as being too far to the Left. “Only in India could that happen,” he says, laughing. “I guess it’s all part of the Chakra; when you go too far Right, you end up at the Left!”

Not that the mixed reactions are going to stop this idea man. It seems like at any given point Bissell’s brain is bursting with ideas, almost more than he has time to deal with. “I’ve been incubating several projects,” he says with a smile. “I’ve just now finished being an author; I’m not sure what I’ll be doing next!”

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