Sanjay Kaul’s book on development policy begins with an assertion that all choices have consequences: The neoliberal economic reforms that swept India after 1991, have without doubt produced relatively stable and high economic growth. Together with a slew of welfare measures, neoliberalism has lulled the higher echelons of development administration into believing that India is on a strong development trajectory. This is not quite so, says the author in An Alternative Development Agenda for India, pointing to the deeply disturbing signs: widening inequality, jobless growth, and widespread malnutrition, among other problems of the poor.
The development challenge in a vast, populous, diverse, and democratic polity like India is a formidable challenge. This has been especially so in the past two decades that have seen negative externalities generated by transnational events — the great recession of 2008 and its overhang severely constraining economies across the world, the more recent COVID-19 pandemic and the myriad social and economic crises it triggered, and the ongoing and prolonged Russia-Ukraine conflict with its spillover effects on global food supplies and prices.
It is in this backdrop that one must read Kaul’s book.
A former civil servant and development policy analyst, the author brings to bear his experience of development practice as he seeks to set out an alternative development agenda, to improve human development outcomes in India. With its focus centred on what the author describes as a ‘people first’ approach, the book brings together the problems and possible solutions in universalising healthcare, overcoming malnutrition, improving learning outcomes, creating jobs, and promoting planned urbanisation. Each of the chapters marshals evidence admirably, and the sectors subjected to critical analyses to bring to the fore the central argument that India needs a bottom-up approach to planning and implementation of its development programmes. There is little that a reader familiar with India’s development challenges would disagree with. Eclectic, reasonably well researched, and easy to read, the book would be of interest to those engaged in or studying development and public policy.
Towards the end of the book, the author has included a chapter that deals with implementation of the many recommendations that he makes in the book titled ‘Principles, Actions, and Sustainability.’ While readers will appreciate the effort of the author, including making budget estimates, the question to ask is: What are the chances that his proposals will be considered by the political leadership or indeed, the author’s former colleagues in the civil service.
Lest I appear cynical, let me say the author is well meaning and writes with conviction. Yet, the discourse betrays a naivety uncharacteristic of an experienced bureaucrat. Consider the following: First, the time inconsistency problem in development governance. The political class is only interested in the next election, not the next generation. Second, elected governments are not ideologically agnostic; they represent specific class interests and will not allow any reforms that affect their interests. Third, the idea of India as a common market is seriously under challenge. Remember the migrant crisis during the pandemic? Finally, on the people first imperative, from a policy, legislation, and administrative architecture perspective, what can be more people first than the 73rd and the 74th amendments to the Constitution? But the local bodies — urban and rural alike — have no sources of revenue of their own and are at best seen as subalterns of the ministers and legislators in the States.
But this should not deter readers from appreciating the fundamental argument that Kaul makes persuasively: that the success of any theory of change is predicated on the hopes and aspirations of individuals that coalesce into collective action. The author must be commended for setting out an agenda that seeks to restore the locus of control to the people themselves. In doing so, he displays in-depth grasp of systemic design issues in development programmes and an understanding of how the government’s administrative apparatus operates — what works and what does not — thus providing insights on why government failure occurs often.
The book is a useful addition to India’s development discourse.
An Alternative Development Agenda for India; Sanjay Kaul, Routledge India, ₹1,295.
The reviewer, who was in the IAS, is director, School of Social Sciences, Ramaiah University of Applied Sciences.