The art of leapfrogging

When construction of the Bara Imambara began in Lucknow, it was a year of famine. Reportedly, the Nawab of Awadh hired one batch of workers for construction during the day and another for construction during the night. Whatever was built during the day would be brought down at night. This was done to create employment and provide wages to everyone. I call this the ‘Awadh Nawab’ model. Some aspects of our developmental paradigm come rather close, constituting a reverse Nawab model in which destruction for growth precedes construction for growth.

Stated simply, this is a ‘ruin, then repair’ or ‘raze, then restore’ model. In this paradigm of development, growth takes place in two stages. In the first stage, there is growth, but its effects are potentially destructive or unsustainable. In this phase, usually played out in developing countries, if there are huge costs to public health, environment and equity, they take time to even be recognised. But once the progenitors of this phase (usually from the developed world) are forced to recognise the ill-effects of their exertions, mostly through the efforts of researchers or a vigilant civil society, these are sought to be set right through another set of prescriptions, which are touted as the answers for all the mess wrought in the first phase. Thus, in the second stage, we again get growth, but through a mitigation of the ill-effects of the first.

The list of examples is endless. Pollution, which causes respiratory diseases, spawns a parallel health industry (think air purifiers, for instance). Rivers poisoned by effluents require expensive ‘restoration’. Consumerism involving the use and throw of goods and non-biodegradable packaging generates enormous piles of garbage that need ‘scientific disposal’. Biodiverse virgin forests felled for timber cause erosion; monocropping is then done in these areas. And so on and so forth. Destroy and then make amends has become the world’s creed. An economic, rather than a simply commercial, cost-benefit analysis that takes social and environmental costs into account would tell us that the destruction may not have been warranted in the first place. So, the question before us is, in this two-stage model can we safely avoid the first? We can, if we try hard.

The mobile example

Many of us may be aware of ‘technological leapfrogging’. The oft-quoted example is that of the expansion of mobile telephony in India. Parts of the country which never saw landlines directly moved to the latest technology of wireless telephones. In other words, they ‘leapfrogged’, skipping a stage or two in the evolution of the technology. On a similar note, we can talk of ‘developmental leapfrogging’. This means learning from the experiences of other countries in the development cycle and avoiding those stages which may have become redundant or superfluous. So, these stages are superseded by other stages which are more current, efficient, or cost-effective. Alternatively, some stages may now actually be viewed as mistakes, unnecessary, or even harmful.

Several countries have tried and tested different models of development: some have been discarded, some discredited, and some have been more successful than others. Developing countries have the so-called second- or third- mover advantage: they can learn from and take advantages of the lessons learnt in other countries and directly frame and implement policies, delivery mechanisms, or institutional frameworks that have succeeded in those countries. It must be conceded that the destructive potential of some interventions may not even be realised by the first movers; but once they are, should not the second movers take cognisance? Of course, by adapting the models suitably to the local milieu and context.

For instance, the way the sale of tobacco in the West created demand, jobs and supply chains across nations is well known. Today, instead of harping on the growth that accompanied the tobacco ecosystem, people are talking of its long-term costs to the economy: its effects on public health and the resulting cost of addressing tobacco-linked morbidity. Nations are clamping down on advertisements, on public smoking, and are asking tobacco companies to cough up extra taxes and duties to treat related illnesses. Class action suits are routine. In India we have thankfully decided not to wait for consumption levels to reach that of the West, especially among the youth and women, to begin curbing consumption and restrict sales.

It is no one’s argument that we should not try out new things fearing failure or mistakes. The message is that instead of blindly following others, we could learn from their experiences and avoid repeating their mistakes. This advantage is something second movers have, and we must fully utilise it. This is what leapfrogging forward is all about.

Leapfrogging backward

Leapfrogging backward is similar, except that we simply need to go back to where we started from. Decades back, the Cheonggyecheon stream in Seoul, South Korea, was covered up with concrete at great cost to create a freeway. It virtually became an underground sewer. In 2003, the concrete was actually torn down to restore the stream, again at great cost, and today it is both a successful urban renewal project and a top tourist attraction. In other words, the city chose to leapfrog backwards.

We are seeing beneficial leapfrogging in agriculture (the organic movement), health (prevention, instead of just treatment), Solid Waste Management (‘recycle, reuse, reduce’ instead of ‘dump’) education, food, energy, infrastructure, transportation, and so on. Grid-free renewables are providing the first decentralised, green power supply to remote areas that were earlier too difficult to connect through high-cost transmission grids. Public transport, cycling and walking are replacing private transport even in the West. Maybe we in India need to learn lessons and leapfrog quickly. The direction does not matter at this moment.

T.K. Ramachandran is Principal Secretary to the Government of Tamil Nadu.

The views expressed are personal.

Instead of blindly following the development methods of other nations and dealing with the

ill-effects later, why can’t we learn from their mistakes?

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