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Making India Work [Book Review]

On my recent visit to traditional outfit store fabindia, I spotted the book by its founder William Nanda Bissel for sale and I being me could not resist buying a copy for myself. Making India Work is an ambitious attempt to dream a new India - but may be its a little too ambitious.

Nanda Bissel talks about a complete revamp of the way India is governed - from its administrative divisions (46 Regions instead of 28 states) to the way ministries are organized and managed. It is quite easy for us to write off his ideas giving reasons like our politicians would never bring about such changes or because the bureaucracy would block all attempts for these ideas to succeed.

However, I have more fundamental differences with the proposals being made in the book (while I also concede that I like a lot of proposals made by him). Before we jump to them, let me outline a few of his proposals in brief:

  • National Division: Lots of proposals have come through for decentralization of power or in favour of smaller states, but William Nanda Bissel takes the idea to the next level proposing to create a community for every 25k  population, an area for every 100 communities and a region for every 10 areas - making about 40-50 regions in the country. 
  • Institutions: Bissel proposes to create various standards bodies for determining value of everything from fresh air, trees, power, water, waste, bandwidth etc. and exchanges for communities to trade them.
  • Government: Bissel argues for a radical change in the Government structure abolishing the upper house, leaving the Union government with only defense and foreign affairs portfolios and leaving all other departments with 'Region' governments. 
The above 3 radical changes, Bissel claims that over time will create a balance as cities start paying for the natural resources they use and rural communities start getting the benefit of the same resources which they own.This will give resources to rural communities to develop basic amenities like paved streets and drinking water taps while on the other hand motivate urban communities to consume less, develop efficient means - for example substitute public transport for personal vehicles.

The above changes are quite apt for the new 21st century world where environment and technology are together paving way for new social structure and new set of values completely distinct than those of the industrial world. Some of them - such as valuation of natural assets - are applicable not just to developing economies like India but even developed ones in Western Europe and the US.

Bissel himself explains, developed economies have developed a wasteful lifestyle. An example was suburbs in the US which are made possible by roads which connect them to the main city - but the residents of the suburbs do not directly pay for construction or maintenance of these roads which is paid for by the government. The suburban spread is wasteful because due to low density sprawl, public transport is not feasible, so people use private cars - often gas guzzler SUVs; amenities such as water, sewage and mail transport are inefficient because low density means higher costs per capita.

All the above makes a lot of sense and needs to be implemented; however for someone of the experience of Bissel - its a little naive to propose a top-down change in fundamental systems when he himself claims elsewhere in the book that a bottom-up approach is needed to change the system.

Secondly, some of the propositions are far too simplistic - for example it does sound fair in principle that only defense and foreign affairs stays with the central government. But think about it - if we had only a regulator for telecom and no ministry - would it have been possible to catalyze the explosive growth of the telecommunications sector; or think of certain national assets like rivers and forests / national parks - if we do not have central ministries to act as mediators - there would be many more feuds like the Krishna Water dispute in the country.

Under Bissel's system, we would end up having as many 'regulators' or 'tribunals' for all such matters. And so, how different would Bissel's system would end up instead of the current system. Does replacing ministries with regulators make any difference?

Finally, the chapter on transition (Ch 8) falls completely short of one'e expectations - one starts expecting what public support, intermediate reforms needed to reach to the end state - may be a gradual division of states to reach the number of 46 regions proposed in the book, or subsequent decentralization of power to empower municipalities, creation of more panchayats and finally merging the two elementary governance structures to create a common structure - community. However, the transition starts with a call for constitutional amendment without talking about how to build a consensus for adoption of the altered system in the country.

Overall, the ideas proposed in the book are quite useful but they probably would have been more palatable and acceptable to the real change makers - bureaucrats and politicians - had they been presented in a form similar to Nandan Nilekani's Imagining India. In its current state, the book runs a risk of being written off as a pipe dream.

And I say this not just from a vicarious or academic experience of reading books on development - but from personal experience of working with government offices and public sector enterprises. I will elaborate in the next post.

[Read Part II here]

    2 Comments to " Making India Work [Book Review] "

    1. Would you like to review my book (IndiaWasOne)? If so, email me at author@indiawasone.com

    2. India Was One for School Libraries

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