Ideas for Acceleration

Much of the reason why India has not yet achieved its full potential is because we simply have not invested in the institutional foundations of the Indian State. But, as Karthik Muralidharan describes in his authoratative book on the subject, there is reason to be optimistic.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link, or, if you prefer, listen to me read the article by clicking play below.

Since so much of my work lies at the intersection of law and technology, I’m always interested in theories of governance. If I can understand how governance works, I believe I will be better informed as to how technology can be used to make it more effective. Which is why, ever since I heard that it was being written, I’ve been waiting to read Karthik Muralidharan’s tome, Accelerating India’s Development.

This, in many ways, is a remarkable book, not just because of its size (at 800 pages, it could easily do duty as a doorstop), but because of how it has been written. It’s neatly organized into bite-sized essays that are easy to digest, with each chapter building on those before it to collectively contribute to the grand argument. Most importantly, unlike so many books of its ilk, instead of just focusing on what is wrong with the Indian state, it offers implementable suggestions as to how to make it better.

Failure to Invest

The starting premise of the book is that the last time we made any “systematic investments into the institutional foundations of the Indian state" was in 1950. Since then, all we have done is increase our expectations of what the state must provide us without making necessary investments in its capacity to deliver.

One of the reasons for this, Karthik argues, is that Indian citizens had universal adult franchise right from the country’s birth, unlike those of other nations. Where other countries pursued development at the cost of initially disenfranchised interest groups (women, minorities and the like), Indian politicians had to appease everyone and as a result could take no short-cuts. This is why as powerful as universal adult franchise has been for democracy, it has affected the pace of our development.

He points out a number of ways in which Indian bureaucracy falls short of its potential, many of which came as a surprise to me. For instance, even though we think Indian civil servants are underpaid, I learnt that they earn, on average, far more than their counterparts in the private sector. This is why government jobs are so highly sought after. I also learnt that the Indian bureaucracy is not bloated, but woefully understaffed, with just 16 public officials for every 1,000 citizens (China has 57). These factors and more have meant that incentives rarely align with effective governance. For instance, the sinecure of government jobs has made civil servants risk averse. They have no interest in innovation because not only do they see no financial upside, should the experiment fail, it could literally cost them their career. Similarly, they have no incentive to be frugal, seeing how every paise they save will be taken out of their budget next year.

The Role of Technology

Technology rears its head off and on throughout the book, showing up like R.K. Laxman’s Common Man in a variety of different contexts. In the chapter on education, Karthik shows us how it can be used to solve the quintessential challenge of classroom education: that teaching aimed at the average student is neither sufficiently challenging the more intelligent, nor simple enough to be understood by those struggling to keep up. Educational software that can assess the competence level of students and dynamically adjust the teaching plan to suit their learning requirements will make it possible for children in the same class to learn at different speeds.

In his chapter on justice reform, he suggests a technology solution to reduce delays, proposing the establishment of a portal on which lawyers can seek adjournments in advance, so that the court can process these requests asynchronously without wasting time that should be reserved for arguments. He also proposes establishing a digital land-record system to bring more certainty to land titles, so that we can reduce the volume of real estate disputes in India.

While it was good to see these scattered references, I was expecting better coverage of the role of technology in governance. Given the success of India’s digital public infrastructure, I thought the book would at least devote a chapter to it. Karthik’s explanation is that technology is just an enabler and not the panacea for all that ails Indian governance. He worries that as useful as it can be, technology has the potential to exacerbate inequities rather than mitigate them. This is why, he explains, it does not have an entire section to itself.

These are concerns I’ve heard before and even spilt ink trying to defend. And while there is truth to what he says, technology is such an essential arrow in the quiver of the modern bureaucrat that I don’t think any treatise on improving governance can be complete without engaging with it.

Political Will

Reading through the book, one is struck by the fact that without the political will to effect change, the suggestions it makes are of little practical relevance. Politicians operate on five-year timescales and typically have no interest in pursuing governance reform—projects that typically that take longer than that to show success.

But it is here that the book is at its most optimistic. Karthik argues that Indian voters are increasingly appreciative of good governance. He has evidence to show that reforms can bear results within a politicians term of office. Both these factors, coupled with a very human desire to leave behind a lasting legacy, offer some solace that change might come.

Which is why despite the seemingly pessimistic initial premise, this is such a refreshingly optimistic book.