Books Reviews

Reviewed by :
Shankar Acharya, New Delhi

NK rides again

Business Standard

This is the second volume of essays/columns by NK Singh, or NK as he is generally known. These essays span the period of summer 2007 to summer 2009. The first thing that strikes the reader about these columns is the extraordinary variety of topics, ranging from the management of global economic risks to issues of Parliamentary oversight to a blueprint for the revival of Nalanda University. To anyone who knows NK, such variety and range would come as no surprise. Indeed, I was mildly disappointed not to find an essay on the challenges of nurturing roses or one on the finer points of photography, both of which figure among NK's manifold interests.

The second feature of these columns is the multi-dimensional perspective they bring to issues of economic and social change in India. Their economic logic is consistently strong but is typically enhanced by a breadth of perspective often missing in your standard issue economic columnist. This too would be no surprise to NK's numerous and varied friends and acquaintances. After a long and fruitful career as a successful and highly effective senior civil servant, NK went on to become a member of the Planning Commission, then the deputy chairman of the Bihar State Planning Commission and most recently, member of the Rajya Sabha. An MP's perspective on an issue often varies from that of an economist or civil servant. These essays reflect and are enriched by such multiple angles of vision.

Third, and very important, the essays are invariably lucid. The reader may or may not agree with them all but he or she cannot plead incomprehension. The clarity of expression precludes this excuse. This too is a reflection of the author's direct and clear-headed approach.

The nearly 70 brief essays in this volume are organised into nine sections: Globalizing India, Sustainable Development, Inclusion, Inclusionary Fiscal Policy, Infrastructure, Education, Institutions, Political Dynamics and Elections 2009. It is impossible to do justice in a brief review to so many and so varied a set of essays. There is no option to selective commentary. The essays on globalisation make it clear that NK was among the few commentators (and I claim to be in his company) who foresaw a significant negative fallout from the global crisis early in its evolution, back in late 2007 and early 2008 when the "sub-prime" banking problems in the US and Europe were still distant thunder for us in India.

In the domestic scene, I found the four essays on water problems particularly interesting, beginning with the evocative A Bend in the River, which analyses the tragedy of inaction in dealing with the awesome destructive potential of the Kosi river in Bihar. In And There's not a Drop to Drink, NK (with co-author Jessica Wallack) succinctly outlines India's "three interlinked set of water woes: scarcity, institutional ambiguity, and effectively, lack of infrastructure to distribute and recycle water".

Also of special interest to me were the seven essays on India's education problems, beginning with the agenda setting The Problem of Educating India and ending with a forthright critique of the Central Universities Bill 2008 in the appropriately titled Doesn't Make the Grade.

In one of the essays on education, NK correctly notes "India has a missing middle in its development strategy in terms of labour-intensive employment generating activity.". He seems to lay special emphasis on "supply-side inelasticity" in skill development, which "represents the failure of an HRD policy to leverage its (the country's) large surplus manpower". This is certainly a big set of problems. But I would accord at least as much importance to those policies which restrict the demand for labour, especially low-skill labour. Such policies include the jungle of restrictive and anti-employment labour laws (which still exist) and the astonishingly damaging policy of small-scale industry reservations (now largely diluted). I was somewhat disappointed not to find an essay on such labour-demand-restricting policies. Especially given that the "demographic dividend" of our young population adds nearly 13 million new job-seekers to the labour force each year, many of them in Bihar and UP.

Speaking of "missing middles", there is a surprising error (in the opposite direction) in the volume in that it includes the same essay twice, once on page 174 and again on page 229. The titles are also pretty much the same. This oversight is so uncharacteristic of a man justly renowned for his attention to detail (he never fails to wish me for Bijoya) that I am inclined to lay it at the door of the editor/publisher.

And it is only a small flaw in the rich and varied smorgasbord that NK has served up for our enjoyment and education. It behoves us to partake and enjoy.