The New Concise Oxford Companion to Economics in India (2011)
Ed. Kaushik Basu and Annemie Maertens
Oxford University Press
The recent past has witnessed unceasing flow of narratives about Indian economy analysing the process of evolution, development and growth prospects and its consequences in societal change. The Indian economy has been put into huge pressure with varied expectations of the world economy. The multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-regional, multi-religious nation is trying very hard to thrive under new order of knowledge economy, breaking away from unfettered licence raj economy of first 40 years, after political independence in 1947. Usually, the analyses about Indian economics invariably looked through the wild eyes of ideologies like Socialism and Communism vis-à-vis the free market liberal economics. However, the State welfarism continues to dominate the public policy whatsoever may be the rationale of other alternative approaches.
An evolving economy like India needs a robust understanding of different ideas that are often confronting each other. One main difficulty in arriving at consensuses in any public policy is the deeply rooted ideological debate, at the cost of realistic rational based debate. This is inevitable given the dynamic changes in the geopolitical world economy and the close integration of Indian economy. However, what most people miss in the course is the point that the current decade ending 2020 is crucial for not only the history of Indian economy as a whole but also for the majority of the people living in States like Bihar, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. These states have huge potential for reaping the demographic dividend of the country.
Against this backdrop, the crisp, witty and beautifully culled edition of the paperback book “The New Concise Oxford Companion to Economics in India (2011)” by Kaushik Basu and Annemie Maertens makes a compelling case for reading with not just a bird’s eye view of the problem but an intelligent elephant’s eye view to charge up your head with prescriptions of public policy analysis expressed lucidly. The book received impressive reviews and comments from different sections within and outside India. Some called it the one stop reference point for understanding most of the basic concepts related to contemporary Indian economy. Others said that the book was not comprehensive but full of bits of information and economics. Whichever view you may take, reading a book such as this, is really worth its time. Most of the issues covered in it have ideas culminating from out of the box thinking backed with a good quality of analysis and plausible suggestions for further reforms. The book has a total of 136 contributors (including a few entries from aspiring scholars) with 125 entries covering most of the contemporary headline issues which have largely been written by specialised experts.
The book not only has startling articulations on numerous national and international issues but also has well-researched analysis of about 60 years of the history of economy and polity in India. For instance, it is not common to see Economists like Amartya Sen come up brutally and say that India’s GDP growth is helped by the supportiveness of the economic climate rather than by the ruthlessness of the political system and that the roots of the economic climate are being increasingly hampered by politically engaged community without the public reasoning.
There are few exceptional entries in this book: S Neelakantan’s entry on Land Rights and Acquisition provides thought-provoking perspective on how constitutional protection was given importance while making the private propriety rights as fundamental right in the Indian Constitution; the entry on Reserve Bank of India by G.Balachandran and T.C.A Srinivasa Raghavan describes the nuances of the role and effectiveness of India’s Central Bank; Medha Malik Kudaisya’s entry on G.D Birla is remarkably precise in discussing the biographical facts about family business and national building; and the entry on Convertibility by Ashok V Desai traces back to the era of early decades of 19th century and provides a rare analysis which is relevant to the contemporary times.
The book can be criticised largely on three issues: first, some of the topics were written by policy experts and not actual domain experts, which indeed makes reading less interesting. For example, C Rammanohar Reddy could have been written about the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act instead of Defence Expenditure, similarly, Subir Gokarn could have written about issues related to the financial sector instead of the railways. Second, some of the vital issues most relevant to the public policy debate are not covered in the book, for example, land and urbanisation, skill development, price control regime in agriculture, relevance of centralised planning in increasingly integrated global economy, social choice theory vs. public choice theory, evolution of economic freedom since 1991, the causal relationship between corruption and economic freedom etc. Third, most of the entries in this book have taken stock of the growth and developmental of issues and challenges of last 60 years. But the scope of integrating with that of the history of Indian economic thoughts- pioneered in pre- independent India by stalwarts- has been completely neglected. Quite surprisingly, there is no entry on any aspects of North Eastern States in India. The statistical appendix is also of not much use as it only provides cross country data and it does not provide state wise economic and social indicators status.
To conclude, the book is laden with ideas of all kinds contributed by economists and social sector experts often crossing swords with each other and providing solutions for what is doable according to the best of their mind. Reading this book is completely an uncertified vocation for anyone trying to understand what India needs to do to take itself into the next levels of development, growth and prosperity without expanding the burden of inequality in income and social development for different communities. The book doesn’t stop with “what is” but goes on to ask “why not” and tells us the “how” and “where” to proceed.