Written with old-fashioned clarity, hawk-like precision and a sense of urgency, The Broken Ladder: The Paradox and the Potential of India’s One Billion is a heart-wrenching tale of space-age wealth versus stone-age poverty in India. The chapters in the book, such as The Dollar Economy and Rupee Economy, Up and Down in the City, Beyond-5 Km Villages: Where the Lights Aren’t Shining Brightly and A Deep Pool of Talent are so brilliantly researched and poignantly narrated that you feel like drowning in shame in this fabled land of contrasts.
India is, indeed, a land of contrasts, contradictions, paradoxes and even historical novelty. Chat show host Simi Garewal, who interviewed the neo-rich and celebrities on her weekly show Rendezvous with Simi Garewal, once boasted that “India’s a candy store.” Consider this: we are often surprised when reminded that the fifth-largest concentration of dollar billionaires in the world live happily with the single-largest concentration of the poor and hungry in the world. The rich shop in malls, patronise private schools and hospitals, and relax in gyms and spas. The poor live in rural shanties, urban slums, send their children to work and can’t afford healthcare.
Another contrast here: India is surely a successful democracy and a new ‘dangal’ of social revolution with subaltern daughters. But it has also become increasingly more violent, unequal and illiberal. We all know this. In fact, there is nothing in the book that you don’t know. But Anirudh Krishna, a magician of juxtaposition in development research, has turned familiar chiasmic stories of prosperity and poverty into such scheming and conniving possible-impossible aporias that you are left wonderstruck.
There are only two ways in which this book can be explored. Either you believe in the story of bright and intelligent, but unemployed youth Keshu’s struggles against all odds, or you accept the inherited karmic status of deprivation and destitution. In development theory, two contrasting views have expressed the same experience. One view, led by Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze, asserts that the democratic politics of India offers incentives to mitigate entrenched inequalities and also offers opportunities for the most deprived Indians to leverage their own strength. Now, juxtapose this with the contrary view expressed by Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya: “faster national economic growth—by creating employment, raising tax revenues and closing the gap in infrastructure requirements—would help everyone advance, providing better opportunities to both the richer and the poorer”.
While appreciating the merit of each view, Krishna is aware of the atrocities of democracy on the lives of the poor and is also convinced that growth alone can’t wipe Keshu’s tears in his adopted Indian village. Quick-fire campaigns and top-down policy imaginations are no solutions.
The book’s style is racy and crisp. The human stories from various parts of the country are narrated with a natural texture. Every word, every stanza produces a phrasal and tonal narrative so subtle, so varied and so exquisite that the book shimmers with utterly believable stories of pain and paradoxes in contemporary India.
There is a powerful emotive undertow to these stories that springs from Krishna’s passionate commitment to fixing the rot in local governance. Who makes it big in India? Using large-scale surveys and detailed interviews, Krishna argues that “a smaller proportion of Indians with privileged and middle class backgrounds is in the competition for the better-paying opportunities; a very large part of the overall talent is left to whither on the vine. The talents of Raju and Bhura Ram and millions of others are not effectively harnessed and connected to opportunity.”
There is something fundamentally rotten in India; the poor suffer third-world dystopias and the rich also suffer the deprivations of the first-world utopias. In a lyrical, yet dark tone, Krishna, a former IAS-turned-US academic, demolishes the mythical representation of India versus Bharat and argues that India is at the same time a rich country solving rich-country problems and a poor country solving poor-country problems.
No surprise, there are two economies—the dollar economy and the rupee economy—in India. This is another contrast that is largely rooted into the persistence of excessive inequality. This leads to two perverse consequences—first, the very wealthy lobby for favours, contracts and bailouts that distort markets; and second, growing inequality undermines the ability of the poorest to invest in their own education and well-being in general. So no surprise why more than a billion Indians aren’t able to realise their talents.
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Using insights from path-breaking anthropological studies and development research, Krishna cautions rights activists by arguing that giving rights to the poor does not mean they have developed the capability to realise their potential to succeed. The multi-layered problems with social welfare schemes, or what I call ‘last mile welfare’, are captured in a single world—implementation, the Achilles heel of Indian social policy. Many of us who have worked extensively in facilitating social welfare programmes in various parts of the country believe improving the access of the poor to public services and opportunity to excel requires enhancing public action and also expanding the capability of local bureaucracies to implement. Instead of redistributive terror of the extreme left-liberal, Krishna suggests putting in place a universal guarantee of minimum living standards for all. For those interested in psychological aspects of development research, Krishna presents a fascinating and also controversial insight that “attitudes and beliefs that portray villages as backward help produce policies that lean towards city-centric development.” Breaking this cycle is necessary for equalising opportunity and repairing the broken ladder, he argues.
Krishna’s academic fame rests on more than two decades of commitment to fixing institutional decay in local governance in India. How do we make 400 statutory towns and half-a-million villages work in India? The answer lies in combining innovative institutions of local governance with civic activism, he argues. Though he is no anarcho-communitarian, Krishna celebrates civil society organisations and NGOs involved in providing a variety of alternative models of governance at the grassroots in India. His ethnographic vignettes and conversational stories from his field research are quite interesting and inspiring. However, they lack depth and beauty of anthropological analysis and interpretive delight. Sadly, missing in his stories are polyphonic voices of insurgent citizens struggling against the indifference and brutality of both the state and the market. Maybe he has forgotten about snakes in the ‘snakes and ladders’ game.
India is, indeed, a theatre of great talents. But we can’t harness our creativity and potential unless we rid ourselves of inequities inherited from the past and deprivation of the present. ‘India First’ might be a refreshing political fantasy for aspiring Indians, but it does not promise to solve our prosperity versus poverty paradox. At the crucial juncture of historical time, when working classes of various backgrounds are silenced by the violence of hunger and the ‘super rich’ are seduced by Dubai-Shanghai-style ‘private cities’, only an illegitimate rendezvous of civic solidarity and institutional innovations in the mode of governance offers escape from our self-inflicted miseries. To conclude, the book pinpricks the neo-nationalist’s ballooning pride in India’s rise to super-power status and irritates your conscience. But read this book with unquenchable curiosity and sensitivity, because The Broken Ladder is also an extraordinarily visceral and tender tale of the tragic sorrows and joys of human existence in India.
Ashwani Kumar is a professor of development studies at the Center for Public Policy, Habitat and Human Development, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. He is presently senior fellow, Indian Council of Social Science Research, New Delhi