By far the best chapter in the book is “Fixing Schools” by Karthik Muralidharan. Also the longest chapter, this offers fresh insight and direction for any incoming government. There is actionable material aplenty, with analysis followed by clarity on what we must do, and how to go about it. He provides admirable focus: “The single most important outcome that education policy needs to deliver on for the future of the country is to ensure, by 2022, universal functional literacy and numeracy for all schoolchildren by the end of grade three.” He then discusses how: By investing in three things: “universal pre-school education, ... supplemental instructional support to children who are falling behind... and independent measurement and monitoring of the achievement of these goals”. If our government did nothing else than this, in whatever field, it would leave the country in significantly better shape. The book is worth reading in its entirety for this chapter alone.
What the Economy Needs Now, Authors: Abhijit Banerjee, Gita Gopinath, Raghuram Rajan and Mihir S Sharma (Eds) Publisher: Juggernaut, Pages: 224, Price: Rs 599
So how could this be a better book, even an indispensable guide for any concerned citizen and the new government that will take office later this month? We must address three issues.
First, the Indian state has limited bandwidth to deliver. This is not news: Arvind Subramanian has pointed this out in his Economic Surveys, and this book states this as a major impediment to progress on various issues. So if the state wishes to get anything done, it should try to do less, not more — in other words, focus. And one might simultaneously attempt to build state capability to deliver by bringing in talent from outside the civil service. (And if there is widespread protest at bringing in 12 joint secretaries from the outside, one should respond by hiring 12 secretaries from the outside.) This book would also be better with focus. If each of the 14 chapters picked ONE key issue to address, instead of six or 14 (agriculture) or 19 (energy) and covered that issue in depth, as is clearly within the grasp of each of these great authors, we would have been much enlightened. Even better would be if we had six chapters instead of 14, and covered each in as much depth as the one on primary education.
Second, given that we must try and do just a few things at a time, whatever we do should be instructed by international best practice. My interaction with ministers and senior civil servants says they are intelligent, committed and hard-working. They seem, however, to have neither the time nor interest in arriving at the best-practice solution, and there is an overwhelming reliance on what the great and the good think. Quick choices end up being sub-optimal solutions that grind to a halt for reasons that any good academic (like the 20-odd collected for this volume) could have predicted. Here again, the chapter on fixing schools brings in what we can learn from best practice worldwide. Banerjee and Rajan, who appear to live best practice as easily as they brush their teeth each morning, manage to do so too in their five pages.
Third, and most importantly, any solution needs to focus on the “How”. What’s feasible? This book lists dozens of well-known problems, with almost as many well-known solutions. If problem and solution are known, the “How” of implementation is critical. This book offers a useful list of what should be done in each of the 14 areas it covers. But rarely does it say how. Again and again, we are told that the report of some recent government committee should be implemented. Agreed. But the book is largely silent on why the report has not been implemented to date, and how it should be.
“Fixing Schools” illustrates the potential in this approach: it focuses on the one key deliverable we must achieve — children’s literacy by grade three. It brings in international best practice on how to achieve this. And it says how we can bring about this change so clearly, that I for one came away convinced of how we could implement this in our own firm for the CSR work we do with various schools in and around Pune.
To sum up, if we wish to offer sage advice over drinks some evening that we need to “fix PPP” or “improve domestic firm competitiveness to enhance exports”, this book provides plenty of help. It is a clear statement of What the Economy Needs Now. But what the economy really needs now, is How.
(The reviewer is co-chairman of Forbes Marshall, past president of CII, and chairman of the Centre for Technology, Innovation and Economic Research)