How can rickety cars put India on road to success?
When it comes to climate change, the environment and other weighty issues, what could the leaders of the world’s biggest democracy possibly learn from the rural Indians who cobble together rickety cars out of scrap metal and old bits of wood?
One of India’s best known businessmen says the improvised vehicles that carry crops and passengers along dusty village roads show how local people are often the best innovators, coming up with cheap and effective answers to tough problems.
Nandan Nilekani, co-founder of the technology company Infosys, thinks politicians would do well to remember the decentralized philosophy behind the “jugaad“. Mechanics with little money and poor access to cheap parts use whatever is at hand to build them: water pumps replace normal engines; wooden blocks stand in for brakes and old planks of wood provide the floor.
“This ‘car’ is a brilliant improvisation, nailed together from whatever parts rural mechanics can get their hands on,” Nilekani writes in a new book about the future of the world’s second most populous country, “Imagining India“. “Effective, innovative policies will depend on harnessing this ability of people at the local level to take charge and innovate.
“Our environment and energy solutions will have to rope in our tribal and village communities to be truly effective. I believe such approaches are uniquely suited to India, with its untapped pool of local, entrepreneurial and innovative talent.”
Nilekani, often called the “Bill Gates of Bangalore”, says India has come a long way since the historic days of 1947 when Britain’s colonial rule ended. However, it must move further away from centralisation if it is to harness its economic potential.
While Nehru’s “paternal, socialist state” that promised public sector wealth creation made sense at the time, few Indians believe in his policies now, Nilekani argues.
It is time, he says, for the country to move even further away from the old idea of “Mother India” looking after its one billion “children”.
His book sets out a vision of a more equal and prosperous India where the state views the population as “human capital, not as a liability”.
The new India would value entrepreneurs, improve its schools and universities, embrace globalisation and technology and build new infrastructure. It would also accept English as a “language of aspiration” rather than a colonial relic.
The markets will play a crucial role in changing society, but politicians and the public sector must also do their bit, Nilekani says. Political parties have for too long exploited class, religion, caste or regional differences to make short-term gains at the expense of long-term planning, he adds.
“If you want to go beyond the politics of division to the politics of aspiration it will take some time because you will need a larger middle class,” he told Reuters in an interview in London. “Markets and entrepreneurship are very important. They drive innovation, job creation. It is how people’s standard of living goes up.”
If India adopts the right measures it could see faster economic growth than China within a few years, helped by a huge pool of young working people, he adds.
“India is now going to have its demographic dividend in the next 30 years. China had its demographic dividend over the last 30 years,” he told Reuters. “Being the only young country in an ageing world gives India some very special opportunities.”
With polls suggesting that no party will secure an outright majority in this month’s elections, Nilekani warns that future could be rocky.
“This election is momentous because there is no clear winner, no party that has a clear advantage,” he says. “There is a risk of having instability.”
However, like the humble “jugaad”, the sheer scale of the election process and the effort that has gone into getting 700 million people to vote, is an immense source of pride for Nilekani.
“It is an extraordinarily uplifting moment,” he says.