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Nandan Nilekani explains India… in ideas

This post is part of a series from the TED 2009 conference held in Long Beach, California from February 4-8th. You can read other posts in the series here, and the TED site will release video from the talk in the coming weeks or months. Because I’m putting these posts together very quickly, I will get things wrong, will misspell names and bungle details. Please feel free to use the comments thread on this post to offer corrections. You may also want to follow the conference via Twitter or through other blogs tagged as on Technorati.

Nandan Nilekani, the founder of Infosys, persuaded Thomas Friedman to write a book, “The World is Flat”. So perhaps that’s an endorsement for his own attempt to explain India’s place in the global economy, “Imagining India”. This book is Nilekani’s attempt to explain why India is simultaneously in the 21st and 17th century.

His book seeks to explain the rise, the fall, and the rise again of India and China, two nations that missed the industrial revolution, but are positioned to dominate this century. The book is not a history or a biography, but a history of ideas. He explains that ideas can change states – ideas about the role of government radically reshaped the US after the great depression, and again during the Reagan revolution. He sees four types of ideas shaping India:

– idea that have arrived
– ideas in progress
– ideas in conflict
– ideas in anticipation

He sees six major ideas that have arrived, reshaping our ideas of India. People are moving from being thought of as a liability to being an asset. There’s the potential for a demographic dividend, where India is the “only young country in an aging world.” Of course, you only get a demographic dividend if you invest in this social capital – it can be a dividend or a disaster. India also has a positive attitude towards the English language, a shift from seeing it as a language of aspiration, not one of colonization. Indians are recognized as entrepreneurs, and they’ve embraced technology. They are comfortable with globalization and see themselves engaged in a global economy. And they have a deepening commitment to democracy, and to understanding “the benefits of having a voice, of an open society.”

Another set of issues are in progress, just starting to move towards societal consensus. Nilekani sees a shift in dialog around education, which was historically underresourced, and where there’s a new focus on primary education. Unfortunately, there’s a long way to go – 50% of urban students are going to private schools, which is a condemnation of the public school system. Infrastructure has never been a priority in India the way it has been in China – that’s shifting and there’s more infrastructural spending. Cities are starting to emerge as engines of growth, rather than as problems to be solved. And there’s an emerging sense of India as a single market, a realization that not every product needs to be designed for a specific state or a community.

Not all ideas are being accepted as smoothly and easily. Political ideologies are in conflict throughout the country, creating gridlock between political and social groups. There’s a profound need to labor reform, as job protection currently hampers job creation. Higher education is overly regulated, and it’s virtually impossible for a Western university to open a local chapter. And there’s the real danger of replacing poor country diseases with rich country ones like heart disease and diabetes.

Why should we care how India solves these problems? There’s a billion Indians, and they’re a bellweather for the developing world. If India can work through these issues, and figure out how to drive growth forward around sustainable energy models, it’s an enormous hope for other developing nations.

3 thoughts on “Nandan Nilekani explains India… in ideas”

  1. Pingback: Global heroes | Innovation Toronto

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