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'India's growth rate is not a flash in a pan'

September 18, 2006 15:20 IST
Edward Luce, 38, was a known face amongst New Delhi's media when he worked as the South Asia Bureau Chief of The Financial Times between 2001 and 2005.

Half of his tenure was spent traveling across India as a reporter, after which he took nine months off to write In Spite of The Gods - The Strange Rise of Modern India.

Educated at Oxford, Luce's impressive knowledge of contemporary India makes his book a fun read, possibly even because he is married to an Indian, Priya Basu, and understands the nuances of an unfolding India better than many 'spirituality struck' foreigners.

He says his wife is "in many ways a cause of this book."

The best part of the book is the fact that it deals with the India of today instead of looking at the past or the future. Luce's soft corner for India does not make this book any less professional in its perception as he goes far beyond New Delhi into the hinterland to cover the less talked about India as well.

Luce, who is currently based in Washington, DC, for the The Financial Times spoke to Managing Editor (National Affairs) Sheela Bhatt on what is it that makes India so relevant today.

You are a first time author. Why is your first book on India?

I am working with the Financial Times. I found that 90 per cent of the material we get, we don't use. I have understood that the urgent drives out the very important. We always print the urgent and miss the important.

When I looked back at those notebooks I knew so much was happening in India and there was so much interest in finding out what was happening here. If you don't write a book you must be stupid, there is just too much to say.

India is changing so rapidly and there is so much now happening in the East of the world than the West.

Can you explain how your search to know India went about?

I never had a simplistic idea about India. India is too complex. Every time whatever I have predicted about India, the opposite has happened! Like I anticipated a certain outcome in the 2004 election, I was happy that I was proved wrong. To be honest, I have never been happier to be proved wrong.

That taught me the experience of predicating and anticipating things in India and that how wrong you can be. It taught me to be quite careful, always to take notice of the caveat, always to pay attention to any doubts you might have because India is a very, very complex country.

My point is I didn't have a gut feeling about India. You can't write a book on a hunch. You have to travel, you have to meet people and you have to do a lot of reading and revising.

What was your focus?

The intention was to play upon the major thematic issue of the political economy of India. Especially being a foreign journalist you have to immerse yourself and the more you immerse yourself, the more sophisticated the understanding of India becomes. The less simplistic you become, the more doubtful you are of your conclusions.

What is your take on the title of the book In Spite of The Gods - The Strange Rise of Modern India.

My title is the subtitle. The publisher added the punch by adding In Spite of the Gods. The word 'strange' is the qualifier and a key word. 'Strange' is the sequence of Indian development. India started as a democracy and development came later.

That's unusual and again, it is unusual that India took up the service sector and high-end manufacturing. Normally it is the industrial revolution that begins [first] and agricultural moves and manufacturing begins sequentially. India had democracy first before it got a middle class and that is unique.

'Strange' is not just an adjective. Strange is unusual, unique. Strange are those illusions. Strange is not a pejorative. It helps you think what does that mean.

In Spite of the Gods is a title I can live with it. It was my choice in order to prevent something worse. It is not particularly an informative title. It might be memorable. But it does not correspond with the underlying fact I have that I didn't want to write a book where exaggerated attention is given to religious pluralism and too much attention is given to spiritualism in the country, when foreigners talk about India, they talk too much about it.

Is this so-called resurgent India for real or not?

It is quite natural. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that the growth rate of India in the last few years is not a flash in a pan. Its growth is quite sustainable. There are doubts about the medium term of five to ten years about its sustainability if India can't get its act together on creating modern infrastructure.

Then, you will start getting bottlenecks which will slow down the growth. But at the moment -- in short to medium term -- you may be seeing 7 to 8 per cent growth and you are talking of doubling the economy in some seven, eight years. That is pretty rapid.

Even if the growth is real, some says it's exaggerated.

But numbers are not exaggerated. Numbers are numbers. Indian statistics are late but they are reliable. Nobody doubts the integrity of India's economic data. We have to sometimes wait long when they are revised. We don't have the same doubts for Indian numbers as the world has for Chinese numbers.

No one has any idea if the Chinese numbers are foolproof and whether the system is being checked or followed. There is a lot of exaggeration and a lot of politics in economic data. In India you have to wait for it but you do trust [it].

If you are asking me if numbers for growth are real, yes it is real. I don't think you could possibly exaggerate the importance of India finally achieving sustained economic growth.

You know in the last election how the Vajpayee government fell with the India Shining campaign. How do you see the contradiction that India is unable to provide succor to its more than 230 million poor people?

As Dr Manmohan Singh says the best solution for India's poverty is growth. It is not the only solution but is a necessary condition. Without growth there is no hope of eliminating poverty. It is critically important to focus on public resources but India focuses on public resources very, very, badly.

It is grossly mistargeted. Most subsidies in pharmaceuticals, agriculture and fertilisers is going to the rich. Minimum support price favours Haryana and Punjab's Punjabi wheat growers but does not go to the people who need it.

Even Below the Poverty Line subsidy in kerosene, sugar and other stuff is captured by people who are not BPL. There is immense inefficiency in securing public resources. The problem is not in growth but in what the public sector does for its share of the growth.

Unfortunately in India the vested interest group is very, very savvy at capturing public resources.

Sheela Bhatt