Indian businesses understand the value of digitalisation: Authors of 'Making India Great Again'
In this interview, authors Meeta and Rajivlochan use India’s past as a resource to identify the challenges the country faces
At a time when the Indian economy is in the midst of the start-up phenomenon, Meeta and Rajivlochan dig deep into the past to diagnose the challenges faced by the country through their book Making India Great Again: Learning from Our History. In this interview, the authors note that, just as is documented in Indian history, despite the country’s multiple achievements in domains such as science and technology over the years, its strength has not been leveraged to create an affluent society.
How did you set out to write the book Making India Great Again: Learning from History?
Meeta: There were far too many questions that students who had not done a BA in history were asking for which history books had no answers to. That prompted us to write this book. Our study of Indian history over many years showed us that while India had multiple achievements in science and technology, we were never able to leverage those to create an affluent society. Science never jumped to create economic growth across the board.
How do you find the Mughal and East India Company as a backdrop to contemporary economic challenges?
Rajivlochan: The Mughals were able to create a bureaucratic structure never seen in India before. That was sufficient to create one of the richest empires in the ancient world. What the Mughals failed to do was to set up institutional systems to protect their businesses from loot; they actually farmed out maritime protection services to the various East India Companies. While the East India Companies learned a lot from the Mughals, the reverse was not true.
Your book has analysed the pitfalls of a closed economy that India largely was in medieval history. Do you think we have gained enough by opening up post-1991 reforms?
Meeta: India was never a closed economy in the past, in the sense that it was always open for trade and no protection was provided to local businesses. What is interesting is that in pre-British India there was barely any regulation of the economy; nor was there a functioning legal system to enforce the laws of contract. Contracts in India were ‘dharmic’; dependent on goodwill rather than enforced by the state.
The book details the ingenious strength of India, particularly in steel in the past. But China,
even though being a late starter, raced past India in quick time.
Rajivlochan: China made systematic efforts to learn about technology and to internalise whatever technology they imported. Indian industry did have the first-mover advantage but productivity remained low; there was little research. Modern economies change fast; nothing stands still.
The book has highlighted the cost India paid for not paying attention to information in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Meeta: The IT-enabled services industry in India mostly services the foreign market, not the domestic market. Increasingly, Indian businesses do understand the value of digitalisation and of Artificial Intelligence.
Trade in the past tilted the political power, as East India Company gained the political power. Is India now doing better?
Rajivlochan: Trade and politics have always remained dependent on each other. The World Trade Organisation is based on this reality. India’s share in global trade has been roughly two per cent. India continues to punch below its weight.
The book has analysed the cost India paid for not having maritime influence in the past. Does the issue, while still relevant, bog down the Indian economy?
Rajivlochan: The gap in our maritime capabilities remains a major hindrance for India’s economy. Land-bound nations have limited growth.
The government claims to promote the artisans, but why do you think they still don’t have the scale to reap larger economic benefits?
Meeta: Our guess is that this is just a way of easing the pain, which low-value producers face in the face of rapid changes in industrial production. The days of hand-produced goods have long gone.