Brilliant analysis

Extreme Turbulence by Upendra Kachru; Harper Collins, India; Price: Rs. 395; 325 pp

The general global consensus supported by highly respected think tanks like the Cato Institute and World Economic Forum (Davos); investment banks such as Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley and the rating agency Standard and Poor, is that at long last poor and backward India — hitherto perennially at the take-off stage — will finally emerge as an economic superpower in the first quarter of the 21st century.

Certainly the auguries are good. Following the historic Union budget of July 1991 which ushered in a new era of economic liberalisation and industry deregulation, the Indian economy has experienced a miraculous transformation vaulting out of the rut of the so-called Hindu rate of economic growth (3.5 percent per year), to record an average 8 percent plus for the past three years. Suddenly Indian corporate acquisitions are making global headlines; fancy shopping malls are springing up countrywide; India has transformed into a global information technology and automobiles manufacturing heavyweight, and the world’s most high-end and exclusive consumer brands are ubiquitous in the domestic marketplace. And almost overnight, the country’s Malthusian nightmare of overpopulation ("teeming masses") has transformed into a high-potential demographic advantage.

Yet although shared by a substantial percentage of shining India’s 250-300 million strong new middle class and its tunnel-vision corporate czars, this is essentially an outsider’s view of resurgent 21st century India. There are quite a few perspicacious social scientists and intellectuals who tend to take a more balanced view of post-liberalisation India.

One of them is Upendra Kachru, the author of this insightful work of competent research and brilliant analysis. According to him, although the hitherto isolationist and autarkic Indian economy has crossed the "inflection point" of integrating with the global economy, it has now entered an era of "extreme turbulence" during which it needs to fasten seat belts and focus on getting its act together, before setting a smooth flight path to the steady prosperity predicted by foreign think tanks and investment bankers. "The bad news is that never before in the history of humankind has the rate of change, the challenges to be faced, and cost of failure been so high. And the good news is that never before has humankind acquired so much knowledge and proficiency to meet such challenges. Welcome to the world of extreme turbulence," writes the author, who is sparingly described as having "written a number of management books, and is presently professor of strategy at a reputed management school".

Further good news is that although Prof. Kachru broadly states that the knowledge and proficiency required to meet India’s 21st century challenges have been discovered by "humankind", in the subsequent pages, he makes it plain that it is also abundantly available in this country. It needs to be efficiently harnessed and pronto, so that by the year 2025, as predicted by the International Monetary Fund (2000), with an annual GDP growth of 8 percent, investment rate of 32 percent, stabilisation of population growth and favourable social and political conditions, India can become a developed nation with a per capita income of $10,000, exports of $200 billion, and a foreign trade surplus ("reflecting the integration of India’s economy with the rest of the world") of $133 billion.

Alternatively if the opportunity to put the knowledge and proficiency available within the country is blown, and annual economic growth reduces to a mere 5.3 percent, with a 27 percent savings rate, the country will suffer a trade deficit of $52.37 billion. The latter scenario will be as dismal as India imports two-thirds of its crude oil requirement, the price of which is hovering around an unprecedented $100 per barrel.

In support of his contention that despite the mistakes and lost opportunities of the past decades, contemporary India is equipped with factor endowments required to meet the formidable challenge outlined above, the author cites the extraordinary achievements of several corporate and other organisations including the much touted lunch-tiffin carriers of Mumbai ("one error per eight million deliveries"); Tata Motors, which has unveiled the world’s cheapest (Rs.1 lakh) car; Hero Honda Motors, the world’s largest manufacturer of two wheeled transport; ITC Ltd’s e-chaupal (computerised marketplace) which is operational in 11,000 villages and enables the company to buy agri-produce directly from farmers; the Aravind Eye Hospital, Madurai which conducts 200,000 world-class eye cataract operations annually at prices ranging from $50-300 (cf. $2,500-3,000 in the US); Dr. Pramod Karan Sethi and Ram Chandra Sharma who have fitted over 72,000 amputees in India with the globally famous Jaipur prosthetic foot at an average price of less than $30 (cf. $7,000-8,000 in the US), and the Vivekananda Sevakendra-o-Sishu Udyan modelled on the Grameen Bank, Bangladesh which offers micro-lending services to poor villagers, makes a profit and reports 99 percent loan recovery.

Quite clearly despite an archaic and inadequate education system and ubiquitous bureaucracy, a creative minority within Indian society has developed problem-solving capabilities of high order. Kachru’s message is that these capabilities need to be continuously developed (through expansion of the education system) and applied to laggard sectors — notably agriculture, energy and infrastructure — which are a drag on the economy, and which if not given adequate attention, could belie the optimistic growth and development forecasts of investment bankers and sundry other experts.

In short, Prof. Kachru’s important message is that while the Indian economy is indeed at the tipping point, if government, industry and civil society (the middle class) fail to seize the favourable opportunities which have emerged in the era of extreme turbulence, India could tip over backward into chaos and anarchy, rather than enter the exclusive club of the world’s most developed nations.

Dilip Thakore

Gutsy girls in velvet hell

Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea; Penguin; Price: Rs.395; 300 pp

There is something seriously wrong with the collective mindset of the kings, princes, sheikhs, mullahs and satraps who lord it over the hapless people, particularly the long-suffering youth of the Middle East countries, which can’t be dismissed as cultural differentiation. While around the world women are crashing through the thousand-year-old glass ceiling and have risen to become chief executives, prime ministers and presidents, in the dozen so oil-rich satrapies of the Middle East, the commodification and oppression of women beggars the imagination.

In a society where women are sequestered and not allowed to have an opinion on politics, economics, or even drive a car, Girls of Riyadh is a brave book written by Rajaa Alsanea (25), a student reading for a degree in endodontics at the University of Illinois. Although not an emotional wringer like the bestselling A Thousand Splendid Suns or The Kite Runner, Girls of Riyadh (GoR) is not less real.

It tells the stories of four girlfriends born into the educated, velvet class of Riyadh society. On the surface this book comes across as bubblegum, superficial chick lit with the characters constantly chattering about designer clothes, shiny limousines, foreign vacations and crushes. But when their relationships are closely examined, it becomes painfully apparent how romance and the joys of youth — especially of women — are routinely smothered by the patriarchy in this intellectually barren and emotionally sterile country, whose cruel practice of aggressive Wahabi Islam has brought Islam into global disrepute.

The four protagonists — Sadeem Al-Horaimli, Lamees Jeddawi, Gamrah Al-Qusmanji and Michelle Al-Abdulrahman — are best friends in the style of the popular American television series Sex and the City. Except in this case there’s no sex, nor city.

The girls are educated in elite private schools. They wear designer clothes beneath their austere burkhas, they’ve travelled the world, watch Hollywood movies and order takeaways from Burger King. Nevertheless they are strictly forbidden from communing with boys, not allowed to drive, or commute even within towns and cities unescorted by a male relative. But for young people love and romance come naturally. So boys hold up signboards bearing their mobile numbers in malls and on boulevards, and intense courtships are conducted via 21st century inventions such as sms and internet chatrooms.

With the iron-fisted patriarchy disdainful of romantic love, Saudi youngsters in their own ingenious and risky ways, try and keep it alive. Especially the women. Gamrah is the first to cross the Rubicon and gets married to Rashid. Moving to Chicago, she discovers that Rashid is in love with a Japanese woman — a fact she is expected to accept. Although the least educated and most submissive of the four girls, she doesn’t give in and returns to Riyadh, fully aware that she will have to endure the shame of being labeled a divorced woman who is not worth anything in Saudi society.

Sadeem, the beautiful one, tries to do everything right but ends up in dysfunctional relationships with hypocritical men. Her first engagement is broken when she decides to surrender her virtue to her soon-to-be-husband and surprises him in a black negligee. He promptly dumps her ex post facto on the ground that he doesn’t want a girl of easy virtue. Her next boyfriend refuses to marry her because she’s been engaged before.

Michelle, the most fiercely feminist and outspoken of the foursome, is jilted by her beloved Faisal as his mother doesn’t approve of a girl who has an American mother. The cerebral Lamees is the only one to find someone who is liberal and respects her as a near equal, but not before their relationship experiences numerous travails.

Girls of Riyadh takes a feminist stance in its projection of brave young women who are standing up to patriarchs in one of the world’s most cruel and inhumane societies, regardless of severe repercussions. They insist upon making choices because they believe they have the right to personal happiness.

Although unlikely to qualify as a great work of literary fiction, GoR is an important narrative because it offers an insider’s account of life in the Arabian peninsula, which time seems to have forgotten. This is social commentary disguised as fiction, which youth around the world need to read to persuade them to examine and analyse antiquated traditions that they have been accepting without questioning.

Bharati Thakore