Moving Mountains

Golf, not Chess

Economic growth in a sense, and to a much larger extent economic development, is more akin to a game of golf than a game of chess. In golf, the opponent’s moves matter very little; you may as well play by yourself and later compare scores if needed. In chess, your move depends on how your opponent has moved and how he is likely to respond to your move. In other words, chess is a strategic game while golf is not. All this is very broadly speaking, naturally. I don’t mean to imply that there are no dependencies among economies as they grow; what I mean is that, especially for a large economy like India, how much it produces and how determines how materially prosperous it is and is independent of how other economies are growing. For strictly benchmarking purposes, one can glance over at the neighbors. And if one is smart, one can learn from the experiences of those neighbors. Still, when it comes to economic growth, it is largely the case that you are playing against yourself.

Here I want to glance at India’s large northern neighbor and recently a strategic competitor in the fiercely competitive game for control of scarce resources. China has been moving mountains — quite literally as you will soon note — for quite a few years for growing its economy. From an Indian perspective, it is a chilling reminder that there are no shortcuts to economic growth and that it takes something special in terms of will and perseverance to overcome the ill-effects of flawed economic policies and failed leadership. It is also a story of hope and the indomitable human spirit, a story of almost superhuman striving by mere mortals.

Words, not Numbers

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that rarely do I have charts, graphs, and tables of statistics in my posts. It is not that I mistrust those devices as they do illuminate the subject. But I leave the numbers to sources that do rely on them for making their points. Honestly speaking, I am fairly suspicious of numbers that have pretenses to a degree of precision that is not even theoretically possible. In one report I had read (from some global consulting firm), I had seen figures which made my head hurt. It said something like, “By July of 2010, the US would have outsourced 10,573,425 jobs to India.” I wondered if they meant July 1st or July 31st; and whether it was by 10 AM of a particular date or was it by 10:30 AM. How did they know that the number in the units’ place was 5 rather than 6 or 4?

I am convinced that you, gentle reader, have seen a lot of numbers projecting what is going to happen to India by such and such a date. One report that I recently glanced at was from KcKinsey which Sramana Mitra has blogged about recently on the growth of India’s middle class. Makes fascinating reading, I am sure, for MBA-types. But I digress. I will get back to that McKinsey report in a different post shortly.

For now, I would like to point you to a National Geographic feature titled “China’s Boomtowns” from June 2007 (Hat tip: Abhishek Sarda.) It is well worth the 10-odd minutes it takes to read it. No charts and graphs there. But it tells a story that makes you admire the spirit of the Chinese. There are lessons in that story that underline some of my obsessions that have to do with the prerequisites of economic growth in the modern world. Without any charts or graphs, the story is replete with lessons that we should have learnt and perhaps we still can if only our benighted leaders were to pay attention.

Similar Pasts

For much of the recent past, China and India were similar in many respects. Very large populations, very deep and widespread poverty, largely agricultural, and saddled with brain-dead economic policies rammed down the throats of the powerless populations by ignorant policymakers. Then the Chinese people got lucky: they got a dictator who was smart. This dictator was different from the other dictator who had propelled China into a “Great Leap Forward” which left tens of millions dead. India matches the first part of China’s story — it got a dictator who wanted to personally control India’s climb into “The Commanding Heights” but succeeded in digging a very deep hole for most of the 350 million living around 1950 that even 60 years later, the number of deep-hole dwellers is variously estimated to be between 500 and 800 million. Thanks awfully, Mr Jawaharlal Nehru.

The new path that the dictator of China took around 1970 propelled economic growth and lifted hundreds of millions out of the hole that had been dug for them by communism. India, by contrast, continued along the path blazed by Nehru, and the path was solidified into an 8-lane superhighway by his daughter. (She was another ignorant autocrat — and appeared to be fairly convinced that ignorance was better than knowledge since she saw no need for the education of the masses. Though she had all the opportunity in the world, she herself never got any formal education and I believe was kicked out of Shantiniketan, a school where you would have to work hard to get kicked out of. The irony that numerous educational institutions are named after her would not be tolerated but for the ignorance of the Indian population.)

India went careening down this superhighway of socialism until it was wrecked through a collision with the barrier of a balance of payment crisis. Headless chickens have been known to display more foresight than the architects of India’s economy.

But I digress once again. Let me get back to what China did: it became the world’s manufacturer. Manufacturing is capital intensive but if you do enough of it, you do require lots of people. Lots of people churning out stuff means that there is more to go around. So labor is attracted into the sector and the laborers get paid wages. Those wages may be low compared to advanced industrialized economy standards but are far superior to the alternative of starving on a farm in the rural interior of China.


Where did all the wealth that exists in the world today come from? (Wealth is stuff — not money. Stuff that we eat, stuff that shelters us, stuff that transports us, etc.) It is largely manufactured. There is more stuff relative to people today than existed any time in our history because manufacturing stuff requires less labor per unit of output. The fact though is that manufacturing has what economists call “economies of scale”: the cost of production per unit goes down as the volume of production goes up. So large manufacturing units produce stuff more efficiently. And large manufacturing units require lots of people and large amounts of supporting activities which in turn require even more people. In other words, a population living in a bunch of villages is not as productive as the same population living in a city and helping with manufacturing. Cities are the engines of growth because manufacturing has scale economies.

Cities, not Villages

Indian policy makers have an obsession with villages. Villages were Gandhi’s fetish; and Gandhi is an Indian fetish. So I think that the policy maker’s obsession derives from the fetish**2 (the fetish of a fetish) that Indians indulge in. I am not against fetishes, mind you. My own obsession with the primacy of individual freedom compels me to approve of all personal fetishes. Whatever floats your boat, is what I say. But when fetishes intrude into sensible policy making, I draw the line.

So the point that I am attempting to make is this. Build cities. That will require a great deal of manufactured stuff. So you need lots of manufacturing. And forget the crumbling mega-slums we currently pretend are cities, and forget the tiny impoverished settlements we call villages. Build livable cities and build factories that will produce the stuff that the poor currently don’t have because it is not produced. Manufacturing so much stuff will require lots of people. And we have people coming out the wazoo — they are currently stuck in a declining agricultural sector.

Yeah, move a few mountains. They do that in China. India can imitate that bit at least.

6 thoughts on “Moving Mountains

  1. Hello! I need your help in one debate where im participating. The topic is “Urbanization improves environment” Im speaking for the proposition, the improvement has to be with reference to population and economic developmental. Kindly give me some ideas…..Thanks
    Aseem Naphade(


  2. Aseem,

    For a any given amount of consumption and production, urban areas are more efficient. Therefore urbanization affords more services to the population for a given amount of pollution. Now it may be that urban populations use more resources average than the rural population. However that does not detract from the essential point that urbanization is more benign for the environment than the alternative.


  3. Thanks Atanu Dey, but i would also like to ask you from the point of view of revenue generation for the government how important is revenue generation for the government through urbanization. Since urbanization increases incomes for a certain part of the population does it also imply better ability to pay taxes?


  4. Hmmm.. Atanu, I just noticed that you don’t have a single post on your blog tagged under “environment” or “nature.” πŸ™‚


  5. Re: China, they also had lead paint in toys sold in the US, anti-freeze solvent in toothpastes and melamine in pet food. Not to mention their unique approach to QA. So is there a cost associated here that should be taken into account when waxing poetic about China’s economy? πŸ™‚


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