NITI Aayog Inaugural lecture

India’s NITI Aayog, as directed by the Prime Minister, launched its ‘Transform India’ lecture series. The first talk was delivered by Tharman Shanmugarathnam, Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) of Singapore on August 26.
(1) First of all, it is an important and highly laudable initiative. The value of such initiatives is hard to quantify but the multiplier effect could be tremendous. The Indian PM deserves plenty of praise for initiating this. To tell the speaker to be frank was also the right thing to do.
(2) It is a fact that DPM Tharman is one of the leading public intellectuals of the world.
(3) He clearly told India to make in India for the world.
(4) Of course, he used PM’s words from his welcome remarks that India needs ‘rapid transformation and not gradual evolution’ but he did lay out a few important messages which were qualitative:

(5) India is in a race against demography and in a race against intelligent machines – a very important point. While I listened to the optimism of Nandan Nilekani in Bangalore (end-July) and also to Mr. Mohandas Pai in Singapore bilaterally on the combination of technology and services, we need to think and examine this phenomenon a lot more in depth given the scale and numbers that need to be gainfully employed in India.

(6) I was also very heartened that he spoke about the need for the discipline of dynamism or, if you will, discipline and dynamism. The need for a culture that instinctively shuns mediocrity. Shekhar Gupta had written on it over the weekend in BS but it is behind paywall and my attempts to renew my subscription were unsuccessful.
(7) Indeed, he read out statistics on child mortality and stunted growth but the last data point stopped in 2009. That, in itself, is a big lacuna. It is not easy for a big country but it is also important for a big country to put a lot of emphasis on data collection and minimising lags.
(8) It was nice that he focused on the words, ‘domestic demand’ and rejected both of them separately. He said that the focus ought to be on supply – productivity and skills. I had mentioned more than once in my MINT columns that the PM must dedicate one of his Mann ki Baat to productivity and repeat it at regular intervals. Nothing else matters – not a 200-basis point cut in interest rates out of nowhere and with no regard to other economic fundamentals which will all freeze and not react to it and cheap exchange rate that hides all inefficiencies.
(9) He was absolutely right to mention that schooling being India’s biggest crisis. Our response to the PISA 2009 revelation was to stop participating in it! Anyone in this group who has not yet read James Tooley’s ‘Beautiful Tree’ should quickly address that lacuna. I wrote a blog post after reading it titled, ‘Game, Set and Match to China’. Read the book to understand that title.
(11) He was absolutely correct to point out the global phenomenon of over-educating students through a general undergraduate education. Ha-Joon Chang talks about it rather well in his lovely little book, ’23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism’.  He mentions the Swiss success story of vocational education. ’23 things….’ is well worth a read.
(12) Finally, his point on Cities being clusters of innovation and inclusiveness and the need to give them autonomy, to empower them, to hold them accountable and to make them compete with each other was well made.
In all, it is a good initiative. A good lecture by Singapore DPM. Well begun is half done.

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