Thursday, March 02, 2017

The many panic buttons to press

Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy

Mihir S Sharma
Random House India, 2015
pp.362. Price Rs.599.

Mihir Sharma is a known to the readers of Business Standard. His articles are incisive, sharp, hard hitting, have a good measure of sarcasm. In his book “Restart” we see one more aspect: impatience. Sharma is in a hurry to cut the fluff and get to the point; to give a list of policy measures gone wrong from time immemorial and initiatives to fix them. He understands that the answers are not simple; there are multiple pressures on policy making; there are vested interests about which he writes extensively in the book; but still believes that way to go is take the route of rapid and drastic reform. Reform that does not exploit the farmers, the poor; reform that does not stop manufacturing and industrial growth; reform that does not compensate farmers for parting with their land at the current rates laid out by the recent land acquisition bill but compensates farmers “fairly”. While he criticizes successive governments for taking the middle path and not taking tough decisions, the solutions he provides are certainly not far from the middle path. No Sir, they follow the golden average.

This we grant: he has a unique approach to identifying problems; at using statistics; at drawing conclusions. Add this: he has a unique way of connecting with his readers. If we are used to people pressing the metaphorical panic button Sharma has a whole panel of buttons which he keeps pressing like a trained pianist.

Sharma’s style is conversational and direct. The data is usually camouflaged in the diagnostic and dialogic sentences without the need for tables, graphs or analysis. He has done the homework, knows the data. He expects the reader to take his word. So far so good. But what if the data is to be interpreted differently? How does one engage with him and pick up a nuanced argument? While Sharma himself has fairly nuanced arguments, he gives his readers no choice to frame their questions. He asks the readers’ questions himself and answers them.

While this style is ideally suited for an opinion piece in the op-ed page of a newspaper (pink or otherwise), where one is short of time and therefore the need to trust the writer for doing the background work and take writers’ word, does it suit a book length work, where one has the luxury of a more informed style of conversation? No Siree, that is not his style. Nope. Not at all.

Talking about why the second airport in Mumbai (that is so important for national development) is held up, he says “…  the Union environment ministry was worried about 160 acres of mangroves – the gloomiest plant known to man, even if you include the weeping willow.” He then goes on to ask: “Are mangroves perhaps endangered? Nope. They’re being depleted, but are not endangered” (p.131). He goes on to argue that the depletion of mangroves on account of the new airport is about 0.24 percent of the mangroves in Maharashtra. He does not use (possibly) the more relevant statistic that it would be about 1.11 percent of all of Mumbai’s mangroves. Nor does he counter the argument of ecological fragility of the coastal zone. On the contrary he could have made his argument even stronger if he used this statistic against the total acerage of mangroves in the entire country!

Does this remind us of somebody else who uses statistics equally powerfully to make a point? You guessed it: P Sainath is equally good in drawing our attention to the agrarian crisis and employs a similar style. It is interesting to see that these two gentlemen have divergent views, but have such a similar style. While Sainath laments the reduction in the number of “cultivators” and brings about the nature of the agrarian crisis culminating in farmer suicides, Sharma dismisses that as being “disrespectful to mathematics and common sense”, talking about how the police “define and categorise ‘farmers’” (p.26). While Sharma argues that suicides are a function of complex interplay of economic, cultural, and psychological factors, his larger statistic of comparing the suicide rates of the “so called farmers” with the national statistic of Japan or Bhutan is taking Sainath’s specificity away to a generalization of suicide statistics.

Sharma’s book has a wide canvas, goes deep into history and uses statistics, anecdotes and episodic events effectively to narrate a coherent tale. This tale becomes sharper because he has done his homework, knows his numbers and has a big picture in mind. His style is chatty and engaging. However, Sharma becomes quickly predictable both in his analysis and in his final solution. But if you are left with a sense of disquiet and discomfort at the end of the book, as I have been, then he has achieved his objective of making the point that Indian economy is in a mess. That is the point he makes effectively and convincingly.

 © M S Sriram |

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