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Charting India’s rise in the 21st century

February 2007
Charting India’s rise in the 21st century

Among the writers chronicling India's recent emergence as a major player among nations are two outsiders with insider access: Mira Kamdar and Edward Luce. Kamdar, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute at the New School in New York, has an Indian father. Back in the ‘60s, she'd briefly lived in Bombay with her family. She is the author of Planet India: How the Fastest-Growing Democracy is Transforming America and the World. Luce, the Washington bureau chief of The Financial Express, is married to a development economist who is of Bengali and Gujarati parentage. He is the author of In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India.

In many ways, Kamdar and Luce have the right credentials for such an undertaking. Their detachment prevents the knee-jerk defensiveness of certain India-based writers; at the same time, their personal link to India helps them avoid the condescending superficiality of a foreigner who breezes through the country before churning out a quickie book. Approaching the subject as journalists rather than scholars, both authors do a lot of shoe-leather reporting. Not surprising, since Kamdar�despite her academic background�contributes to the mainstream print and television media, whereas Luce was the South Asia bureau chief at The Financial Express for four years. They travel the length and breadth of the country, interviewing not just the movers and shakers but also those at the bottom of the pyramid.

The excitement over India's impressive gains can sometimes obscure the fact that, in reality, there are two Indias. And it's while probing the interplay between these disparate worlds of haves and have-nots that these writers touch on the challenges�and possibilities�of the 21st century. Their family connection, besides giving them an easier access to Indian society, allows them to present a nuanced portrait of the country.

"Luce is strongest on economics, but he's also a savvy observer of the social and political environments that alternately nurture and throttle India's growth," notes a review in TIME magazine. Kamdar talks to Azim Premji not about Wipro, his acclaimed company, but about his foundation which is doing its bit to improve primary education in India. This, as the authors point out, is one of the key areas where the two Indias are widely apart. A heavy investment in higher education has produced top-notch universities and skilled professionals who have enhanced India's reputation. But that has come at a cost, since much less attention was paid to primary education.

Nita Ambani and Rohini Nilekan, married to two of the wealthiest men in India, are also helping to improve primary education. Nilekani's Akshara Foundation, affiliated with Pratham, has made 800,000 books available to 50,000 children across 3500 community libraries. It is in stories like these�when the privileged Indians reach out to the underprivileged ones�that one sees hope for the future.

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