Guest columnist Kaushik Basu, who has been appointed chief economic adviser to the Indian government, bids farewell and explains why he took up his new job.
Kaushik Basu's new office in North Block (right)
It is less than a month since I relocated to Delhi to be chief economic adviser to the government, in the ministry of finance.
The offer came out of the blue and I agonised over it.
As a researcher I did economics for the love of aesthetics - not for relevance.
In defence, I will simply say that that is the only way to do good research.
The primary motivation that drives a researcher is a creative urge, the urge to unearth beauty and order, be it in nature, society or the chaos of the market.
If I moved from the ivory tower to the world of policy and politics, I would not only be working in a setting totally alien to me - the daunting world of Indian bureaucracy - but I would have to reorient my objective, for one thing was clear to me: if I did make this major move, it would be to get something worthwhile done for society, to give my absolute best towards creating a better India.
This is an intimidating objective where failure is more likely than success. The only consolation was what a colleague at Cornell laughingly told me - "if you fail, you can come back and write a sizzler on Indian politics and policy".
I dithered for a day or two and took the plunge.
In early December I moved to my high-ceilinged, Raj-era office in Lutyens' Delhi, the North Block. I had landed in the belly of the beast that I had studied for so long from outside through the analyst's neutral lenses.
The first week was harrowing.
My in-tray reached for the ceiling till someone pointed out that on my right was an out-tray.
Questions concerning the economy came at rapid fire from parliament and from policy-makers.
I was asked, for example, if allowing futures trading in food created inflationary pressure on the spot market price of food.
This is the kind of question on which I would love to spend some months thinking and reading and then write a paper. Here I had 24 hours to respond.
For all the bewilderment of the first week, there was one pleasant surprise.
'This job is to give my absolute best towards creating a better India'
I did not expect the level of professionalism and commitment to work that I encountered in my ministry.
It is entirely possible that this is a recent phenomenon and special to Delhi, but the level of individual industry that I have seen in my first weeks is entirely on a par with or even higher than the best private sector firms.
In addition, the top brass combines this professionalism with an unexpected unassuming air. This augurs well for the Indian economy.
Let me clarify, I have not changed my mind about the slowness of our bureaucracy.
There is enough hard data to show that we take too long to clear the permits needed to start a new business, we take too much time to close a business that has gone bankrupt and our procedures for enforcing contracts are too cumbersome.
I believe that to streamline these and make them faster will be like starting fast trains between cities, building better ports, providing ample electricity. It can have a magical effect energising the entire economy of India.
What my first weeks of the view from within has convinced me is that the problem lies with the system and not with the individuals who comprise it.
It is like ace drivers caught in a traffic jam; a huge waste of a valuable resource.
Enabler of enterprise
We have to re-examine the structures of decision-making in our bureaucracy so that permits are given quickly for new enterprises to start and bankrupt ones to close, food grains are released promptly when prices begin to rise, justice is dispensed with quickly when somebody is wronged, and visas are given (or not given) as promptly as possible.
'India is too big a country to provide for all'
A part of the problem arises because of flaws in the way we see the role of the state.
The state has to be an enabler of enterprise, not a substitute for it.
India is far too big and complex for the government to be able to directly provide food to all, education to all and employment for all.
The government should instead create an enabling atmosphere which allows ordinary individuals to provide these vital goods and services to one another.
This, in turn, means that the government's default option should be to permit rather than prevent.
If we manage to effect a restructuring along these lines, with so much talent in the government, this will give another boost to India's growth.
As I begin in my new job and try to do my share, I will of course miss my Cornell life.
I moved to the US in 1994 with apprehension.
Once I discovered the American university, I could not but appreciate its openness, its fierce regard for individual freedom and voice and its multi-culturalism.
On the latter, though, India, with its pluralism, also does very well.
The babble of varied accents and styles that I encounter even within the hallways of the North Block is very reassuring.
Postscript: It is time for me to bid adieu to my column.
Let me close with a facetious story that sums up the joys and vexations of multicultural life.
'Streamlining the bureaucracy will help boost the economy'
A newly-arrived Indian couple, driving though La Jolla, get into an argument about how to pronounce the name of the town.
When they stop at a restaurant for lunch, the wife asks the waiter: "My husband and I realise that neither of us knows how to pronounce the name of this place. How does one pronounce it?"
The waiter, a new immigrant from China, says: "Don't worry. In my one year here I have heard many people mispronounce it. But it is easy. First you say buh, then guh, and then you say kingggg."
Kaushik Basu is on leave from Cornell University, where he was until recently professor of economics.
This debate is closed. Here is a selection of your comments.
Kaushik, we will miss your insights on this site, but wish you the best. I think it takes a lot of courage and a deep sense of giving back to make this move. I just returned from a visit to India, and I think it needs good leaders at all levels to leverage the potential of the masses.
Anish Raj, USA
Good luck Kaushik, I have enjoyed reading your columns, though there have been times I have disagreed with it. Here is to hoping that you can play your part in fixing the large and slow moving entity called the "Indian Bureaucracy".
Bipin Raju, India
It's nice to get an outside view of looking into an Indian Ministry. First point - I agree with you that govt in India cannot provide for all. The govt should focus on providing justice and making sure that there is a fair play in any given industry and nothing more. In seventies, people had to queue up to buy vegetable oil and cement or steel on ration cards!! It used to takes years to get a telephone line!. At that time state or central govt controlled who manufactured cement or steel etc and the state provided telephone lines!! During 80's and 90's govt learnt to move away from these controls and the results are obvious! I believe whenever govt in India moved away from directly controlling any industry - the industry prospered. Take the example of IT - luckily govt of India never planned to be IT hub of the world and hence never devised controls on it! However the govt was right to step in when there was a foul play i.e. Satyam computers! Second point ¿ system failure - Indians are very entrepreneur, competitive and hard working individually but collectively they create a traffic jam. Unfortunately it's very hierarchical society - hangover from the Raj days! People use political or any other influence to move up the ladder and end up breaking the order on the way up ¿ politicians call it ¿play in the system'. Govt in India has to recognise the cause of the system failure and take steps to fix the cause!. We need more people in Indian ministries who can think out of the box. Please keep on writing the columns on BBC.
For someone who uses phrases such as "As a researcher I did economics for the love of aesthetics - not for relevance." and "If I moved from the ivory tower to the world of policy and politics..." to be appointed to this post....all I can say is. the poor folk in India better watch out...they have an academic in charge of their fortunes....
Prof Basu is not the first economics expert to admire the professionalism and commitment to work "that I encountered in my ministry." Nor is it "a recent phenomenon and special to Delhi" as he suspects. James D. Wolfensohn who had long interactive sessions with pundits at the helm of New Delhi's economic affairs would vouch for that. The World Bank Chief said he was astonished to find that the top guys had perfect solutions to the ills plaguing the country's economy. However, no one had answer as to why they could not be implemented for coming out of the rut. The new Economic Advisor is quite on the mark when he says that "India is far too big and complex for the government to be able to provide food to all, education to all and employment for all.¿ But, alas, neither directly nor by facilitating the appropriate sectors. How can anyone correct the course of the establishment that is founded on deceit? It stands by the white lie that the British would never have left their colonies but for the so-called freedom struggle. The 'strugglers' were, in fact, financed by big business tycoons who eventually inherited the colony rather than descendents of original rulers. The ruling cliché stifled private enterprise and technology elsewhere to reinforce their monopoly positions. India projects the patriarch of the movement MK Gandhi as the 'Father of the Nation'? His bizarre hypocrisy of anti-development rhetoric is hailed as ever-relevant panacea. He decorates the Indian Rupee currency in a world of global commerce, crashing international trade barriers and multilateral development agencies. Assume Hitler figuring as an ever-relevant leader on the Deutsche Mark! Barring a drastic redrafting of the entire structure that came into being in 1950, individual experts can do nothing for the unfortunate people.
NM Sampathkumar Iyangar, India
I hope you will continue to write about your experiences in tackling the bureaucracy. We would love to know what is going on.
Rupa De, USA
Congratulations, and the very best wishes to you in your newfound opportunity to effect change in India, hopefully change that will benefit the long suffering people of that great country. On my frequent visits back to India I find a surprising and sometimes scary level of admiration for the views of Indians who have made it big abroad, particularly in the US. Scary because there is a great danger that solutions that worked elsewhere will be faithfully imported and implemented without regard to Indian conditions - with unintended consequences. Especially in my field of health care and public health far too many outside experts are busy hawking solutions that completely ignore the pressing and immediate needs of vast numbers of poor people. One outside expert who has clearly grasped this is the recent Nobel Laureate Dr Ramakrishnan who refused to pontificate on the problems of Indian Science. India, he said, has enough talent of its own. As a returning expert you have a golden opportunity to validate the views and solutions of India's many talented people and use your specially privileged position to support them in convincing politicians to implement some of those home grown solutions. I look forward to seeing the results of your work!
Jammi N Rao, England
Congratulations, Mr Basu, on your new posting. It is good that the Government of India have appointed a US based academic as their Chief Economic Adviser and not some Harold Laski inspired socialist from LSE as was the practice in the past!! If you can convince your political masters to release the natural entrepreneurial talent of millions of Indians and free them from the licence raj and official corruption, then you can go back to Cornell and say " I have made a difference".
Raghu Poduval, UK
We will miss your thoughtful and incisive analysis on the BBC. But you have a higher calling. I do not have the intelligence nor the expertise you have but I am so glad that you are giving back to India which unfortunately I am unable to. Good Luck and God speed.
Shovan Das, USA
Good luck Kaushik. I am glad to see that a person of your calibre has been offered this post & not some old corrupted politician with no knowledge of economics. I want to believe in India's future & look forward to your comments in 2011 & onwards. I hope that you will still be in India by then. Lets see who wins - India's bad bureaucracy or Kaushik Basu. All the best
Ashish Sinha, Australia
I am happy that you have realized the exact problem: ace driver caught in traffic Jam. I wish you all the best to change it for better.
Subrat Panda, India
I hope Basu, when recommending streamlining as in getting things done faster, does not lose sight of the fact that things need to be done correctly. Today, things are neither done correctly nor speedily. Given a choice between correctness and speed, i would plump for the former, since, doing things incorrectly is pointless. So i hope that is where things get focussed. Speed is a bonus. If indeed permits were handled correctly, there would not be so much environmental pollution, urban cities that are entirely slums and so on, a complete absence of drinking water even when there's a (now polluted) river flowing nearby, and so on and so forth.
G Vijay, India
You outline a great blue-print! Keep a score and keep reporting.
CP Vohra, India
I have enjoyed reading your columns and wish you all the best in your new job.
Your column gives a very good insight on the Indian bureaucracy. The old notions we had are slowly giving way to the sense of achievement on a daily basis. All the best in your new role.
I am an avid reader of Professor Basu. His articles on India - not just Indian economics - were always a source of information and commendable insight for common readers like me. Prof. Basu has correctly identified some of the 'systemic' problems in India. I would only like to add that India will be forever grateful to him, if Prof. Basu digs into the tax system of India, which is very lose (no farmer has to pay tax) and corrupt. Once India has a clean and proper tax system in place (like the US and UK), India will have more wealth to eradicate poverty which will help to create a 'better India'. Good luck to you, Prof. Basu and a billion thanks for taking this challenging endeavour.
Gautam De, New Jersey, USA
Wishing Prof. Basu the best as he starts his new job. Hiss columns have always been engaging and instructive.
Anoop Sadanandan, United States
I really enjoyed reading your column.
Excellent article. Interesting to read about your comment that you would like to go away and think for several months before answering a question (24 hours)At last academics are beginning to see the real world not through the rosy eyes of Cornell university!! Yes sir the new India that you will build definitely has a great future because you and many more like you will drive the change that is so desperately needed. Population dynamics aside India needs to develop a coherent population control policy-therein lies the problem.
Dr Rajiv Nair, United Kingdom
Congratulations to you and to Indians! Another step in the right direction.
All the best.
Shashwat Gupta, India
Congratulations! India needs people like you at the helm. Hope you can make some major changes in the system. Its high time!!
Chobi Deb Roy, USA
Kudos to Kaushik Basu for taking such a bold step. I really hope we have a young and vibrant finance minister in the making.
As an Indian, am very proud to hear from and read about you. But God help and bless you in your new posting.
Deborah Yenubari, USA
I will miss your columns. I always found them so objective and highly interesting. I wish you all the very best in your new position. I am sure it is going to try your patience. :) Good luck.
Gayathry Prasad, Germany
It's a good development that Indian government is inviting qualified people to govern the nation. So far India faced tremendous decline in its growth and living standard just because such elite class were rarely invited into Govt. People like Prof Basu and Dr Manmohan Singh (PM) have no interest in grabbing power than serving the nation. There are several bureaucrats runs different ministry, who do not or can not focus into development because of lack of expertise. They are in power because of power sharing agreement among different political parties. Lets hope the trend will continue.
Shaikh M. I., Singapore
Mr Basu, an upper-caste Hindu has gotten an elite position. However, he has nothing to say about economic repression in India over millions of lower-caste untouchables. How would Mr Basu address the plight of millions of untouchables living in perpetual enslavement? How would Mr Basu's advice favour the economically repressed people? Has he ever considered it? Or, Is Mr Basu deliberately trying to eclipse Hindu repression with his liberal sounding rhetoric?
Harmeet Wachhoa, USA
I wish Mr. Basu the very best in his new endeavour and hope he continues to write informative articles about the Indian economy. Lack of accountability and failure to provide efficient justice has indeed been the bane of India.
Ved Singh, USA
If I had to get into an argument for the sake of doing it and proving to myself how well I can do, your columns were an ideal choice of both topic and words for me. I love to be a critic and you have given me a number of columns to test those skills. I wish you all the best in your new venture and hope that you will cherish your move to Lutyens' Delhi more than you did in 1994 to US. Not that I question your observation of our 'Babu's' sitting in every nook and corner of our North and South Blocks, be careful if someone spits a 'paan' while you are walking up the stairs. The good news for me and your readers in India is that you have become more approachable than before. Hope to see you in the alley's of the world's largest democracy.
Vinayak, Saudi Arabia
It would be wonderful if you still keep writing from the 'belly of the beast' and keep resisting not to turn into the 'beast'.
I hope you will start 1000's of projects to solve and implement successfully all the issues that you have come across. Good Luck Mr Basu.
No matter what you do, no matter how sincere you are the fact is that capitalism isn't going to do any good for the vast majority of Indians or any other third world country. It can only create more and more miseries, disease, hunger and poverty. A few more could become billionaires but hundreds of million more will sink in the sea of poverty.
Farhad Kayani, Pakistan
The optimist thinks: There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way and not starting. The pessimist thinks: Always bet on the anvil, not the hammer. Good luck to you.
Chris Culp, USA
I hope you remain just as transparent, as you have always been. Very best wishes for this daunting challenge.
Nisheeth Tak, Ireland
We will miss you at Cornell and in Ithaca!
I'm hugely surprised that someone in the Finance Ministry has been following your articles and comments. I have certainly enjoyed them. Very best wishes to you. Nice to work in North Block.
Arindam Sarkar, UK
I remember reading comments earlier which said "it is easy to sit in air conditioned office in Cornell and write about India" (or something like that), now is the time to answer to your critics. Good luck with your job! I hope you can bring about some changes you have talked about.
The easiest thing in the world is to research, write and lecture. The toughest is to deliver tangible benefits to buyers and make a profit out of the deal. My Professor in a business school was once researching the impact of a dark blue shirt worn by the door-to-door Salesman on the buying behaviour of the lady of the house! This ace Professor of Marketing couldn't get a single student enrolled when he set up a Marketing institute of his own. And he taught us the "art and science of selling" Delivery time Kaushik. All the Best
Sudhir Bisht, Nigeria (Indian in Nigeria)
Is any tax reform up in the cards for India? How long would we be using income and sales taxes? Shouldn't we focus on the ideas of Georgism and come up with better taxation policy that is not regressive, yet sustainable?
Sai Samavedam, US
I would love to read your experiences as you move along. I wish you good luck!
Basu, a simple question - what's your solution for India's way out of poverty?
Congratulations and best of luck. But please do not forget India's infrastructures and the poor uneducated, home less people who are the majority in India.
I like your articles and they have inspired me including this one. I believe a person is known for what he/she does and not for what he/she says. There is an old adage that goes "It is easier said than done". So far, you have had the opportunity to "say". Now, you have the opportunity to "do". Here's wishing the very best to you in that journey. Please document this as well so that it can inspire people like me to "do"! Jai Hind.
Firstly Mr Basu congratulations on your new job. Hope you'll make a India a better place. Thanks for all the hard works in the columns ... I really enjoyed reading your columns. All the best
Shyam Shahukar, USA
Congratulations Prof Basu. The country desperately needs someone of your vision and calibre. Watch out of for the half literate and jealous "Old Guard" who are waiting for you to fail. Please learn from the recent problems that poor Shashi Tharoor encountered. Wish you success and make us proud to be called an Indian.
Madhu Murthy, USA
Your transition is a good example of the old adage - you can either do a job or make a difference. I wish you luck in your new role.
Rajdeep Sahrawat, India
Mr Basu your departure is bad news and good news for me. Bad because I will miss your articles. Good because you have gone where you belong. A person like you is needed in India to change the system. Change, change and change should be the name of the game. Hope you become the Finance Minister of India.
Serouze Kazamani, USA
The bureaucracy is still not prepared to give up its hold and neither it is interested in delivering services to the people. If you cannot pull the levers of power, you cannot get your way in central or state govts in India. And above all there is complete lack of moral and ethical perspective in government, judiciary, media, business and in society. We need an long, sustained and effective citizen's education programme. Why we need it, I give you one example. Most educated Indians believe that paying tax to govt is wrong. If you could do something about it great and good luck to you.
Ashok Joshi, UK
A heartfelt thanks for your articles..and wishing you the Best of Luck..sincerely hope that you can achieve all that you target.. !
I adore Indian government in stepping ahead to bring great academician, Mr. Kaushik Basu, in the policy making role for Indian economics. He surely seems to be a true gem. Good Wishes to you Mr. Basu !!
Sulabh Jain, USA
I shall Mourn the loss of another sacrifical lamb at the altar of the Indian BureauCRAZY! Fundamental issues, such as overpopulation, pollution, corruption, nepotism, Patriarchial educational and parenting systems, disease, ignorance, superstitions, business/company laws and (although the list is not complete), the OXYMORON of Indian Law & Justice(joke!).. well, if these are not addressed, there's no point in hoping, wishing, desiring success. India is NOT a true democracy. Wake up people!!
Prof Kaushik Basu is distinguished economic professor and thinker, and well known for formulating "traveler dilemma". I have full respect for him. It is not the first time, a person of such stature will be serving as chief economic advisor to the Govt of India, in the past such position was held by VKRV Rao, K N Raj even Amartya Sen (for short period). The problem is that the implementation of their advises depend upon the whims of politician, that is, true in any democratic country. We know the level of politicians in India. Sometime it looks whether India really needs advisor to different Ministries.
Shekhar Mehta, US
The socio-economic problems crippling India are far too complex for an entire administration to sort out in a short period of time, let alone one person. However, inclusion of a figure like Prof Basu brings a fresh and positive air to the system, along with fresh perspectives and a wealth of economic insight, which can only help. Congratulations to Prof Basu for his bold decision; Wish you all the best in "the belly of the beast". The Cornell community would miss you. Please keep us posted with your column!
I hope you will continue to share your views via Twitter or some other means. Please do not bungle up in the same way that Tharoor has. Good luck with the new posting.
Shreyas Attavar, Cambridge, England
Good luck.Perseverance is the only way forward.
Kaushikji, I only pray god that the very buracracy and the politicians who have a strong nexus with each other and both have vested interest in seeing that system does not work the way it should be working do not put hurdles in your way. Best of Luck to you in youe endeavour
Vijay Trimbak Gokhale, India
I wish you the very best of success (and may the odds of success be much higher than failure for you) in your new role. The fact that Indian Government is seeking out highly skilled NRIs to help steer the country in future certainly augurs well for India. Don't let the "established interests" overcome what is in benefit for the most people of India. Will miss your thoughtful articles.
Nasim Khan, US
I have read all of your articles and I am very pleased that the govt has appointed a very knowledgable and qualified individual who fiercely believes in private enterprise and the reduced role of the state. I hope the govt seriously considers and implements your advice for a better tomorrow. Best wishes for the new job and I hope with your insight, our pathetic bureaucracy is anhililated forever.
Ranjan Shivanangham, Chennai, India
Being one of the highest jobs in the country, it sure demands the commitment and love for your clients(the people of india) or to say the old fashioned patriotism which your peers in China and those of the developed world had when they pulled their masses out of poverty.Your reasoning depicts the same and hope it gives you the strength and vigour to run succesfull experiments and even learn quickly from failed ones and perhaps earn you the name you rightly deserve in the process.
Dear Prof Basu, it is a nice encounter of your farewell letter. The one percent chance of making a change is worth taking and in this case, the ninety nine percent is nothing less.
Maria Monica Wihardja, Indonesia
Maslow's hierarchy describes a very small subset of Bhagvad Gita's Karmik and Dharmik laws. It's time to payback to the society, to uplift the humanity. You may get frustrated in the beginning, but there is always a good side of every human. Good Luck Mr. Basu
Pankaj Bhatia, Germany
I completely agree with you on bureaucracy in India. Govt employees feel they are the masters, they have no sense of service. No professionalism and efficiency. Least no manners and politeness. Especially in north Indian states. Govt employees are a curse and a burden on Mother India. I think govt jobs should never be given on the basis of caste but by merits only as govt employees are to serve all sections of society. Go any Govt office in India, to a bank, to a post office, to a Panchayath or village office. They have absolutely no sense of what they do and why they are there, they only know how to take money from the poor and keep taking but not doing the work for them. I try my level best to avoid such nasty people when I visit India. I do all my banking with private sector. They consider us as if we are begging for money when we go to a bank where we have the most deposits. Education has a lot to play and compulsory training for them on serving the public with good man! ners and politeness. They need to get into their head that it the tax payers money that they receive at the end of months.
My hearty congratulations and admirations to you for taking up a challenging role with a just objective. Though i will miss your columns, I wish you all the best in your new career for a better cause. All the Great endings have small beginings.
Sridhar Veeravelli, USA
Congratulations to you and to our Honorable PM Manmohanji. I read lot of comments and appreciations which is good for a constructive planning. India has changed compared to last 10 years it may be urban or rural. Since we have started the revolution recently and needs sometime to get going inspite of so many hurdles. Example is Indian Railways it Lalu but behind his success there are many inteligent Officers, Delhi metro, Expressways we should see how we can educate ourselve to reduce corruption and bring value to the globalization. We are in western country and please do not raise religion or caste questions. We should move away from that and it is an excuse for not being in tha position. My expectation is from you is to Implement 20% of your thought which will revolitionize the India system.
I remember only 2 good things politicians did. First was to make Dr.Manmohan Singh a Finance minister. Next is Mr.Basu's appointment. Atleast, there is some hope left in our politicians. Good luck Mr Basu
Suresh R, UK
Good Luck Kaushik!! I wish you all the best and hope you will do a good job and work hard to bring change as much as possible. I wish more people like you move back and change our system as much as they can.
KS Poonuru, USA
The job Mr. Basu found himself doing, answering parliamentary question also shows how the "babudom" is good at playing "yes minister". his response should have been who did this before and send it to them. His job is to bring meaningful change if possible and not answer ill-prepared corrupt politicians.
Hope you continue to write about your experience and wish success.
Subrata M, USA
Congratulations!! I hope that you would be able to contribute towards slimming down Indian bureaucratic role for economic development of India which is far behind china as well as in reducing corruption.
Dolendra Khadka, Nepal /UK
I wonder that it takes us as Indians , so much soul searching and essentially a trip abroad somewhere before we recognise our true potential and that of our own country !Well, as you have truly summed up at least one matter at the heart of the problem ' a lot of ace drivers caught up in a traffic jam !' I and my family Congratulate you on your appointment to this prestigious post !! And though I am from a different field and hence can't give any expert comments on this , I feel that 'the will to make things better' is what counts ....in every field ...and is or may be the key to making this world a better place ....All the Very Best !!!
Dr Mayuri Pandu , Germany
Best of luck mate. Tharoor is doing his bit to let the public know what is happening inside the Delhi jungle. And his thoughts are quite interesting and welcome compared to the boring leaders and bureaucrat that we have. Hope you do take a leaf out of of Tharoor's pages..