Nutrition. Health. Education. Urbanisation. Gender. And, of course, jobs. These are the six areas that India must focus on, says Sanjay Kaul in this book And who can quarrel with these objectives? He says it’s the ‘people first’ approach.

These are context-free imperatives for any society. The problem, of course, is how to get all this done, that too simultaneously and that too in a socially complex and fiscally challenged country like India.

That said, the book, which is exceptionally well-written, makes some important suggestions that our State governments, in particular, would do well to heed. After all, the six topics covered by Kaul are all in the States list of the Constitution.

Many States have been negligent. Not all but certainly most of the Hindi-speaking States. Some data on this aspect would have enhanced the value of the book.

Kaul writes with the certainty that one can expect of a former member of the IAS and corporate chief. This adds to the attractiveness of the book. Abstruse analysis makes for unreadable books.

The biggest challenge

Nutrition is probably the number one challenge before India. An alarmingly large number of children are hugely undernourished. Kaul says the Indian diet is too heavily focused on cereals and legumes, that is, dal, roti and rice. Children need more than that. In this context I feel compelled to mention that in 2012 I had proposed that corporate CSR be spent on eggs, bananas and milk as morning meals in schools as all three are locally available in nearly every village. The idea was received with deafening silence.

Kaul’s solutions are far more detailed and comprehensive. But the key message is simple: diversify the food intake with due attention to micronutrients. Some State governments are already doing this.

If an undernourished population is a massive liability, so is an uneducated one. North India in particular is a human development basket case. Kaul doesn’t make that distinction but his message is clear: the focus should be on learning outcomes.

The key, he says, lies in pre-school education. Governments in India have neglected this and must make the necessary amends. He suggests a large number of ways of doing it. It’s not clear, though, whether these must be prioritised or taken up simultaneously.

But if you have a well-fed and nicely educated population, how do you ensure they are healthy too? The answers are well known and Kaul adds little to the existing knowledge. But he makes an interesting but debatable suggestion: don’t focus only on building more new hospitals, improve the existing ones also. Kaul’s argument is that this will improve the efficiency of healthcare delivery.

So now we have a healthy and educated population. What about jobs for it? Kaul says the government can’t leave it to the market and must intervene aggressively to create jobs. It’s hard to understand this faith in the most incompetent cog in the national wheel.

Kaul has some interesting prescriptions on gender and other types of discrimination. He says there shouldn’t be any, which is fine. He also says, “it is incumbent on the central government to unequivocally and unambiguously recognise the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community prominently in policy pronouncements.”

Well, yes, but without meaning to be rude, charity begins at home because Kaul should have included in his list of discriminatory policies the rules that the bureaucracy applies to itself — indexed pensions for itself, for example, and free medical treatment at the best hospitals. The list is long.

Title: An Alternative Development Agenda for India

Author: Sanjay Kaul

Publisher: Routledge

Price: ₹1,295