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Taking Notes from the Past

No matter how hard you try, you cannot make the society move faster than it wants to

Mutual Fund Insight is now ten years old. Ten years is a long time in history; for that matter, even ten days or ten hours is a long time. It took the rebellious French less than ten days to get rid of their king and queen and start a revolution. In Russia, Lenin & Co took much less than that.

A lot can happen in ten years, and often does. And no matters how hard we try we never know what is going to happen. Did anyone know four years ago that the global economy would collapse and millions of people would be thrown out of jobs? Did anybody predict that the four Arab dictators would be dethroned and one of them would lose, literally, his head? And all this in just ten months, not ten years? Fifty years ago, some people (and some institutes) had made quite a habit of trying to predict the future, and given it the high-sounding name of futurology. All over the world, futurologists – which sounds better than astrologers – were busy making forecasts, and some even used computers, crude as they may be, to do their sums.

When I first came to Delhi, I got involved in some sort of a similar organisation called the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER). There were about twenty of us, but some people in the government did not like what we were up to. One of them was an economist called Manmohan Singh, who told us we were wasting our time. Since I was an engineer by training, I was asked to work on energy, a hot subject at the time. Being a conservative person I never really believed you could predict the future. I believe that the society moves along at its own pace, and no matter how hard you try, you can not really make it move faster than it does or would like to. India, for historical reasons, is a slow moving country, and no planning commission in the world can make it go faster. Everybody said I was wrong, and quite probably I was.

Our boss at the time was a famous economist and had worked in the UN, a rare thing at the time. He said that we should decide at what pace we should move forward and work backwards. This is what the Russians had done, and look where they are now. Since my job was at stake, I played dumb, but my heart was not in it. I said that if you wish India to grow at 10-15 per cent, good luck to you, but it is not my cup of tea. India may indeed grow at 10-15 per cent, but only for a while, after which it will either go back to its natural rate of 5-6 per cent or just implode. My bosses didn’t like it at all.

In my report, I worked out our energy needs, and how much coal, oil we would need, etc. I also said, in passing, that the share of atomic energy would be negligible, may be 2 or 3 per cent of the total, because, with all that coal under our feet, we would not really need it. This was heresy and I was hauled over the coals, if I may use the expression. How dare someone say such a thing, while the whole world throbbed with nuclear energy, and, in India itself, the government had decided to spend thousand of crores on new atomic power stations, which would eventually replace coal-fired power plants and make India an ultra-modern country! Scientists like Homi Bhabha, a nuclear scientist of international fame, were powerful men and had the ear of the prime minister himself. And it is these people I had taken on, or tried foolishly to do so.

For some reason, nothing really came of it, after a great deal of noise. My main point was that things have their own pace, and you cannot push them beyond a point. Soviet Russia moved at reckless speed after its much vaunted revolution and look what happened? The country imploded and disappeared from the sight. I have a feeling China is in for the same fate, which isn’t a bad thing, at least for its people. Ultimately, it is they who suffer, not the rulers! I do not know what is going to happen in the next ten years, though I have a fairly reasonable idea. In India, the more things change, the more they remain the same. India may change, and so will Mutual Fund Insight, insha-allah, but Indians, will remain the same – a sceptical, good-humoured, highly cultured race, that has not changed in the past thousand years!