Principal Economic Adviser Sanjeev Sanyal
Principal Economic Adviser Sanjeev Sanyal in an exclusive conversation with BTVI’s Executive Editor Siddharth Zarabi, talks extensively about his latest book 'India in the Age of Ideas', rich values India has adopted, Kashmir conflict, Hinduism vs Hindutva, RBI’s rate cut, problem of data collection, economic data figures, food vs non-food inflation, farmers’ problems, population growth aspect, about the need for scheme like DBT for farmers, pension for older people, and much more.
Here is the full transcript of the conversation.
Siddharth Zarabi: How would you explain about your book in a nutshell?
Sanjeev Sanyal: It is an article on all kinds of subjects. The various things that I explored find place in this book. First, I gathered my articles, put them into three separate sections – history & culture, urban issues, and economics. All the sections are not separate from each other. There is a philosophical framework theme which runs through all these sections. Basically, I have looked at all these sections from philosophical perspective. I used complexity theory. This is widely used now in natural and social sciences, sadly not in India. If you look at Hinduism, it is a complex adaptive system. It is a continuously evolving system. Ironically, we have been captured by rigid, reductionist Newtonian world view. That’s why we like socialist planning. I am against the thinking that ‘we must have Chandigarh-like must-planned city’. Designing a city should be organic since it is evolving. The future of urban planning in India is not building anymore Chandigarhs, because such plans have not worked, but in managing Gurgam.
Siddharth Zarabi: I want to come back to architecture of Hinduism. In the present context, lot of conflict is in the ‘intelligentsia’ about Hiduism. Lot of followers are caught between the Hinduism vs Hindutva debate. How would you define the current debate. When you talk about Hinduism, are you going against the constitutional concept of a secular state? Or, is it a natural state to be in?
Sanjeev Sanyal: My view is having this debate itself is a problem. There is an idea of India and then there is an idea of what Hinduism is. The whole point of complex adaptive approach is that simultaneously there are many ways of thinking about India. India is the nation state as it exists today. India is also a civilisation. India is also Bharat. The Constitution starts by saying ‘India that is Bharat’. It is not the case that ‘India’ and ‘Bharat’ are exactly the same. Otherwise, they would not have used the term. There are different views of what India is – the geographical idea of India, there is nation state of modern India, there is civilisation idea, historical idea and so on and so forth and they have changed over time. Borders evolved. In ancient time, we considered south east Asia as part of India.
Siddharth Zarabi: What about a place like Kashmir and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir which were predominantly Hindu. But, they have become Muslims regions now.
Sanjeev Sanyal: These ideas are all interlinked and evolving. They cannot be separated. Due to sayings like ‘there is an idea of India’, ‘there is idea of Hinduism’ ‘there is an idea of Hindutva’, Hinduism and Hindutva are at conflict. Actually there are many ideas of India and they are all valid.
Siddharth Zarabi: Indonesia is at comfort with its past. It is the most populous Muslim nation in the world. There are sporadic radical issues there. But, why is that we are facing sovereignty issue with respect to what is happening in Kashmir? Why is it so? Is it because we are far younger in Kashmir compared with Indonesia?
Sanjeev Sanyal: Indonesia is comfortable because they have accepted Indianness or Hindu past. A friend of mine who is an Indonesian Muslim described it ‘we have changed the way we have worshipped, but we have not changed our ancestors’. That is why Indonesia became independent. Its currency is Rupiya. Its national symbol is Garuda which is Vishnu’s Garuda. If you look at its army, navy and air force, all have Sanskrit slokas as their moto. And, they are proud about it. If you take Kashmir, there is large population which accepts and imbibes Kashmiriyat, Indianness including Hinduism.
Siddharth Zarabi: Why do some people profess radical Islam idea, in some parts of Kashmir, Kerala, West Bengal?
Sanjeev Sanyal: There are all sorts of radical ideas in our country – from Maoism, to jihadism to many other things. But, this should not mean that we should say that is the only defining way of thinking about something. Let us not take the extreme. What we have here is the boiling, changing, organic milieu. Islam too has an important role to play. And, Kashmiriyat has an important role to play. They all intersect at multiple levels. That is the point I am making. This attempt by our neighbouring country to try and foist trouble in Kashmir is essentially a deliberate attempt at uni-dimensional identity. They have tried it in the past and their own country got divided into two. There are many conflicts within Pakistan as a result of such uni-dimensional idea. I am making a point for pluralism.
Siddharth Zarabi: Will this organic bubbling mix, which is ‘sarva samaveshi’, absorb radical thoughts? Or, do you see civilisational clash happening?
Sanjeev Sanyal: We have imbibed many ideas from rest of the world. Just think about English now being spoken in India. Basically, the English language has become has been adopted by Indians. We may now have the second largest English speaking population in the world. As Karl Popper and many other philosophers have pointed out, tolerance cannot be extended indefinitely to the intolerant. There has to be a hard edge somewhere and that edge has to be done to those who are professed intolerant ideologies that do not allow for this pluralism. You have to draw a limit of any ideology. We cannot extend tolerance to the intolerant.
Siddharth Zarabi: There is opposition to the demand for construction grand Ram Temple. Where does this opposition emanate from? Is it purely political? Or, does it fall into religious identity civilisational aspect?
Sanjeev Sanyal: There is a Constitutional, legal aspect to it. There is civilisational aspect to it. There is political aspect to it. These things cannot be separated from each other. We need to account for change. I am for mix and match. I object to one idea of India, master-planning cities. You cannot understand economy of a country unless you understand its politics, its institutions, its history and the interactions between all of these.
Siddharth Zarabi: Our monetary policy committee has undertaken what some people call u-turn. People are asking when will banks reciprocate and pass on the benefits to consumers? We have also seen controversy over job data. What is it that we lack as a system?
Sanjeev Sanyal: I look at data closely. I don’t get captured by models. One of the real problems of economics is economists often began to think that they models are reality and that actual events are errors. When models systematically make errors, we need to take it with pinch of salt, but actually real evolution of data has to be what drives thinking. My contention is ‘there was no inflation in India’. Even the measured inflation which is at 2% may be overstating the case. There is large scale decline in real estate prices in India and is it not getting fully captured.
Siddharth Zarabi: Why decline in real estate prices in India is not getting captured?
Sanjeev Sanyal: There are issues with data.
Siddharth Zarabi: Is it a systemic problem?
Sanjeev Sanyal: There is administrative systemic problem. The problem is we take models more seriously than the data we feed into it.
Siddharth Zarabi: Nothing to do with foreign educated economists at the helm?
Sanjeev Sanyal: No, not at all. We have problem with data collection. Our economy is going through rapid changes. This means that any series we create starts with baseline. So, any framework we are taking is rapidly becoming irrelevant. Why do we have this debate on food and non-food inflation? Food deals with spikes caused by problem of supply shocks, hailstorm. We are structurally producing more food than we could possibly eat. Population growth in India is rapidly slowing. Our population is growing because we are living longer, not because we are having so many children.
Siddharth Zarabi: And, when international prices are collapsing, you cannot export whatever little you could.
Sanjeev Sanyal: This is a structural problem in the system. It is not spike problem. It is impact the farming community. Structural problems are causing a spike. We need to look at it. Farmers are borrowing at 12-13 per cent and hence they need support, whether in the form of low interest rates or DBT.
Siddharth Zarabi: What do you mean by ‘end of population growth’ and the consequences of it 5-10 years down the line?
Sanjeev Sanyal: It will be surprising to note that in large parts of the country, fertility rate is below replacement rate. The average woman is producing fewer children than is needed to stabilise the population.
Siddharth Zarabi: Is it the same for economically well-off states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu?
Sanjeev Sanyal: It has spread all over. You have many North Indian states, Punjab, Himachal and so on. There is significant decline in birth rates. I think the number of children per woman is about 2.2. This is to keep our population stable. And, given the trends we currently have, it is likely to fall significantly below that level in the next decade. Population growth will not completely collapse because we are also living longer. Adjusted to that, our population growth will be positive for some period of time. Therefore, we need to think about many things in a completely different way. There are many parts in the country where we have stopped building more schools because there are not enough children. So, we have to consolidate schools. There are also ghost villages. They have migrated out. Schools should be combined so that they become sustainable. May be needed more in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar but not everywhere. We also need to think about giving pension schemes because the number of older people is also growing. We need to think about such issues much more seriously. The budget we put in family planning needs to be diverted now towards infant mortality and health of mothers and infants.