Chief economic advisor turns literature guide at lecture

Novels and reportages are vivid with details that can paint an informed picture about a country or a society. Arvind Subramanian, chief economic advisor, was first struck by this after writing a paper on Mauritius. Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain and V S Naipaul have all written about the place. Both Twain and Nobel-winner Le Clezio describe the hurricanes that used to ravage the island in the 1800s. “I learnt a much better sense of vulnerability of the place after reading them,” said Subramanian.

If one holds the theory that geography determines the fate of nations, literature is aplenty on it, whether it is ‘The Leopard’ by Giuseppe Di Lampedusa or ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ by Jared Diamond, said Subramanian.

“My theory is that what determines a nation’s development is how much social friction is there and how well it is managed,” he said. Abundance of resource can be curse, as in parts of India, while unfettered foreign aid could also change the fate of nations, as in Africa and Afghanistan. Zia Haider Rahman’s ‘In the Light of What We Know’ evokes what is wrong with foreign aid: “Advisors were numberless in Kabul like stray dogs in Mumbai,” he read out.

On the differences between India and China, Subramanian referred to journalist Katherine Boo’s ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity’ about life in the Annawadi slums where residents cannot move up in life despite working hard. “All economic development requires state to provide health, education, water, sanitation, security. The big difference between India and China is this,” he said

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