India is known globally for the rise of its information-technology and software industry. Yet in this video interview, Yasheng Huang, a professor of global economics and management at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and essayist from Reimagining India: Unlocking the Potential of Asia’s Next Superpower (Simon & Schuster, November 2013), warns the country against becoming too dependent on those sectors. He argues India’s potential will only be realized if the country develops its manufacturing and services sectors, which requires labor-market reforms and significant investments in both education and social services. Without those, India will not only face growing social inequality but could also jeopardize its pipeline of college-ready students critical to the high-tech industry. What follows is an edited transcript of his remarks.
The key for India to move forward is: how do you maintain a healthy growth rate—which, I believe, is 5 percent, 6 percent—in this kind of adverse environment? I see labor reforms as the key. For a country with 1.2 billion people, you cannot grow just on the basis of software engineers and business-process operations.
You have to include the workers, the women, villagers, and the rural Indians into the growth machine. We’re talking about simple manufacturing. We’re talking about simple service-sector jobs that require basic reading, a little bit of math, functional capabilities. And labor regulations in India are killing those potentials. They don’t kill the IT, they don’t kill the high tech, but they do kill the blue-collar manufacturing jobs, which India needs the most.
The other area that would require more government intervention is in the social sector—health and education. If the government doesn’t provide health and education, nobody can come close to matching the government. And this is where you actually want more government intervention. You want more tax money to go in those sectors. And the Indian government is not able to collect enough taxes to spend on health and education; it is also constrained administratively and politically in terms of scaling up education.
If India doesn’t fix the problem of education—primary-education, first-tier education—they are going to undermine their success in the high-tech sector. The reason is very simple. The tertiary education requires a long pipeline of college-ready students. If you don’t fix your primary education, if you don’t fix your high school, primary school, you’re going to have a very narrow pipeline.
There are many analysts and scholars and observers who believe that India can skip this sort of normal, sequential economic-development model and leapfrog directly into the information age, the IT age. I think there are two kinds of leapfrogging, and one is more plausible than the other.
The leapfrogging in education, I do believe that there is a lot of potential there—the Khan Academy model of delivering educational content to villages and children in remote places, for example. You probably can leapfrog the brick-and-mortar education-provision model.
The leapfrogging view that is laid out by some observers, which is that you don’t need manufacturing, you just go directly into IT—there’s absolutely no evidence in support of that. The current struggles that India has now are actually related to the lack of manufacturing. The only way for a country of that size to have broad-based economic growth, to have sustained income growth, is to do those things that the majority of your population can do. It’s manufacturing; it’s not writing software codes.
My worry about India is that if you just have IT, if you just have software, business-process operations, you’re going to have an economy in which one part of the country, a very narrow slice of the country, does extremely well, leaving the vast majority behind in economic development and economic growth. Politically, I don’t think that’s a sustainable proposition. Economically, I think it’s very unhealthy to have the growth be so concentrated in just one or two areas and leaving the vast majority of the population behind.