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You cannot see the world in silos: Sanjeev Sanyal

In part one of the conversation, the member of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister talks about the unconventional 'other narrative' influencing India's history, economy, and geopolitical ties

Neha Bothra
Published: Jul 10, 2023 03:55:08 PM IST
Updated: Jul 10, 2023 04:10:46 PM IST

You cannot see the world in silos: Sanjeev SanyalSanjeev Sanyal, member of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister (EAC-PM) Image: Madhu Kapparath
Sanjeev Sanyal, member of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister (EAC-PM), is one of Asia's leading economists, historian, writer, environmentalist, and an urban theorist. In an exclusive and wide-ranging conversation on Forbes India Pathbreakers, Sanyal explains why and how complexity theory is the starting point of his intellectual framework. He presents the unconventional "other narrative" in critical areas relating to India's history, economy, geopolitical ties, and environmental challenges.

“There is an underlying framework in much of what I say, and I described it in many of my writings. It is called the complexity theory. The fundamental idea behind the complexity theory is that as the world evolves it is buffeted by a whole range of factors. These can be the actions of individual people, socio-economic forces, technology, geopolitics, etc. So, the entire idea is that you cannot see the world in silos,” Sanyal says. Edited excerpts:

On socialism

I was influenced a lot by the fact that I grew up in a communist ruled Kolkata, and witnessed first-hand the decline of the city under communist rule. In many ways that strongly influenced how I view the world. When I was at university in Delhi, I witnessed the breakdown of our economy, the reforms of 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union, etc. So, if you look at the way I see the world, you will see there is always a strain of suspicion about socialism and the state.

On the missing gaps in history

One of the things that I always felt reading my school text books—many of you suffered through the same ones—is how it doesn’t quite all make sense. First of all, it didn’t seem to have anything to do with me. I grew up in Kolkata in a family that had quite a role to play in India’s freedom struggle. But the whole story that we learnt in our text books seemed to have nothing to do with them. It seemed to be about Mughals in Delhi and mostly about invaders who ruled over India and I always wondered where on earth my story was.

This must be true of many other Indians. There are parts of the country that are not even mentioned. Like the northeast or Goa. I think there is a disjunction a lot of Indians feel about history, an angst that I myself felt. At one point, I began to do my own research, and I discovered that there is a lot of history and information. Actually, the sad part is that much of this history is lying around for one to find out and even amateur scratching will allow you to find a lot of this information everywhere.

Also read: Why India will replace China as the world's growth engine this decade

On India’s maritime neighbours

We are the only country that has an ocean named after us. We have a very long coastline and a very long and illustrious maritime history of exploration, trade, and the spreading of ideas, and so on. Sadly, after independence, we have started to have a very continental land-locked view. When we think of our neighbours, we always think of our friendly neighbour to the west and also perhaps our equally friendly neighbour to our northeast. That just tends to be the neighbours we think of.
But if you take a maritime view, we have totally different neighbours. Of course, there are the near ones like Sri Lanka, but you can also think of Indonesia as a neighbour. Or Singapore, or Oman, UAE, east coast of Africa, even Australia is a neighbour. Unfortunately, people have a mental image of Australia as a pacific country but in fact it is also an Indian Ocean country.

I think this is important at multiple levels. We have very long cultural links to many of these countries. Indonesia is called Indonesia- named after us. Its national symbol is the Garuda—Vishnu’s Garuda. Its currency is rupiah. Then there is Singapore. Till the 1960s, the currency used in many of these countries was the Indian rupee. We should stop thinking of the world in this land-locked way because unfortunately it then locks our own world view unnecessarily. A maritime view is fluid, it allows us to build interesting linkages with all these countries and others as well. I think that is something we are beginning to do, finally, in the last few years, and it has borne results.  

On China’s rising hostility  

We need to take into account the fact that China has emerged as a powerful force in the world as an economy and [is] assertive militarily too. But the problem is that in recent times, last 5-6 years, the Chinese have been much more belligerent on various fronts. Belligerent with us on our own border, but also threatening other neighbours, like Taiwan for example. This is something that we do need to take into account in our calculations.

This is not to suggest that we want to go to war with them or that we will not trade with them. They are a part of the global supply chain so we will participate, trade, and compete with them, and also collaborate with them where our own interests coincide. But that does not mean that we will be blind to the fact that China- particularly an undemocratic China- can be a geostrategic challenge. We will make arrangements and protect our interests. Where necessary we will consequently build alliances of various kinds, Quad is the most obvious one.

On world population

Demographics is a very important driver of many things and is much under-appreciated. Over a decade ago I began to make the point that the world’s population—unlike what the UN and others are drumming up—is going to turn a lot earlier than anyone expects. My argument was that in the late 2050s or early 2060s the world population will stop growing and before the end of the century it will be shrinking quite quickly.

For many individual countries this is already happening, like in China. We shouldn’t be surprised. This is also going to be the case with India. We are now going into the next quarter of a century that will be the ‘demographic dividend’ period or the ‘golden age’ where our dependency ratios will be declining and a large proportion of our population will be in the working age and we should hopefully be able to use that.

But do remember that we also are ageing and from around the middle of the century we will also have an ageing population and our population will begin to shrink somewhat later. I make this point because this will have a big influence in how the world dynamics work. We need to prepare for these changes which simply does not seem to occur in the calculations of policymakers anywhere in the world in the way it should.

(Don’t miss part two of the conversation as Sanjeev Sanyal talks about the state of the Indian economy)

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