Browse Archives

By Category

By Date


My Friend Sancho

My first novel, My Friend Sancho, is now on the stands across India. It is a contemporary love story set in Mumbai, and was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008. To learn more about the book, click here.


To buy it online from the US, click here.


I am currently on a book tour to promote the book. Please check out our schedule of city launches. India Uncut readers are invited to all of them, no pass required, so do drop in and say hello.


If you're interested, do join the Facebook group for My Friend Sancho


Click here for more about my publisher, Hachette India.


And ah, my posts on India Uncut about My Friend Sancho can be found here.


Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner

Category Archives: WSJ Pieces

India’s New Role Models

This piece of mine was published today in the Wall Street Journal Asia.

Twenty years ago, no one could have imagined that four of the 10 richest chief executives in the world could be Indian. But Forbes recently released a top-10 list showing how much India has changed. Lakshmi Mittal, the steel tycoon, was ranked second, followed by Mukesh Ambani (sixth), Anil Ambani (seventh) and Azim Premji (ninth); Warren Buffett came in first.

One can quibble with how the list was compiled, but there is no doubt that India has become a force in the world of business. The leading bidders for Jaguar and Land Rover are the Indian automobile companies Tata Motors on one hand, and Mahindra and Mahindra on the other. In 2006, Mr. Mittal brought the European steel behemoth, Arcelor, into his empire. Last year, the Tata Group took over Britain’s Corus, another large producer of steel.

Just as significant as the success of Indian businessmen abroad is a shift in the way they are viewed at home: The biggest names in Indian business are among the biggest heroes of India. The society pages of newspapers show them at parties, the gossip columns feature them, and young men and women name them as their icons, even as those youths prepare for their own MBA entrance exams.

It wasn’t always like this. In the early decades of our independence, businessmen were not looked upon highly. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, famously once told the business tycoon J.R.D. Tata that “profit” was “a dirty word.” Indian films routinely portrayed businessmen as evil capitalists out to exploit the poor. Ironically for a country that was so poor, the pursuit of wealth was looked upon with suspicion.

Mr. Mittal had to leave India to build his empire. Dhirubhai Ambani, Mukesh and Anil’s father, built his business by manipulating the system in the finest traditions of cronyism. The businesses that did exist were protected from competition by the high entry barriers placed by the government, at the cost of consumers.

All this changed when India liberalized in 1991. As India opened up to the world, its entrepreneurs sprang into action. The middle class grew, the quality of life in cities improved, and tens of thousands of young men and women went abroad as the software industry boomed. Indians realized that free enterprise was providing them with the opportunities they had lacked in the socialist years.

Consider that earlier this year, Ratan Tata, the successor to J.R.D. Tata’s empire and the chief of Tata Motors, unveiled the Nano—a car expected to retail for approximately $2,500. Some complained about the increase in pollution that it might cause, and other worried that it would add to traffic congestion in big cities. But most of India applauded.

Mr. Tata’s ingenuity and vision will bring vehicle ownership within reach of millions of people who could otherwise have never dreamed of it, and it demonstrates what business does best—improve the lives of people, and help them fulfill their dreams, all in the quest of that “dirty word,” profit.

The heroes of the old India were film stars, cricket players and, perhaps, freedom fighters and politicians. The heroes of the new India include businessmen. In 2003, when MTV India held a poll among its predominantly young viewers to pick the Icon of the Year, Anil Ambani won. The people he beat included filmstar Shah Rukh Khan and cricket hero Sachin Tendulkar.

India’s successful businessmen, even as they enter lists such as the one compiled by Forbes, embody the hopes of their country more than their elected government possibly can. India is finally beginning to give them their due.

*  *  *

For more such pieces by me, check out my Essays and Op-Eds archive.

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 February, 2008 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | WSJ Pieces


How Not to Help India’s Rural Poor

This Op-Ed of mine was published in the Wall Street Journal Asia today.

Politics is often about grand gestures, and the Congress Party’s 37-year-old new general secretary, Rahul Gandhi, understands this perfectly. Shortly after landing his position last month, Mr. Gandhi demanded that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh extend a massive cash redistribution scheme, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), to all 593 districts of the country. Mr. Singh duly assented.

If this is an indication of Mr. Gandhi’s power—and how he might use it in future—it’s not encouraging. The NREGA was enacted early last year by the Congress-led coalition. The act guarantees the government will provide 100 days of work every year to every rural household in India—there are no reliable figures on exactly how many of these there are—at an estimated total cost of $3 billion before the newly announced expansion. First launched in 200 districts, it was expanded to another 130 in the last fiscal year.

As expected, NREGA has proved little more than a siphon for corrupt bureaucrats, not a boon to the poor. And now, there are numbers to back up that assertion.

Last month, the Delhi-based Society for Participatory Research in Asia, a non-profit organization, released a preliminary study on NREGA’s governance. The results are shocking. In the financial year beginning in April 2006, only 6% of the households registered under the scheme actually received their 100 days of employment. PRIA’s study also cited shoddy implementation practices across 14 of India’s 28 states. In the surveyed villages, only 45% of registered households had even applied for work under the scheme. And of those households that had applied for a job, only 44% had received one within the required 15 days.

PRIA’s results mirror the findings of another study carried out by the Centre of Environment and Food Security earlier this year. The CEFS study focused on the state of Orissa, and found that about 75% of the funds spent in Orissa had been “siphoned and pocketed by the government officials.” “We could not find a single case where entries in the job cards are correct and match with the actual number of workdays physically verified with the villagers,” the study noted. Out of a total $187 million in public monies spent in the state during the 2006-2007 fiscal year, around $127 million was effectively stolen.

This kind of wastage shouldn’t come as a great surprise. India’s bureaucrats hold effectively tenured positions, and are often unaccountable to the public they serve. Their incentives are tailored only toward increasing their power and their budgets. Government is not transparent, and most common citizens do not contemplate legal recourse against it, as the legal system is dysfunctional and the rule of law is weak.

Instead of promising government jobs to agricultural workers, India’s government could do far greater good by stimulating competition—and investment—in rural India. As it is, government too often gets in the way. For example, one law limits the geographic area in which farmers can sell their produce, and some states require farmers to sell to monopolist distributors. Another law restricts produce shipments across state lines. Topping it all off, India is one of the biggest defenders of market-distorting agricultural tariffs in the World Trade Organization’s Doha Round negotiations.

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act is symbolic of everything that’s wrong with India’s approach to economic reform. What’s needed is not grand gestures and more handouts, but a comprehensive review of how to stimulate private investment and entrepreneurship. Mr. Gandhi should understand that there is no better guarantee of employment than economic growth.

*  *  *

Also read: My Op-Ed in WSJ two years ago about the NREGA, Good Intentions, Bad Ideas.

Posted by Amit Varma on 18 October, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | WSJ Pieces


Indian Idolatry

This piece of mine has been published today in the Wall Street Journal Asia. (Subscription link.) It was written on Monday, before Sanjaya Malakar got voted off American Idol.

By the time you read this, Sanjaya Malakar might well have been voted off of American Idol. If so, you won’t hear many groans of disappointment from India. Mr. Malakar, a 17-year-old of Indian and Italian descent, has mostly slipped below the radar here. But if he continues to capture the attention of millions of Americans the Indian media will change its tune, and not out of a newfound appreciation of Mr. Malakar’s singing ability. More likely, the local press will celebrate him as an Indian talent applauded by the West.

Hardly anyone here watches the American Idol singing competion, which is telecast on Star World, an English-language channel that, in India at least, caters to the elite. The domestic media have mentioned Mr. Malakar, now a finalist in the competition, just a handful of times, and that too in the context of the derision he has received in America. The dearth of media chatter here almost certainly results from the fact that the American press doesn’t have too many good things to say about him.

Of course, India has plenty of its own celebrities to gush over, some of them even less talented than the young Sanjaya. India produces more films than any other country in the world. Products from Bollywood (the Hindi film industry), Kollywood (the Tamil film industry) and Tollywood (the Telugu and Bengali film industries both claim that title) have audiences many orders of magnitude larger than those of the few Hollywood films that actually get released here. Successful music albums in local languages, mainly film soundtracks, sell in the millions, while the best a Western album can achieve is a few thousand. Indian Idol, the local version of the American show (which is itself an import to the U.S. from the U.K.), inspires national debate and heartbreak, while most people have probably not seen American Idol even once.

But even with this flourishing pop culture, many Indians still crave validation from the West. We see this every year before the Oscars, when a national soap opera unfolds surrounding which film will be chosen to be India’s entry for the foreign-language film category. (Only three Indian entries have ever been nominated, and none has won.)

Read more...

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 April, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Journalism | WSJ Pieces


Bollywood hails the free market

A version of my piece below was published on January 19, 2007 in the Wall Street Journal as “Bollywood’s New Capitalist Hero.” (Subscription link.) It was also posted on India Uncut. It isn’t meant to be a review of “Guru”, towards which I have mixed feelings, but a comment on one aspect of it.

Who would ever have thought that one of the villains of a Bollywood film could be import duty? “Guru”, the latest Bollywood blockbuster by the respected director Mani Ratnam, is that rare film—perhaps Bollywood’s first—in which free markets are lauded as a force for good. Aliens emerging from the Taj Mahal would be less surprising.

Read more...

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Essays and Op-Eds | WSJ Pieces


Why India needs school vouchers

This piece of mine was published on January 15, 2007 as an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal Asia. (Subscriber link.) It was also posted on India Uncut.

On India’s Republic Day, January 26, the New Delhi-based Centre for Civil Society will launch a campaign for school choice. It’s an apt day for the event. While India’s constitution guarantees universal and free education, the government has utterly failed that mission. It’s time to encourage the private sector to step in.

Read more...

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | WSJ Pieces


Fighting against censorship

A version of this piece by me was published on October 3, 2006 in the Wall Street Journal as “India’s Censorship Craze.” (Subscription link.) It was also posted on India Uncut.

American pop icon Paris Hilton corrupts Indian minds. That, at least, is the fear held by mandarins of Indian culture. So they’ve barred television channels in India from airing Ms. Hilton’s new music video, “Stars Are Blind,” in yet another example of the censorship fever sweeping the country.

Read more...

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | WSJ Pieces


Empowerment, not slavery

A version of this piece by me was first published on November 8, 2005 in the Wall Street Journal as “Self-Delusion.” (Subscription link.) It was also posted on India Uncut and the Indian Economy Blog.

Organized slavery ended decades ago, but to go by the criticism of some leftist commentators in India, one would imagine that it is alive and flourishing in the world’s largest democracy.

Recently it has become especially fashionable to hit out at call centers, or business processing outsourcing (BPO) units as they are officially known. A study published by an institute that comes under India’s Labor Ministry compared conditions in Indian BPO outfits with those of “Roman slave ships.” Chetan Bhagat, the author of a new book set in one such unit, “One Night @ The Call Center,” recently claimed that call centers are “corroding a generation.” It is common, almost clichéd, to hear call-center workers referred to as “cyber-coolies.”

Read more...

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | WSJ Pieces


The kidnapping of India

A version of my piece below was first published onOctober 5, 2005, in the Asian Wall Street Journal (subscription link). It was also posted on India Uncut and the Indian Economy Blog

Imagine this scenario: someone kidnaps a child and, for decades, maims and exploits him. Then, in a sudden revelation, we learn that the kidnapper was once under the pay of a branch of the mafia that is now defunct. There is instant outrage, and everyone condemns the crime. “How could you have taken money from the mafia?” they ask.

Read more...

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | WSJ Pieces


Good intentions, bad ideas

A version of my piece below was first published on September 15, 2005 in the Asian Wall Street Journal (subscription link). It was also posted on India Uncut and the Indian Economy Blog.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions—and nobody knows that better than India’s poor. There can be no better intention than removing poverty but, for more than half a century, a well-intentioned and bloated state has only perpetuated it with misguided policies and regulations. And New Delhi still hasn’t learned from these mistakes. The Indian government is soon to embark on perhaps the grandest waste of taxpayers’ money yet: the Rural Employment Guarantee Bill.

Read more...

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | WSJ Pieces


When it pours

A shorter version of my piece below was published on August 5, 2005, in the Asian Wall Street Journal. It was also posted on India Uncut.

One moment you are connected to the world in a global hub of the worldwide village; the next, the lights go off, the phone networks cease to function, and the water rises outside, creeping up on cars and first-floor apartments like an insidious idea. What does it take to shut down South Asia’s financial capital, Bombay? A few hours of rain, that’s all.

Read more...

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | WSJ Pieces


The myth of India’s liberalization

The piece below by me was published on June 16, 2005 as an Op-Ed in the Asian Wall Street Journal, titled “India’s Far From Free Markets” (subscription link). It was also posted on India Uncut.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is due to visit Washington in a few weeks, and editorialists and commentators have already started writing about the emerging economic power of India. New Delhi’s decision to start liberalizing its economy in 1991 is touted as a seminal event in India’s history, the moment when it threw off the shackles of Fabian socialism and embraced free markets. It is the stuff of myth—and to a large extent, it is exactly that.

Read more...

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | WSJ Pieces


Page 1 of 1 pages