Friday, 31 July 2015

Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam and his model of development

Dr. Devendra Kothari
Population and Development Analyst
Forum for Population Action

“He (Dr. Kalam) wanted India to leap out of the underdeveloped trough and eliminate the curse of poverty through inclusive economic growth.”
Narendra Modi 

Dr. Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen "A. P. J." Abdul Kalam became the 11th President of India on 25th July 2002. The country has never had a more beloved president. Active till the end, he left the world in mid-speech, as if to remind us that he still had something more to say. The shock of his sudden passing has left a nation bereaved. India mourns his death, but will long celebrate his life. He was an inspirational figure to millions of people including me. He passed away at the age of 83 on July 27, 2015.

Dr. Kalam always said, “Don’t stop trying”

India's "missile man", as he was dubbed in the popular press, Dr. Kalam was a rocket scientist who rose to prominence as head of the country's successful civilian space and missile defense programmes. He played a vital role in India's Pokran-II nuclear tests in 1998 and he was involved in India's space programmes and military missile development efforts. In addition, he took an interest in well-being of the country in the field of science and technology, during his tenure of Presidency and Post-Presidency. He also pioneered India Vision 2020, a road map for transforming India. 
In his life and his work, Dr. Kalam embodied the best of what India can be. He saw the future, and showed the way. His ideas are reflected in his writings, especially in the following books: "India 2020 - A Vision for the New Millennium", "Ignited Minds - Unleashing the power within India", “Target 3 Billion: Innovative Solutions Towards Sustainable Development”  and ”Beyond 2020: Vision for Tomorrow's India”.  These books have become household names in India.

In ‘India 2020: A Vision for the New Millennium’, published in 1998, Dr  Kalam and his  associate Y.S. Rajan examined India's strengths and weaknesses to offer a vision of how India could  be among the world's first five economic powers in the year 2020. 

But in 1998, the book was surprisingly ahead of its times. So authors published another version of the book after seventeen years in 2014 and called it: ‘Beyond 2020: Vision for Tomorrow's India’.[1]  It focuses on India’s future progress in the backdrop of the existing facts and figures and the present-day situation in the country. The authors argue that a renewed policy focus is now needed to boost economic growth.

Dr. Kalam’s greatest faith was the nation and its youth. Even in the final two hours of his life, he was sharing his ideas with students of the Rajiv Gandhi Indian Institute of Management, Shillong as how to develop this nation. In fact, he was an eternal believer in the power of the ignited mind of the youth – which he termed as most powerful, on the earth, above the earth and under the earth. To quote him: “our demographic advantage is derived from our huge youthful population, on whose health the future of India rests.” 

As we know that India has already entered the vital window of opportunity with a growing labor force; how she uses this potential demographic dividend will have enormous consequences for its long-run economic performance. Recently, World Bank‘s county report noted “How India develops its significant human potential and lays down new models for the growth ----- will largely determine the shape of the future for the country and its people in the years to come.” [2] Can India take advantage of this demographic window in the next couple of decades?

Here “Beyond 2020: Vision for Tomorrow's India” provides some inking. The book argues that   one has to enhance the productivity. Productivity, a measure of the efficiency of the human capital, can be measured by per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP). [3]  To quote authors: “Instead of just looking at the GDP figures we should look at GDP per capita as well. That is an indicator of  how much a country has empowered its people in terms of their ability to produce high-value goods, how much  wealth the individual citizen of a country creates, which of course depends on the work environment, the technologies a person is equipped with, his/her knowledge  and skill, etc.” They further write: “The GDP per capita standings are the true indicators of how much India has been able to empower its citizens”. Table 2 makes it clear how much progress India needs to make to be on a par with Brazil, China and even Indonesia. India has become the tenth largest economy in the world in terms of GDP that is the sum of total production by all the people of a country; however, has a very low per capita GDP. The country placed at the 148th position among the 187 countries, as per the World Bank. This is perhaps the most visible challenge. Table 1 shows that China’s GDP per capita value in 2013 was more than four and half times that of India.

            Table 1: Per capita GDP, selected Countries, 2013
World Rank
GDP per capita (In US$)
South Korea
S. Africa
Sri Lanka

Source:  World Bank National Account Data, 2013.

In sum, the main concern today is the impairment of human potential, which is not allowing India to reap its rich demographic dividend. Key human development indictors have stagnated.  

So what need to be done to unlock India’s potential? In other words, what should be agenda for human development?  No doubt, putting the economy back on track and reducing inflation should be the government’s first priority. However, for sustainable development it is equally important to focus on human capital. Central to the human development approach is the concept of capabilities. Basic capabilities valued by virtually everyone include: good health including reproductive health, access to knowledge, and a decent material standard of living. In my recent post, I argued that for far too long, India has been a chronic under-achiever relative to potential. Economic growth is not enough; it must be accompanied by structural transformation to unlock the human potential.[4]

It is high time that political parties and policy makers focus on improving people’s ability to earn more rather than dolling out subsidies that make people dependent on the political class and system. And that will be a true tribute to Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam.

[1] Kalam and Rajan. 2014.  Beyond 2020: Vision for Tomorrow's India, Penguin Books.

 [2] World Bank. India Country Overview 2013

[3] The measure is especially useful when comparing one country to another because it shows the relative performance of the countries. A rise in per capita GDP signals growth in the economy and tends to translate as an increase in productivity.

[4] See post by author:  “Growth with structural transformation: A development agenda for India” at: