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My main goal in writing this book is to contribute to accelerating India’s development and thereby improve the lives of over 1.4 billion people in the coming years.

This book is based on over twenty years of studying, discussing, researching, thinking, writing, teaching, and advising on how governments can improve citizens’ lives through better policymaking and governance. It aims to contribute to: (a) academic and intellectual discourse on development, (b) public communication and education on critical topics that affect public welfare, and (c) more effective governance in India.

Its main academic contribution is to synthesize research insights over the last twenty years to argue that investing in ‘state capacity’ for better policymaking, implementation, and public service delivery should be a top priority for India. This view reflects years of work across public finance, education, health, early childhood development, and welfare programmes – spanning nearly every Indian state. A recurring theme in this work is that weak state capacity is a critical binding constraint to achieving national development goals. So, the first half of this book focuses on how we can build a more effective Indian state, and the second half on how we can accelerate India's development. This sequencing reflects my assessment that the first is essential for the second. 

While the book is rooted in economics, it includes insights and perspectives from ethics, politics, sociology, psychology, and management. Further, the empirical evidence it draws on is mainly from the last two decades. So, while some ideas in this book may be familiar to those trained in the corresponding fields, the synthesis is new and original. I therefore hope that it will be useful to scholars, practitioners, teachers, and students across social science disciplines, development studies, and public policy.

Beyond its intellectual contributions, a primary goal of this book is to make research insights and key concepts widely accessible. Well-informed and engaged citizens are essential for effective democracy. Further, governance and policy are too important for public welfare to be shrouded in mystery and jargon. So, the book is written at a level that any college student or graduate in any field can comprehend, with extended notes and references for those seeking deeper understanding. It aims to present complex and interconnected ideas in clearly written and accessible language, while being mindful of Einstein’s advice that: ‘Everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.’

This advice explains the length of this book, which is needed to do justice to the task it takes on. Each chapter offers a concise synthesis of complex issues that could easily warrant a full book. Further, splitting the book into two volumes would not work, as the two halves are deeply interconnected. So, I urge readers to not be deterred by the book’s length, and to approach it as an engaging novel that takes you on a journey to understand the functioning of the Indian state, and offers insights on how to make it more effective and thereby accelerate both growth and human development.

Finally, a key feature of this book is that it provides both a conceptual and a practical roadmap for India’s next 25 years with several implementable ideas that policymakers can act on. It discusses not just what we need to do, but also how we can do it, while considering political, bureaucratic, social, judicial, and fiscal constraints. This practical focus aligns with the fact that the primary goal for my research and policy engagement over the years has been to improve government functioning. This motivation reflects the complexity, importance, and wide-ranging impact of government actions, especially for the poor and marginalized. So, the book’s approach combines that of a scholarly ‘scientist’ seeking to better understand the world, and a practical ‘engineer’ aiming to apply scientific understanding to solve real-world problems; while also using ethical reasoning to identify what problems we should focus on.

The practical ideas in this book have been shaped and honed by over a decade of interactions with officials at the Planning Commission, NITI Aayog, and in finance and line departments in both central and state governments. They also reflect the iterative learning enabled by my role as Co-founder and Scientific Director of the Centre for Effective Governance of Indian States (CEGIS), a non-profit organization that has been working with multiple state governments across India since late 2019 to improve governance and service delivery. They also focus on state-level reform ideas, which increases the chances that at least some of them will be tried, following which they can be rapidly replicated if successful and fine-tuned or dropped if not.

Overall, this book reflects a lifelong intellectual and practical journey that combines ethics, economics, and politics. It uses ethics to inform the moral goals we should aim to achieve as a society. It uses economic reasoning and evidence to suggest ideas that can accelerate our ability to achieve these moral goals within our resource constraints, and can relax these constraints over time by promoting faster economic growth. Finally, it pays careful attention to political incentives and to the distributional consequences of policies, and tries to present reform ideas that can obtain broad coalitions of political support. Thus, the book aims to provide a roadmap that combines idealism and pragmatism to build a brighter future for all Indians.

To conclude on a personal note, I feel privileged to be an academic whose main job is to think, write, and teach; and to have been able to spend around half my time on this project for nearly five years. This book is my attempt to pay it forward by contributing ideas to accelerate India’s development journey. The writing process has been exhausting and overwhelming at times, but has mostly been joyful and rewarding. I hope readers will mainly experience the latter feeling as they engage with the book!

Karthik Muralidharan

Januray 2024, Chennai - India

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