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The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India's New Gilded Age by James Crabtree

Published in July of 2018.

If you care about the future of higher ed, then you should care about India.

The reason comes down to demographics. India has about 1.3 billion people, half of which are under 25. By 2030 there will be about 140 million Indian’s between 18 and 23.  Not all of these young people will be college bound. Even if India achieves real GDP per capita of around $12,000 by that time, the country will still be too poor to send the majority of its young people to college.  Still, estimates are that India will need to create some 40 million new spaces for colleges students in the next few decades.

While we worry and fret the future of higher ed in the U.S., India’s higher education sector will be growing at rates that will make the post-World War II demographic / GI Bill / Sputnik U.S. higher ed boom look puny in comparison. This is why higher ed people should pay attention to India. Demographics.

That is why when a really good book about India comes along that higher ed people should buy it, read it, and talk about.

The Billionaire Raj is one of those excellent books. Don’t let the title fool you. Yes, the book starts out profiling Antilia, the world’s most expensive private home and the residences of Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man.  The Billionaire Raj is about the growth of India’s billionaire oligarchs.  The rise and lifestyles of India’s billionaires is a jumping off point to understanding the world of Indian politics, economics, and media.

This is as fine a book I’ve read about the rise and governing style of India’s 14th Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and the prospects for economic development and social growth under his leadership.  This is also the best book I’ve read about the changing media landscape in India.

James Crabtree, who today is an Associate Professor in Practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, was a Mumbai based reporter for the Financial Times when he wrote the book. He brings his sharp reporting skills and the perspective of a skeptical outsider to telling the story of economic and social change in India.

Until I read The Billionaire Raj I had not realized just how economically stratified India had become.  India resembles Brazil in its levels of wealth concentration. Indian billionaires tend to resemble Russian billionaires, in that many earned their fortunes not through creating value by starting new companies, but by gaining access from the state to natural resources (coal, gas, etc.) and regulated monopolies (alcohol, tobacco, etc.).

Crabtree argues that India is in the middle of an economic and social period that resembles the late 19th century U.S. Gilded Age.  He hopes that India can follow a similar path as the U.S., in transitioning to a Progressive Era of better government, responsible regulation, and more equitable economic growth.

As far as the prospects of any of that happening under the authoritarian leaning Modi, Crabtree is at best guardedly optimistic.  He thinks that India’s political democracy is on its side for responsible growth and reform.  But the problems of entrenched corruption, and the failure to invest adequately in infrastructure, will make it difficult for the country to reach its potential.

As always, I wish the author had spent more time on higher education. How India manages to pull of a transformation in its higher education system will be determine how far and how fast the country develops.

We all have a stake in supporting higher education in the world’s largest democracy.

What books about India do you recommend?

Are there any good books specifically about higher ed in India?

What are you reading?

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