One hundred and thirty thousand square kilometres. That's roughly the size of England. It is also, coincidentally, roughly the size of Tamilnadu. And while the former has 51 million people, the latter includes 62 million inhabitants, about 20% more - not a very big difference. Both states have hills, plains, a big port city, several medium-size towns, and thousands of villages.

One often hears it said that the country's large population is at the heart of many of its troubles, but doing the numbers, even in this back-of-the-envelope way, doesn't suggest anything of that sort. Clearly, there are many places in the world that are more crowded than most Indian states. Moreover, much of India, unlike a large portion of, say, China, is perfectly habitable, and arable land is plentiful throughout the subcontinent. Tamilnadu incidentally has a higher density of population than the average Indian state; Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh are far more 'empty'; if you were English and looking for a less populated place to move to, you might do just fine searching for solitude in one of Karnataka's coastal districts.

The problem is certainly not the population. But in an important way, it can still be said that it has to do with people. Here's how: some of the people don't think the rest of the people are even people. If India is to be a developed country, if Vision 2050 is to steer away from Tunnel Vision 2005, then there's a simple choice to be made. We've got to stop looking at yardsticks, and start looking at the people whose lives would be touched by measuring up to them.

I was reminded of this reading an article in the Indian Express earlier this summer by one of India's best-known CEOs. Coming home to Bangalore from Beijing, Nandan Nilekani despaired of the crumbling state of his hometown, and wondered if it would be too much to wish for an eight lane highway from the airport, and a special safe passage for bicycles, instead of the years-late flyovers holding us up without end. Certainly, that's doable, and knowing this is doable must make his despair all the more striking. I endure the years-late flyover he referred to daily myself, and am certain that Bangalore is years away from having a safe path for alternate commuters.

But what, really, is the problem? Is it infrastructure? Or could it be that there's something else to be answered along the way to getting there from here? The more compelling question, it seems to me, is not whether India can achieve the standards of prosperity - and accompanying comfort in public spaces - seen in the West, but whether this transformation is to be achieved by the application of technological and scientific capability, or by diligently tackling the great social and economic divides of our society. The difficulty isn't building either a bicycle path or an eight-lane highway; what's tough is ensuring that those passages serve the travelling needs of the majority. Or, more correctly, ensuring that we first build those passages that would serve the travelling needs of the majority.

The trouble is that too many development planners have simply disconnected progress from the people, and no amount of theorising can get around that.
 •  Rerouting the call of the needy
 •  Leadership by non-believers
The trouble is that too many development planners have simply disconnected progress from the people, and no amount of theorising can get around that. Ultimately, in a free society, the majority of the people will subscribe to ideas of change and progress that they find affordable, or else discard them. Hindutva stumbled hugely for this reason, in the sub-nationalist regions of Andhra, Tamilnadu, and Bengal, where the majority of the people cannot identify with the patent northern-dominated nationalism of the BJP, whatever its merits. These three states control one-fifth of Parliament; lose them the way the NDA did, and you can forget the Delhi Durbar .

The irony of ideas of development that focus so much on material progress is that it is this same standard - access to money - that they most readily ignore. Consider this simple question: what would be different if India were truly prosperous, and Vision 20-whatever actually came to pass? Here are some answers: all our children would go to school, all our roads would be perfectly well paved, corruption would be a thing of the past, and every family would have regular access to clean drinking water and safe sanitation. And so on. You can add a thousand other things to such a list; simply close your eyes, imagine the India of your dreams, and start writing down entries, and voila, it would quickly be apparent what would be so different from today.

But many of us can't wait for the whole nation to be prosperous. We want our progress now. A common enough sentiment. But let's look at some societies when there is limited prosperity for a few people, then. Argentina, Bolivia, South Africa, and examples of that sort. How frequently do these societies appear in our thoughts when we imagine a different future? Not very much; our dreams are nearly always of the sort of societies that the developed nations have built, not of twelve-lane arterials in town (they actually have one of these in Beunos Aires) where a few citizens whiz by in fancy cars and others pick through the trash by hand each evening after the offices close.

Really, all that is needed is to connect the dots between our own dreams and the methods we apply to achieve them. Where's the goal, and what's the plan to score? Public policy that addresses these questions as plainly as the aspirations appear to us can get the job done.

The risk, as we are seeing daily, is that various theories of how such progress can be attained tend to distract us from such a straightforward consideration. Such distractions are inevitable, but how we respond to them need not be. So, if the government proposes a grand housing plan with Rs 17,000 allocated for each new house, we can be skeptical enough to ask if that's really workable. If the government builds one high school for every six primary schools, we can ask ourselves if that's really going to put all the children in school up to graduation. If water is to be privatised, we can ask ourselves how those who cannot afford to pay fit into our dreams of progress. If the Bretton Woods institutions - the World Bank and the IMF - want reduced government spending on public services, we can ask how those without such services - say, health - would participate in Vision 2050.

There really is a way to account for population, in fact. The more people that benefit directly from our ideas of progress, the better those ideas are likely to be. With two noteworthy points: one, the ideas must not offer piece-meal progress, with one policy for each interest group, but inclusive notions applicable to everyone; and two, the benefit of these policies must be available directly to the people, not through trickle-down effects of first super-arming the rich. Direct access to a universal policy ensures that the toiling millions begin to see the Indian dream the way you or I already might.

A good example of such direct benefits to citizens are those that will flow if the new Employment Guarantee Bill, now in Parliament becomes law and is implemented in letter and spirit. All developed nations offer some kind of protection against joblessness to their citizens; indeed in those nations it is widely understood that such protection is one of the reasons why those nations are regarded as 'developed'. In India, on the other hand, one finds that the strongest advocates of economic growth are the ones most opposed to such a guarantee, and such benefits are scorned as unaffordable and too vulnerable to corruption, labels that are rarely attached to other budgetary largesse. The nation of their imaginations - rich, clean, orderly, etc. - is greatly disconnected from its people; they do not pause to ask how such a nation might come about if an enormous number of its citizens find no place for themselves in it.

A second good example would be the establishment of Common School Systems in the states. Decades of pursuing policies to ‘uplift’ the weaker sections have produced the world’s most illiterate democracy. This was always predictable, because the education of the poor was separated at birth from the education of the middle and upper classes. From that founding mistake, the rest of the litany was assured. The half-hearted attempts to force the good schools to accept some poor students as well were easily thwarted by the usual forces. If, instead, we had set out to ask how every Indian child could be educated by a system equally accessible to all, we might have done a lot better. Indeed, the experience of most East Asian nations – whose economic gains we yearn for, but whose social policies in pursuit of those gains we rarely examine – proves just this.

Having failed to embrace inclusive notions of nationhood, we are now embarked upon various missions of ‘reforms’ and ‘renewal’: electoral reforms to get more women into government, a national urban renewal mission to clean up the blighted mega-cities, education reforms to teach 21st-century science, and so on. Many of these efforts too are little more than tweaks at the margins of our failures, and not honest efforts to reground our society in the aspirations of the majority. Our unwillingness to do this is to our further detriment, whatever our pretensions to the contrary. Counting the worth of all the people when we make plans is important; it's the only way we can count on real progress.