The Case for India

Taj Mahal, Agra, India.

Image via Wikipedia

India bashing and trashing is an armchair sports that very many Indians indulge in, often during a casual chat with friends, relatives or colleagues in their living rooms over a drink or while commenting on articles online or during interactions in social networking sites.

Sure, there are areas in terms of infrastructure and amenities which need major investments and overhaul. It’s not easy in a centuries-old country, independent for only 60 years and often strapped for resources or funds to get everything needed done in a hurry. Certain shortcomings and constraints in places like London, Chicago or Amsterdam for example which folks living there take in their stride or gloss over generally are also relentlessly highlighted and pilloried, specially by the international media,  in the case of  major Indian metros.

Just when the criticism and the glare of negative publicity seemed to be getting tempered by the very many stories about India’s economic growth and arrival on the world stage as a major Asian and global power, along comes an event like the Commonwealth Games 2010, which, courtesy inept & corrupt officials  and disinterested bureaucrats who are more interested in protecting their own turf than in coordinating with each other, effectively turns into an unending disaster story.

In a way, the government’s and the Indian public sector’s efforts to conduct such events and showcase the nation to the world at large mostly becomes a tragi-comical endeavour. One is hard put to decide whether the reports of rampant corruption, innumerable foul-ups and the inevitable spectacle of people and agencies blaming each other for the shoddy end-product is more comical than tragic. To be fair though, the flurry of negative reports, both during the run-up to the Games and while the Games were on, seem to have been overdone, possibly because bad news sells far more than good news. When one considers that accusations of food-poisoning at the Games food village, bacteria in the swimming pool water and traffic congestion leading to delays have proved entirely unfounded [ Link ] and when one takes into account the chicanery of folks like the CEO for CWG 2010, Michael Hooper and certain journalists [ Link ] one wonders whether there has been an agenda in trashing the conduct of CWG 2010 on a sustained basis or whether it is all attributable to the media’s penchant for sensationalism at times.

Actually events like this further serve to underscore the fact that there are actually two Indias out there.

The logo of 2010 Commonwealth Games

Image via Wikipedia

One, the India of the ambitious and the go-getting professional who, by dint of his initiative and hard work, is increasingly recognized, mostly by corporates and institutions in the private sector.  Several Indian corporations in the private sector, have grown exponentially over the years into multinational corporations and have established a presence globally, largely steered by such professionals. [ Link ]

Looking at the bungling government and public sector largely and making dire doomsday predictions is missing the woods for the trees. Projecting an overly pessimistic outlook, by cherry-picking facts, anecdotes and even none-too-common instances, does not quite stand up in the face of facts on the ground. Plenty has changed for the better, specially over the last 15 years or so, as is evident on the ground and from every statistics and economic indicator available. The India of the politicians and the public sector remains messy, corrupt and inefficient.In a chaotic and vibrant democracy like India, the government and the public sector are neither the standard-bearers nor the ones who set the tone for progress, growth and the shape of things to come in the future.  ( Salil Tripathi: The ‘Incompetence Raj’ Strikes Again )

However, despite its politicians and its PSUs, India has been giving out ample signals about progressing and changing rapidly in the coming years. The process in fact should gather increasing speed and is irrespective of the government of the day and irreversible too. China’s growth and success story is virtually entirely state controlled and directed. India’s, on the other hand, is guided by its thousands of private entrepreneurs, big, medium and small. One needs to bear in mind though, that it is no mean or easy task to govern a country of 1.2 billion people, with tremendous diversities in terms of languages, cultures and religions, inherited fault-lines, hostile neighbours and in one case a rogue one, under the umbrella of a chaotic but vibrant democratic system. Also, as the NYT very aptly remarked in one of its pieces about the CWG opening ceremony ( one of the NYT articles about the CWG opening ceremony ), India can’t round-up the poor living in slums, throw them into guarded camps far away from the city, bulldoze the slums, order the state-controlled media to keep putting out only feel-good stories ( link to a piece which the local Chinese media will never ever carry ) and summarily round up and incarcerate any official or bureaucrat who hasn’t delivered. Indian democracy is chaotic. It is also vibrant and functional and so is its media which can at times go overboard in its trenchant criticisms and exposés.

All developing countries, particularly one as large and diverse as India, have corruption ( check out China’s ranking on the corruption scale by Transparency International) but in very few, if any, is it exposed as relentlessly and criticized as severely as it is by the Indian media. That itself, to me, is a great development and a happy state of affairs. There’s no better check-and-balance act and effective conscience-keeper of the administration than a vocal and free media.

David Cameron is a British politician, Leader ...

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Countries of the world, despite moralistic and idealistic postures that they may indulge in from time to time, are driven almost wholly by self-interest.  Obama recently did not host his first state banquet for the Indian PM out of charity and neither did David Cameron, after becoming PM, make India one of his early stops out of mere courtesy. Like quite a few other countries, today,  it is in their interest to develop robust relationships with India.  As Bill Clinton had famously mentioned during his initial Presidential campaign, ‘It’s the economy, stupid’.

Yet, more so possibly because it is a developing country not situated in the Western hemisphere, trite and superficial pieces highlighting the lopsided ratio of public toilets to the number of cellphone subscribers keep popping up with monotonous regularity in the media. This typical stereotype of more cellphones than toilets cherry-picked from a U.N. report and sensationalized by some journalist wanting to grab a few eyeballs in an ephemeral 8 hour news cycle can be, in turns, both amusing and disconcerting.  While there’s no denying that major improvements are still needed in terms of infrastructure, utilities & amenities, a lot has been done over the last 2 decades or so that is significant and very visible. To put things in perspective though, it’s no easy or mean task to cater to a population of 1.2 billion spread over densely populated urban areas alternating with large areas lying well outside urban and city limits. And of course there will be more cellphones than toilets in any country which has a population anywhere near India’s and which is growing at the rate at which India has been over the last several years.

Indian economy growth graph

The fact that India today is the fastest growing mobile market in the world is a major positive in fact. Mobile phones are not provided by the government, they are acquired by individuals in almost all instances. The rate of growth in fact signifies how purchasing power has increased over the last decade and more.

While on the topic, it is also possibly pertinent to mention that the Indian state by no means follows a classically communist philosophy as far as economic and socio-political parameters are concerned. Thus, given the size, resource constraints and the rate of growth, the administration needs to focus on the big picture and build up conducive environments for urban, rural and commercial infrastructure, education, healthcare, core utilities like power and water, agricultural production and distribution first before venturing into other areas. [ On the Ground in India ]

A visitor to any Indian city is exposed to a large variety of sights and sounds which assail his senses and, on occasions, shock him too. A recent discussion in the leading social media, Facebook, focused on aspects like Indians defecating and urinating in public [ Link ] and generally lacking in civic sense. While, both these are features of most large urban centres as well as rural areas in India, there is a need to view them in perspective.

Civic sense and public manners are inculcated through a host of parameters, some of which happen to be one’s immediate social environment, cultural upbringing, peer pressure, prevailing and enforceable laws and regulations and also the availability of certain facilities [ Link ]. There is no doubt that the average Indian person-in-the-street has quite some way to go before he or she attains levels generally considered acceptable in the developed world. If however, in a place like London which has been part of the developed world for centuries and can rightly boast of having been the global centre of power in the 18th and 19th centuries, civic sense is what it is, as is evident from some of the images posted below, is it any wonder


The Weekend Pub Crawl - London


The Weekend Pub Crawl - London (2)

that a developing country like India,

which has been independent for a mere 60 plus years, has miles to go before attaining the acceptable average standards set by the developed world?

And finally, it’s time to touch on possibly the weakest link in this otherwise largely positive tale about India’s growth and progress: India’s politicians. Barring the stray instances of politicians with education, integrity and vision, they are mostly a venal, petty and manipulative lot lacking both integrity and vision. Cynical as it may sound, isn’t that par for the course for virtually all developing countries?

Bad governance isn’t India’s prerogative alone. In today’s world it is a widespread phenomena, both in democracies and dictatorships the world over.  Large sections of the enlightened global population continue to be perplexed and disappointed by not only bad governance in developing countries but in the developed world too, as is all too evident from the shenanigans of unscrupulous governors in the U.S., corrupt MPs in the U.K. and the fact that heads of state like George W. Bush & Tony Blair who lacked vision, integrity and honesty and twisted facts and figures whenever it suited them,  kept getting re-elected. But then, no one in his right senses can quite claim that democracy is a perfect system. While the majority  muzzling the minority may not often be either a desirable or a palatable option, there isn’t a better political system which has been tried and tested till date.

Therefore it isn’t all gloom and doom as far as India and its future is concerned, as some pundits and columnists would have you believe. Far from it, one can take  heart from the many success stories of Indian individuals and institutions, both in India and outside, in a world which is truly getting globalized. There is plenty of good news going around: Indians being the best educated and highest earning ethnic group in the U.S.A., Indians being the largest ethnic group of foreign students in U.S. Universities, Indians really making their mark in dozens of flagship technology and IT services start-ups in Silicon Valley and elsewhere and Indians often making it to the top of the corporate pyramid in Fortune 500 organizations are just a few of these.

Wipro Chairman, A.H. Premji

There are quite a few feel-good stories within India too. The govt. is going ahead full steam in setting up more premier institutions of learning in India,  while much of the rest of the world went into recession last year the Indian growth story hardly faltered, the Indian stock market has been outperforming most other markets in Asia,  thousands of Indians from all over the world are getting back to India to work and to contribute which was hardly the case say a couple of decades ago, a growing number of Indians who could have led the typical high-flying corporate life or become powerful government mandarins are instead engaged in doing good social work and setting up professionally managed and administered NGOs are just a few examples. The pace of development is accelerating all the while and whether the government of the day contributes significantly or little to the process, it is not likely to slow down anytime soon.

Related article:

CWG is govt. failure, private sector success – S A Aiyar

China makes Chinese; Indians make India – M J Akbar

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  1. #1 by Debashis on October 13, 2010 - 11:17 PM

    A very well-researched and well-written article. Hats off to the author.

  2. #2 by Amitava Ghosh on October 14, 2010 - 12:10 AM

    Too many hi-fi words for comfort !!This writing should have been simple to understand.Complicated thoughts of the writer, all gone overhead !!!!!!! Any concrete suggestions, or solutions to the muddle we ourselves have created ? Have we gained from our independence or should we call back the British to rule us again ?

  3. #3 by Anonymous on October 14, 2010 - 12:52 AM

    Why try to whitewash the fact that Indians themselves are among the most unpatriotic, dishonest, bad-mannered people on earth with little consideration, sense of courtesy and civic sense? No wonder Indian politicians are mostly scum.

  4. #4 by Roshan Pandey on October 14, 2010 - 2:09 PM

    Confused about what the message really is. Are you saying that other than politicians and govt. institutions other things are mainly good? What about dishonesty, poor business practices and generation of black money in the private sector? Isn’t it a fact that even some of the biggest Indian businessmen indulge in these?

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