Going global in India’s chaotic way
India is globalising, but not the way much of the world wants.
That rather contradictory thought nagged at me one morning during the chaotic Commonwealth Games here in New Delhi.
On the road to the media venue’s gate, I trudged past a squatter’s family living in a tarpaulin. The mother was helping her son pee on my left. Rubbish, the smelly, sickly kind, lay to my right. My shoes sunk in mud from an unfinished pavement.
Hardly the stuff of a showcase international event meant to rival China. But after four years in India, the scene appeared normal. So was news during the Games that stocks had hit a near three-year high and that the Economist had predicted India’s economy would soon outpace China.
For the umpteenth time, a centuries-old history bubbled under the surface of this emerging global power, a pressure cooker of India’s own eccentricities and ills that seem to avoid blowing up, despite straining at the seams.
Indian history is littered with the mistaken predictions of sceptical foreign correspondents who have underestimated the ability of this country, with one sixth of humanity, to confound its critics despite massive social, communal and ethnic problems.
But the fiasco of the Games, from faulty weighing scales for boxers to filthy rooms at the Games village where one King Cobra was found in an athlete’s room, had even optimists on the defence.
DEVIL IN THE DETAILS?
For foreign visitors here – investors, diplomats, NGO workers — the devil in India is in the details, termites that undermine the foundation of modern India at every turn.
Like the Games, it’s the scoreboards that collapse, the ticket system that upholds the colonial red tape tradition of “License Raj”, the stray monkey evading Games security.
It’s the infuriating bureacracy that often seems to pervade every nook and cranny of India — my favourite experience was of a street seller who refused to allow me to dump a coffee cup in his rubbish bin. “That’s only for my customers,” he said.
It’s poor service, whether nurses who gave the wrong drugs to my wife after birth, or the filth where owners of million-dollar houses nonchalantly leave rubbish dumps by their properties.
“I’m always bullish on India until I get here,” one foreign businessman told me at a World Economic Forum in New Delhi.
But India is not too bothered about those details.
It looks at the big picture, staring out from newspapers — an innovative and efficient private sector, trillion-dollar-economy growing at near double digits, a middle-class the size — in one study — of Western Europe.
Likewise for Indians, the Games may well be defined not by details of individual hiccups. Instead, the memory may be of a big-ticket item, an opening ceremony that surprised many with its moving homage to India’s diversity, as well as its gold medals.
Every year I meet more foreigners in Delhi, complaining about Kafkaesque system to get visas, dengue, expensive rents.
But they still pour in, despite everything — where else can you get the long term returns. The United States? Europe?
Take Delhi’s new $2 billion international airport that puts New York and London to shame.
One day I almost didn’t make it to the airport after blocked drains on the access road turned monsoon rains into a river.
Running late to the check-in desk, I found other travellers waiting impatiently. The clerk with the password for the check-in computers had also failed to arrive. We were stuck for an hour.
But these are complaints of visitors with return tickets – quite rightly scorned by most Indians justly proud of their achievements in the last two decades.
This is not to say India does not have symptoms of a greater malaise. Compare India to China, or the Asian tigers, or Brazil.
The well-known commentator Pavan Varma, India’s ambassador to Bhutan, recently listed India’s seven deadly sins – individualism, corruption, nepotism, hierarchy, shoddiness, acceptance of filth and yo-yoing national emotions.
“Our acceptance of mediocrity in so many of our endeavours is just unacceptable,” Varma wrote in the Hindustan Times.
One morning, I left my home, took a five-hour train ride, then another two-hour taxi ride. There, half a day’s journey away from the Games capital, were some of India’s poorest villagers.
This being global India, my BlackBerry still worked. But malnourished children stood listless in makeshift homes.
Malnutrition in some areas is worse than sub-Saharan Africa.
“I’ve never seen a country with such fast economic growth with such pathetic levels of nutrition,” Lawrence Haddad, director of the UK-based Institute of Development Studies, told me.
An old hand told me when I first arrived never to write that “India is at a crossroads”. It was a cliche and India always seems it could either veer towards chaos or take a high road to China.
Instead it bubbles along, never quite bursting. The poverty, environmental degradation, urban chaos will likely live alongside ten percent growth and rockets to the moon.
It will never be China. But it will be global, in a chaotic Indian way.