Going global in India’s chaotic way

October 13, 2010

Labourers walk on a flyover in front of the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi September 25, 2010. REUTERS/Krishnendu Halder

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.

6 comments

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Well said. Last line says it all.
If you want to prove that high growth rate does not result in better life for (most) people, you can never find a better example then India. We are fixated on our growth rate and find it convenient to forget the other more important social priorities like infrastructure, credible universal health care, judicial and police reforms, Agricultural reforms etc. which are needed to make a real positive difference to the life of the people. But these things don’t excite FIIs

Posted by Windturner | Report as abusive

Alistair,

I think someone should just write a computer program that produces these columns, they’re complete nonsense and utterly predictable. I think many Western reporters just pander to preconceptions about India and bring, bring their own biases, and see what they want to see.

Consider the following:

“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.

India has had high growth for the past 6-7 years. Even after that, it’s per-capita income, PPP adjusted per-capita income, and per capita GNI (as reported by the World bank and IMF, the CIA factbook is NOT a reliable source of information) are BELOW that of many sub-Saharan African countries. “Rate of growth” and “wealth” are not the same thing, as implied by Mr. Haddad.

One of the comments above also make reference to corruption. According to Transparency International, the CPI (2009) for India, China, and Brazil are approximately the same (consider these BRIC countries: India = 3.4 rank=84, China = 3.6 (rank=79), and Brazil = 3.7 (rank=75) Russia is the worst with 2.2 (rank 146)). Western reporters like to reference the CPI a lot but don’t use the CPI when talking about corruption in India because it debunks their simplistic stereotyping. One should note that anecdotal reports from a few disgruntled Western “reporters” does not trump the thousands of observations, reports, and statistical analyses that underpin these values. According to the CPI, corruption is a problem, but not the principle one at the heart of India’s malnutrition, economic under-performance, and educational issues.

Another good example of where Western journalists’ biases and pandering to stereotypes about India are at odds with reality is AIDS. About 5 years ago when revised AIDS rates for India were released, many newspapers simply refused to accept them, after all, reporters visited clinics and saw dark-skinned people with AIDS! And the surrounding streets were filthy! And Indians like filth! So AIDS must be out of control, right? How cares about epidemiology. Even now, you’ll find the occasional Western reporter who refused to believe that India, with all of its dark skin, southern inhabitants, could have an AIDS RATE (not to be confused with absolute numbers, which will obviously be high for a country of over a billion people) comparable to most Western countries, and lower than countries like Russia. Search PubMed and you’ll find new studies confirming this, showing the relationship has construct validity.

In short, Alistair, just because you can find a few locals whose ignorant comments happen to dovetail with your prejudices doesn’t make them right. That’s bad reporting. In a few years Indian reporters will be scouring Bradford UK reporting on institutional racial and ethnic bias in the UK government against Muslims, or how Canada treats First Nations worse than Blacks were treated under Apartheid. It’ll shock Indians, Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, and others. I think the real question will be how Reuters, and yourself, will deal with this loss of rhetorical power.

I, frankly, welcome it.

Posted by jferdy5 | Report as abusive

Alistair,

Keep enjoying your last days of India bashing before you are replaced by a Mr. Singh or a Mr. Patel or a Mr. Subramnaian.

I understand the levels of bad sportmanship that were in play here while you wrote these lines not for any one else but just for youself when even the strongest of the scotches couldnt get you sleep at night. Thats understandeable ofcourse, after a walk through the games village during the day, with the athletes praising every single thing about the event. Not quite what you had aspired for , was it?

Westerners have always been like this to Asia. Even with China it was the same. In the earlier dys of China’s development, ‘Chinese goods’ was a matter of joke.

Chinese had become your palyword for low quality. Then you said : “China will never be US/Europe”.

Soon you will be saying this about some other Asian country that it will never be India.
The fact of the matter is, how much vere you fool yourself. Asia is taking back from you what you snatched from it centuries ago. You cant stop it.

Posted by grey_on_all | Report as abusive

jferdy5,
Talking about generating text with a computer program. your comments pass the test with flying colours. No relevance to the statements in the article, just a typical, generalized demur.
You comment on the nature of ‘such’ people with your personal biases against them, not acknowledging the points in the article. When you do so, you do it in a context conjured by yourself, again not relevant to the article.
To give an example, nowhere in the article does the author mention corruption as the biggest problem of the country, but it is indeed is among the seven major evil that plagues India. It is you who is making a big deal of it yourself. To get your records straight, I would like to mention that CPI is just one of many measures of corruption. There are other measures where India ranks worse.
For your comment on the Lawrence Haddard’s statements; It is not about money/wealth. Haddard’s reference is the lack of inclusive growth in India-the country is growing while a lot of people are still suffering. That remains a fact, shameful one at that.

The paragraphs about Indian reporters complaining about other countries is a good reply to the general western reporters who you are referring to, here, and Alistair does not seem to fit that bill with this article.

Posted by Avyukta | Report as abusive

as we say ‘suni sunaiye batein’, these are exactly what they are. a gud matter to fill up the spaces and attract comments, and of-course to please the white folklore, but what it is, is far from reality. Its not that, u r unaware of the reality, its that u want to shy away from the increasing popularity of India in world ranks. U r professional need to cover India in one of article shows exactly that. And as u said – we r hardly bothered but not of development but of written matter like this and of course people like you who in read ten articles, copy and edit the stuff and make it one. Best of luck for next time.

Posted by abhigupta90 | Report as abusive

Over 30 years ago I did an 11 month training course where about 20% of the trainees were foreigners. While the Asians understood and accepted what they saw it was those from the West who kept telling us how because of wide disparities, India would be wiped out when the social revolution took place in the very near future. They are still waiting and anticipating that event. Only the tone is slightly different. Now there is a touch of envy, previously there was only scorn and condescension.

Yes there is abject poverty but what the author didn’t see in those villages was scooters, cell phones and motorbikes where even bicycles were a luxury earlier. There is much, too much in fact, that is wrong in India. Yet in spite of that lives are improving. When poverty and illiteracy exist in such large numbers, progress will always seem tardy and slow. The problem is that so many commentators unfortunately simply miss out on noticing the progress. How come we don’t have anyone telling us that in $ terms India has more millionaires than all of Europe combined? There are none so blind as those who have eyes but will not see.

Posted by DaraIndia | Report as abusive