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A glimpse of today's India

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Tags Booms and BustsGlobal EconomyInterventionismPolitical Theory

02/01/2007

I am in Bhopal, visiting India after almost three years.

I arrived very early in the morning of 27 January 2007. I took the train from Delhi to Bhopal. At Delhi train station, I stood at the front of the counter in the middle of the cold night for 1.5 hours to buy my ticket; the seller was there all this time, chatting away and drinking tea with others, without recognizing the presence of those lining up. When he got around to selling the ticket, he found several mistakes in my (train-ticket) application form. I faked as much courtesy as I could and did what he wanted.

(I will no longer be traveling by train and for sure, I will be using "servants" at my parents' for all outside work that I can avoid doing myself. Indeed, food, tea and water is automatically coming to my desk as I write this.)

At Delhi train station, heavily armed, uncivil paramilitary personnel with their dirty hands were checking everyone's bags at the entrance. I went in unhindered through the "exit" gate. Really, I think terrorists don't achieve much because they are even more stupid than those in the state.

Through my train window, the countryside looked as wretched as ever, if not worse. Absolutely nothing positive seems to have happened since I last took the train on this route more than a decade back. I saw garbage and rotting water-puddles everywhere. Plastic is more a part of the landscape than greenery is. The air is much worse, mostly I guess because vehicles on the roads have multiplied. I did not see any sign of increased manufacturing activity.

What was once the nicest city in India, Bhopal is a complete madhouse. Its train-station, which once got a prize for the best in India, smelled of a sewer - everything from trains' lavatories drop straight onto the tracks. So this is what you expect when the army of men that clean the tracks slack. The station was ridden with literally millions and millions of flies. Many people grumble about the loss of Bhopal's eminence and beauty, but as usual, fortunes made based on vagaries of bureaucrats/politicians in power, are unsustainable. Bhopal was the favorite city of Indira Gandhi. When she died, Bhopal started to die.

For a research work for an article, I went to the Union Carbide factory site from Bhopal train station, as I did not want to return to that area again. The factory is badly rusted. The site was never cleaned up properly. I don't think there is any way to stop people from trespassing into that plant, as I partly did. The walls have crumbled. There are squatters everywhere. This area had to be out of bounds for people for a few centuries, because of toxicity in the earth. New cases of victims keep coming up, because the state has failed to secure this site. There are tens of massive petrol storage tanks nearby, owned by state-owned companies, with residential buildings all around them, starting barely a few meters away. The state should have moved these tanks. It never did, even after such a big disaster. India is always a micro-millimeter away from another catastrophe.

The state owes me compensation money from the 1984 gas tragedy. As I refused to grovel, I never got my money. To help me understand what the situation with bureaucracy and corruption is like today, for the article I am writing, I am trying to get my money.

Moving on...

There is certainly more money in India - a result of development taking place in certain pockets in Bangalore, Gurgaon, and Hyderabad. And also as a result of bubble created by irrational speculative activities of people.

Prices of properties in Bhopal and stocks have gone to the moon, without much fundamental support. Stocks have gone up partially because there is no longer any long-term capital gains tax on it, but mostly because some people think that India has become invincible and that stocks will now always go up. Property prices in an area near Bhopal has gone up six times within the last month for the simple reason that the state declared that it was going to "encourage" IT investment there. People never lose trust in the state! A property my dad bought in an obscure location 10 years back has gone up 15 times (dollar to Indian rupee ratio has stayed comparable). And its appreciation is showing no signs of slowing down. The same is happening with property all over in this area. I think (economic) structural defects in India are increasing horrendously. I wonder what will happen, if and when this bubble bursts.

People in Bhopal, mostly a city of bureaucrats and politicians, show off their power and money by creating tremendous noise and pollution, and by being rude. Girls, it seems, have started to think that this is the way to behave to express that they are free. A house five houses away from my parents' place has been converted into a wedding reception house. I have closed all the doors of our house, but the music is so loud that I would prefer it to be lower even if I wanted to hear it. Fireworks is falling on our roof. Perhaps, a thousand people will attend the reception tonight. There is a huge parking chaos outside. Tomorrow morning all the leftovers will be unceremoniously dumped on the side of the road.

Most of the people around here are very "powerful" people. They have complained, but nothing happens. Not necessarily because the owner of the wedding house is even more powerful. It is the way the system works - it pretty much always pays to be a crook. Despite all this, if I were the owner or the host, I would worry about the bad impression such a conduct would leave on my guests. For sure such a thought does not cross anyone's mind. I have always found most Indians lacking a very basic sense of fairness, and respect for other people's space and property. This is the primary reason why I emigrated and what I think is the fundamental reason why India is so wretched. I was, of course, sick and tired of fighting all the time. And, I always ended up looking like a fool.

Funnily, one of the persons now in pain from the existence of the wedding house is the person who was getting his house constructed when I was in Bhopal three years back. The construction work was going on 24 hours, giving us a reason for those days not to sleep peacefully.

Educated Indians (who in general are pro-western) are getting arrogant. They have a habit of comparing how much better India is in relation to America. In yesterday's Hindustan Times, a top Indian newspaper, there was a poem which said something to the effect: you are white, when sun shines on you, you go pink, we are black, when sun shines on us, our skin sparkles, and blah-blah-blah. A top headline said that Goldman Sachs believes that India will be ahead of America by 2050. They don't realize that all drivers of India's present growth are in America. And GDP is a useless figure; they should compare GDP per capita. The landing, when it takes place will probably be hard financially; and I really hope psychologically.

Lives of the very poor - perhaps 75% of India - seems to have taken a turn for the worse. The poor people have perhaps mostly found no avenue to increase their earning power, at the same time the small minority that has started making more money (in some cases, as much as a good Western salary plus hardship allowance and a possibility of not paying taxes) has created inflation in what are basic needs. A daily wage female worker in Bhopal still gets about $1 per day - nominally not very different from what it was 5 years back. A male get about 20 cents extra.

Piggybacking on the IT revolution, a minority has made fortunes. The poorest 75% are eagerly waiting for a sweat-shop revolution, the only way their lot has a chance of improving.

What is ironically contributing substantially to controlling inflation and improving the quality of lives is imports from the much-maligned China. Yes, even India is importing big volumes of Chinese goods.

At the margin, India is creating ripples in the world market, and creating opportunities to make money, but I don't think, looking holistically, India is booming, as the media says.

There is tremendous police and military presence everywhere, mostly because 26 January was a national day. When I look at what these guys do and get away with, those in the state in Canada look like gods to me. A few days back, I wrote to my Indian university yahoo-group that among the worst terrorist organizations in the world is the Indian army. Even from me they did not expect this. I don't think there are too many people eager to meet me in Bhopal.

Now something positive...

There is a hugely positive undercurrent in India, in the long-term the most important one in my opinion. A section of the society is becoming aware of its rights and is aggressively fighting for it. There is a growing number of business people who are extremely clever, doing an absolutely marvelous job and are very conscientious; despite all the odds. Earlier, you had to be a complete crook to be a businessman. It is clear that India is out of a vicious cycle.

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