Still in slow motion


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HAVING co-authored a book called India in Slow Motion, I can’t really say I expect drastic changes between 2005 and 2010. For forty years now I have been watching slow change in India, or perhaps gradual would be a fairer adjective. That’s not to say there isn’t a vast difference between India today and India in 1965, but the difference has come about gradually. That may well be no bad thing. Revolutions are bloody affairs and usually leave the situation worse than it was before, not better. That goes for economic as well as political revolutions.

Indians can be grateful that they have never had to go through the horrors of China’s Cultural Revolution, or the Great Leap Forward. When Indira Gandhi tried to revolutionise India by imposing the Emergency, family planning suffered a massive setback. Because of the Emergency’s compulsory sterilisation programme no politician dared mention the subject for nearly twenty years. As for the rest of the so called ‘draconian’ Emergency, which hardly deserved that epithet when compared to restrictions on human rights and freedom in other parts of the world, it did not prod ambling India into a trot let alone a canter.

Some are now arguing that India has finally reached what they call ‘the take-off stage’. Certainly the foreign businessmen I meet seem convinced that India is at last starting to realize its potential. Most of them say they would prefer to invest in India than China if only India would make it easier to do so. With the success of the IT industry, and manufacturing at last competing in price and quality in international markets, there are grounds for suggesting that the Indian emblem should be changed from the elephant lumbering ahead at its own stately pace to the tiger leaping into the future. After all Ireland, until recently the sick man of Western Europe, is now the Celtic Tiger. Even if India’s speed is not going to match Ireland’s, it makes arithmetical sense to estimate that the economy will expand faster and faster provided the current growth rates are maintained. Each year the percentage growth rate will be a percentage of a bigger figure. It will be compound, not simple interest.


But I still think there is one obstacle to India realising the potential it has now so convincingly demonstrated. It’s the Neta Babu Raj with its ability to cling on to power like a limpet, its refusal to move out of the colonial era, and its love of putting spokes in wheels. The Neta-Babu bureaucrat was well described by Inder Malhotra as ‘The Abominable Indian No Man.’ Those foreign businessmen tell me that despite innumerable promises by government to make investment simple, countless ‘one windows’ being opened for clearances and form after form being torn up, choosing to invest in India is still a precarious decision. Precarious I say because no one can be certain of the outcome.

It’s not just the corruption India is sadly all too well known for, it is the way corruption operates. One NRI said to me, ‘I would prefer to invest in my own country but I go to East Asia instead not because I do not have to pay but I know I’ll get my money’s worth. In India the system is so complicated, everything takes so long, and you never know whether you will get what you paid for in the end.’ The Tehelka scandal revealed that complicated system at work with person after person offering to reverse the trend of the Neta Babu Raj and say ‘yes’ for a price. But they all warned that their powers were limited to one stage in the process. There were plenty of people who could still say ‘no’.

Tehelka is also a paradigm of this problem in another way. If there was more likelihood of people being caught and punished by the law for corruption then maybe it would not be so prevalent. The futility of the long-drawn-out Tehelka enquiry, the fact that only the army has taken its own enquiries seriously, does not send a very strong warning signal to those who are thinking of demanding bribes.

It may seem strange for a journalist to say this, but exposures of scandals, far from bringing about reforms in the system, tend to make the situation worse. Although no bureaucrat ever seems to get punished, in the wake of a scandal they tend to become super-cautious in case they have failed to detect something fishy about the paper they are being asked to sign. They become even more adamant No Men, and that holds up schemes which should be implemented. In the case of Tehelka the exposure was used to threaten the press too. Shooting the messenger and ignoring the message was clearly intended to warn other media organisations against bringing the government such bad news. Fortunately Tehelka was not influenced by that threat; nor were the journalists who have exposed other scandals since.


If India is to leap ahead the infrastructure has to be reconstructed. But the Neta Babu Raj, with its reluctance to plan on a grand scale, its weakness in implementation, and its inability to administer the assets it creates, has so far prevented dramatic progress on this front. The last government made much of its road-building programme. Almost none of the new roads would classify as modern in other countries because they only have two lanes each way, and access is not controlled.

To drive from Delhi to Agra you have to battle your way to the outer limits of Faridabad before coming to anything which could be called a highway. Then, when you are able to put your foot down, you have to be ready to brake to avoid traffic coming the wrong way. I am told there are highway patrols but I have never seen a police car on that road, let alone anyone being booked for the most obvious and dangerous breach of the traffic laws. Before long you will come to the first of many qasbas which have been allowed to sprawl on to the highway. As delays on the road are an impediment to the smooth flow of goods modern commerce requires, any businessman travelling to Agra – foreign or Indian – will be dismayed by all those lorries he’ll see lined up at the state borders he crosses. I had thought VAT might do away with that impediment to the movement of goods, but so far at least it doesn’t appear to have had an impact.


Commercial travel by car is also bound up in red-tape. The other day I asked a yellow and black taxi to take me from Delhi to Noida. The driver was shocked, ‘Oh I can’t do that,’ he said, ‘I haven’t got a permit to go to Noida.’ A friend of mine was recently prevented from crossing the border into Himachal Pradesh because she didn’t have six thousand rupees in cash which the state demands for entry. Of course the administration hadn’t been efficient enough to provide for payment by card. Does it really make sense to charge such a large amount for merely entering a state which is almost entirely dependent on tourism? If it does, is it beyond the wit of the bureaucracy to do what a small-time shopkeeper can do – allow payment by card?

The railways are another vital part of the infrastructure which must be upgraded if India is to be in faster motion. They deserve congratulations for providing the service they do now, strangled as they are by red-tape and having to bow to the whims of ministers who regard them as a source of patronage. Three years ago I travelled from Mumbai to Howrah recording a radio series about the journey. I met several senior railway officers none of whom thought the minister Nitish Kumar’s decisions to divide up the existing zones made any sense. But the minister got his zonal headquarters in his own state of Bihar and so he was happy. When he was replaced by Lalu Prasad Yadav, the new minister followed his example and set up a wheel-manufacturing plant in Bihar. No wonder, after retiring as Chairman of the Railway Board, M.N. Prasad wrote, ‘Indian Railways has the dubious distinction of being the only major railway system in the world where major decisions on investment policy and organisation are taken by politicians according to their whims and fancies.’


It is not as though the officers who serve the Government of India and the state governments do not know why the system is a brake on progress. M.N. Prasad is by no means alone in his complaint. R.K. Raghavan of the IPS has written about the ‘vestiges of the colonial mentality which survive in the police’ and identified the problem as ‘the elected representatives of the people wanting the retain total control over the civil service at all levels.’ The former Cabinet Secretary T.S.R. Subramanian has recently written a book with the telling title, Journey’s Through Babudom and Netaland. Comparing the civil service he joined with the service today, he wrote, ‘What we have now is the remnants of a system whose innards have crumbled.’ He also tells the story of an official who consistently blocked his attempts to get a fast-track project going. The Cabinet Secretary came to think that the Indian nation would have benefited by paying him a billion dollars to retire. Towards the end of his tenure, T.S.R. Subramanian found the obstructive official was already worth a billion dollars.


I have seen so little meaningful change in the way the administration functions, the iron grip politicians and bureaucrats have on power, that I don’t expect governance will have improved markedly by 2010. If that’s so the economic reforms will continue the same stop-go progress they have made since they first started in 1991. What reforms there are will not produce the dividends expected because the infrastructure will not improve with the required rapidity. The slowest progress will be in the areas where reform is most needed – rural India. That is also where the reforms so far have had the least impact.

The face of urban India may be changing, the face of rural India is not. A year or so ago I visited a hospital in the tribal area of Chhattisgarh. It was being run by young doctors from AIIMS who had given up their promising careers to provide services where the government hospitals and clinics were not providing them. The doctors told me that half the patients they treated would not be ill if they had an adequate diet. Apparently both TB, one of the most common complaints among the tribals, and leprosy, can usually be fought off provided the patient is not suffering from malnourishment.

In a recent article in The Hindu, Utsa Patnaik, Professor of Economics at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University maintained ‘there is already a Sub-Saharan Africa within India – half of our rural population of over 350 million people are below the average food energy intake of Sub-Saharan Africa.’ The present government is committed to bringing reforms to rural India but from my experience I can’t be confident that their Rural Employment Guarantee Act will produce the jobs and create the assets promised, particularly in the states which need them most because they are the most deprived. There is still no sign that this government has found a way of controlling or, if that’s not possible, bypassing the corrupt administrative structure which has taken such a toll of earlier schemes for rural development.

Mihir Shah, who represents a grassroots network implementing employment programmes for water and food security, recently wrote of the ‘rampant corruption that had plagued employment programmes in India.’ The answer, as he saw it, has to be ‘an institutional structure that enables participatory planning of works under the employment programme as also their regular monitoring.’ The key word for me is ‘institutional’. The Collector, sitting in his British Raj bungalow can’t provide that structure. New institutions are needed. It’s not good enough to say leave it to the gram panchayats. They need to be checked to prevent illegal activities and they need to have their accounts audited honestly.


So what will India look like in 2010 if my gloomy forecast is right? Well it’s probable that to some the cities will look better. Mumbai has been given a wake-up call it’s unlikely to forget. Delhi has been improving in some ways for several years now. The latest achievement is the Metro and I very much hope it will have spread far more widely by 2010. Kolkata is no longer regarded as a gone case. The threats by the IT barons that they will move out unless something is done about Bangalore, might bring changes to that once beautiful city.

But I fear that in 2010 we will still see slums in all these cities, that rural migration will continue to swell those slums, that there will be more and more cars but no orderly bus services, that attempts to cope with motor transport will be made by building flyovers but nothing will be done for pedestrians or of course cyclists, that money will flow into five star hotels, high-tech hospitals, expensive schools, and the latest craze, shopping malls, but will not go into low-cost housing, affordable education, or preservation of public spaces. That’s why I say the cities may well look better to some. The burgeoning middle class may think their cities have improved, but those outside that privileged group are unlikely to feel the same.


The Neta Babu Raj enriches both the netas and the babus, so its hardly surprising that they have shown little enthusiasm for reconstructing or even just overhauling the present system. But if the most common interpretation of the last general election results is right, the netas might at last be forced to sit up and take notice. After all they must be aware that the present administrative system does not allow them to deliver what the electorate is demanding.

Mihir Shah is not alone among NGO workers who are putting pressure on the government to improve governance. The Right to Information Act which, if properly implemented, can do a lot to check dishonesty in the administration is largely the result of one NGO’s campaign. But one section of society is remarkably silent on this issue, and it’s perhaps the most influential sector. When is the voice of the prosperous middle class raised on behalf of the plight of the poor? When does business and industry voice concerns beyond those which immediately affect them? Why indeed do bureaucrats and police officers only bemoan the collapse of the system after they have retired?

T.S.R. Subramanian admitted he knew very little of the reality of India when in office because he flew over rather than travelled through it. He was shocked by what he saw when he did travel by train from Delhi to Chennai after retirement. ‘It was monsoon time. I could see people wading in ankle or knee deep water. There was a slum area close to every railway station big or small. Large tracts of railway property were occupied and densely packed with people. In ramshackle mud housing with leaking tarpaulins or tin covers, hundreds of thousands of people were eking out an existence euphemistically called "living below the poverty line". I could not imagine how they survived disease, how the sick members could revive from illness, how the children could get the most basic of information.’ When he was back in Delhi, he told this story to a senior railway official who asked him, ‘But you did not have to see all that; why did you not draw the curtains of the window? Were they not functioning?’


What a powerful voice those of us who have the influence and wealth to enjoy the delightful comforts of an air-conditioned life in India could raise if we didn’t draw our curtains to shut out the rest of the country. If we don’t I fear that not just in 2010, but in 2020, and even 2030, India will not present a pretty picture from the window of a train.