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Articles on India after 2013
Demystifying India
Articles on India before 2013

  • (december 2013) Demystifying India.
    First of all, someone needs to demystify the idea that Westerners have of India. There are two modern empires in Asia: Russia and mainland China. They are empires because they rule over subjects who, given a choice, would probably not want to be part of them and these are big chunks of territory with huge natural resources (Chechnya and other Muslim regions in the case of Russia, Tibet and Xinjang in the case of China). India is never listed alongside them because it used to be a colony. Somehow the colonial past deters people from seeing what is relatively obvious: India too is an empire just like China and Russia that rules over many "conquered" regions that, given a choice, would probably secede. I did not meet a single person in Kashmir who wants to be Indian, just like you are unlikely to find many people in Chechnya who want to be Russian (that's if Putin allows you to visit Chechnya at all). The question for Kashmiris is whether they should be independent or join Pakistan (and my sense is that the majority would vote for independence). Himachal Pradesh was stolen by the British from Nepal, but its people are still fundamentally Nepalese (language, customs) and not Indian. Arunachal Pradesh is part of India because of the McMahon Line drawn by the British with no approval from China and later denounced by Tibet itself (before Tibet was invaded by China); its people are Tibetans, have been Tibetans for centuries or millenia. There are separatist movements in Assam, and there are incidents every year in which Indian soldiers or police get killed. In fact, there have been more separatist wars in India than in any other country.
    The other truth that is rarely mentioned is that India was united by a colonial power, Britain. Unlike Russia, China, Italy, Germany and others who were united by the struggle of their populations, it was not Indians who united India. Indians inherited a country from Britain. In fact, India had never been united in history. You can go as far back in history as you like: there never was one and only one political and military authority in the whole of the Indian subcontinent (no, not even the Maurya) until the British conquest. China was united by Chinese revolutionaries (in a bloody civil war, but nevertheless). Russia was united by Russian czars (in a series of brutal wars of expansion, but nevertheless). Germany was united by Bismark. Etc The only other major country of Asia that was united and created by a colonial power is Indonesia (a former Dutch colony). Nigeria is another British invention, another country that one can view as either a model of multi-ethnic and multi-religious integration or as a legacy of the imperial age (most of African countries are colonial inventions).
    For most of its history India was divided into many independent kingdoms and/or principalities, some of them very small. De facto, India is a British invention. India is a continent, not a country. The British united a continent that now comprises the countries of Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh (originally East Pakistan). When we admire that the peoples of India speak more than 200 languages, we admire the fact that an imperial power conquered more than 200 nations and forced them to be part of one big union.
    When the British empire withdrew, a new imperial class took over. Whatever its intentions (mostly good in my opinion), that political class was simply a continuation of the British imperial class. One elite replaced another elite. And that's why India never dreamed of allowing a referendum on independence in Kashmir or Assam: the British never did either.
    Keeping India united is an imperial mindset that continues under a different banner (orange, white and green instead of the Union Jack); but whether it makes more or less sense now than it did before is debatable.
    This helps frame the issue. Starting by praising India as the largest multi-ethnic democracy in the world is misleading. It is, first and foremost, a large multi-ethnic empire, just like Russia, China, the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, etc. The big difference about India is, of course, its democratic constitution that, in theory, should allow its one billion people to control their own country.
    Unfortunately, when a democracy malfunctions it can be worse than a dictatorship. India was born a socialist country, so much so that for four decades it was closer to the Soviet Union than to the USA. Then in 1991 (when the Soviet Union collapsed) it changed course and it turned to capitalism via the reforms engineered by then finance minister Manmohan Singh (India's current prime minister).
    China was ahead of India: it had already liquidated Mao's communism years before 1991 (before the Soviet Union collapsed). Anyway, in the 1990s they both joined the ranks of the "Asian tigers" (originally Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore). In the 1990s they shared the same view of the state: liberal reforms reduced the power of the state. In theory both promoted technocrats to the top of the state. Both enjoyed an economic boom that is still going on.
    India's poor transportation and electricity infrastructure, coupled with restrictive labor laws, discouraged labor-intensive sectors. Hence the two economic booms were and are fundamentally different: manufacturing rules in China, the service industry rules in India (at least as far as exports go).
    After two decades the system set in place by Singh's reforms has proven to be more "business-friendly" than "market-friendly", meaning that, like in most of Asia and in Russia, they benefit a small elite of industrialists who have built huge conglomerates and huge fortunes (with which they often bribe politicians to pass even more business-friendly laws or buy office altogether for themselves and their cronies).
    Unlike most of Asia, India has remained a country of embarrassing poverty, ranking very low among world countries in human indicators like life expectancy, children malnutrition, health care and education. Where Japan, Korea and even China have tried seriously to distribute wealth to erase poverty, in 2010 India's top 100 rich people owned a fortune equal to about 25% of GDP. Since 1991 India's economy has grown at a much faster pace than Brazil, but Brazil has dramaticallty reduced poverty and India has not.
    The new star of India's politics is Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat (responsible for the killing of about 1000 Muslims in the 2002 communal riots) and he is the typical product of this business-controlled system. His state has generously rewarded its largest businesses (with tax benefits, easy access to natural resources and a tough stance on organized labor) and enjoyed economic growth; but little of this growth has reached the nasses of its gargantuan slums (the 2010 census found that one million Gujarati households did not have electricity) nor has any major project been devised to improve the odds of future generations.
    India differs from the rest of Asia in that its economic boom has not come from manuacturing but from exploitation of its cheap natural resources and of its cheap labor force. India's big export has been services, particularly in IT, precisely the sector in which Japan, Korea and Taiwan largely failed. But those countries "failed" in the exports of services also because they had found better ways to create wealth with engineering and manufacturing sectors that helped lift millions of people out of poverty. By contrast, India's service economy benefits only a tiny population of English-speaking college kids while leaving urban poors to sell water packets in filthy streets for a few cents, and rural poors to grow rice in dismally irrigated fields.
    Of course, India entered independence with a double curse: a colonial past that had twisted its economy, and a caste system that was justified and prescribed by the majority religion. The elitist character of Indian society is still there: the elite has simply changed, absorbing businessmen and Bollywood stars, and shedding penniless intellectuals. Eliminating poverty and reducing inequality are not existential missions for this elite just like they weren't for the Brahmins of the past. These instead constituted the moral priority for post-war Japan, and they are today for technocratic post-communist China.
    What is more surprising is that the masses accept this state of affairs. With the exception of Hazare's 2011 anti-corruption campaign (that achieved very little and probably represented more the frustration of the middle class than of the slums) and of sporadic military attacks by small bands of Maoist groups in central India (promptly labeled as "terrorists" by the elite class), the half a billion of people who live below or barely above the poverty line don't seem to mind. They are easily distracted and morbidly fascinated by the tabloid gossip about the lifestyle of billionaires, of Bollywood stars and of cricket players. Centuries of caste system may explain this passion for accepting injustice as something that cannot be reversed in this life.
    India's rising status as a world power may also have an effect on the minds of the dispossed and disenfranchised. While in the USA people complain when money is "wasted" on Mars missions and Middle-eastern wars at a time of economic hardship, in India the masses did not complain that billions were spent on building nuclear weapons and on a space program at a time when so many still live in utter destitution. Somehow the international achievements of India legitimize its domestic failures (including inequality and corruption).
    The Indian elite is literally above the law, rarely held accountable for what they have done in office. No surprise that the Indian governments was outraged when in december 2013 the police arrested an Indian diplomat (Devyani Khobragade) for falsifying documents that allowed her to illegally underpay a nanny she helped immigrate illegally from India. What? VIPs who commit a crime get arrested in the USA? Are you guys out of your mind? When has anybody ever heard that India arrested a distinguished citizen for merely breaking the law??? (The notable exception was the "2G spectrum scam" for which one minister ended up in jail, but that was a $27 billion scam, that Time magazine rated second in a "Top 10 Abuses of Power" list after Watergate). The reaction of the Indian government to the arrest of the diplomat was shameless: it is well known in India that the elite exploit and abuse their domestic workers. In november alone the wife of member of parliament Dhananjay Singh was arrested for allegedly beating her maid to death; and that was just the latest scandal involving VIPs and their domestic workers. Instead of trying to solve what amounts to a major human rights problem, the Indian government defends a perpetrator caught in the act. The state of New York explained to an outraged Indian government that "this is standard practice for every defendant, rich or poor, American or not." This won't go down well with the Indian elite: rich or poor? That is terrifying to the Indian elite.
    The numbers, however, are merciless. Ten million new job-seekers enter the job market every year; but only three million new jobs are being created. The others will find jobs in the streets or will be underemployed for life. In 1991 India's main occupation was agriculture: 60% of the labor force. In 2013 it is still agriculture and it is still 60% of the population. Too bad that now agriculture only contributes 14% to GDP. Retail inflation in november 2013 was 11.24%. Since the rupee keeps collapsing to the dollar, the tourists don't notice: India is still incredibly cheap. But people who make $0.50/day do notice (that's 60% of rural India according to a 2012 National Sample Survey Office study), especially if they don't have any social security at all (the vast majority of them). India ranks 142nd in the world in per-capita income. Life is cheap in India but even adjusted for purchasing power India still ranks 129th. India can find solace in the fact that country #143 is Pakistan: the two mighty nuclear powers of the region are two of the poorest countries in the world. Since most of the countries that follow in that ranking are African and Africa's per-capita income is growing faster than India, India is slowly but steadily sliding towards the very bottom. Meanwhile, India's population growth rate remains one of the highest of world. Among major countries only Nigeria and Pakistan beat India (whose 1.3% rate is even higher than Bangladesh's 1.2%).
    The state of transportation is simply stone-age. Autorickshaws and run-down buses, as well as slow, filthy broken trains still constitute the backbone of transportation in India. The trains look exactly like the ones i first used in the 1990s and back then they already looked decrepit. Tens of thousands if not millions of people still make their living as owners of a cycle rickshaw. This is China under Mao, basically. Compare with the bullet trains and the modern subways of the rest of Asia. While China was building 17 metro systems (as of 2013), India managed to build two: Delhi and Kolkata. While China was building 10,000 kms of bullet trains, India managed to build... zero.
    According to the "Rapid Survey on Children", 30% of India's children under five are malnourished, compared with only 3% in China.
    Compare the tidiness and efficiency of the giant Chinese railway stations with the apocalyptic chaos of Indian stations where passengers desperately try to buy a ticket from an excruciatingly slow officer/counter. If there are automatic ticket machines, they are not in service (but usually there aren't). Meanwhile thousands of people are camping outside and inside the station waiting for their train or simply waiting for their relatives to return with the tickets. First class is amazingly cheap but, alas, virtually impossible to get (unless you "know someone"). Whether rich or poor, every train passenger has to endure the overcrowding, the non-working windows, the toilet stench, etc.
    Lucknow is a state capital, not some distant rural village. Lucknow's railway station is emblematic. There are people everywhere in Indian stations so it takes a while to focus on what else is there. Then i started noticing the rats. Of all sizes. I looked down into the rails and basically all you can see is rats. Some of them venture on the platform, where entire families of humans are resting (forget chairs and benches). Every now and then a man walks to the edge of the platform and urinates onto them. China used to be like this 25 years ago. Much of India is still like this. My train is actually on platform 2 instead of 3 as the big electronic board still displays (and as the kind man at the tourist information office told me) but the only announcement (repeated over and over again) is for a train on platform 4 that does not exist and, according to the announcement, should be ready to depart (as it was one hour ago). Absolutely no warning that my 17:50 train to Varanasi from platform 3 is actually leaving from platform 2, except that there is a train on platform 2 that has Varanasi written on every car. The train is superfull. The Indians knew from the beginning that it would not be on platform 3 (they asked the workers, ignoring the official timetable) and boarded it the moment it was parked on platform 2. They know that timetables are irrelevant, and so are the electronic boards inside the station and so are the public announcements.
    And compare China's disciplined quasi-robotic employees in impeccable uniforms who operate clockwork-efficient computerized systems to India's chaotic unruly employees in casual clothes who have to improvise all the time faced with malfunctioning equipment and ambiguous norms.
    Moving around many Indian cities can be sheer terror. There is virtually no garbage collection to talk about, just women sweeping the streets early in the morning (raising a cloud of dust that you breath for the rest of the day) while their children play knee-deep into piles of garbage. (And if you think the stench is lethal, consider that they have been breathing it every day of their life). Another common scene is of rotting garbage sitting by the side of the streets, with children, women, dogs and cows competing for whatever can be salvaged from it. The difference with 20 years ago is only the pollution. More autorickshaws on the streets mean more pollution. Every crossroads is a permanent traffic jam. Distances are not as big as they seem but the speed is very low no matter what means of transportation you choose.
    India is still incredibly cheap (a 300 km train ride for $1.50) but it is hardly something to be proud of: with the population still growing, and no solutions for its colossal problems, chaos and poverty are only going to get worse. The man who sells newspapers in front of my hotel for 5 rupees each ($0.08) how much money can he make in a day?
    China has managed to educate all of its citizens, and, since the 2008 Olympic games, it has even made English the de-facto second language of the nation. India, on the other hand, still has an incredible number of people who can't read and write (estimates are as high as 25% of the population, or 260 million people, the second lowest rate of literacy in Asia after Pakistan). English, that, according to the constitution, is the national language, seems less spoken, not more spoken, than 20 years ago. While the success of many Indian Institutes of Technology graduates makes us think that the level of education is high in India, there is a broad failure of education when it comes to ordinary people.
    The conclusion is simple: India's "democratically elected" political elite stole the wealth that was created in these 20 years of economic growth and delivered very little to ordinary families, whereas the Chinese dictatorship significantly improved the living conditions of ordinary families.
    The future trend was well summarized by those who noticed a simple fact: in 2013 every member of India's lower house under the age of 30 is the scion of a political dynasty.
    This continuing dismal state of affairs also affects the way people behave. If you thought of India as a spiritual place, it takes only a few days to realize that it's exactly the opposite: very few places in the world look so materialistic and selfish. I noticed that in Bangladesh people would immediately ask me "can i help you" whenever i looked lost or stared at my map whereas in India nobody (literally nobody) asks you if you need help except the touts who are trying to sell you hotel rooms or other services. It is embarrassing to see how people fight for a seat on a bus or on a subway, ignoring elderly people, pregnant women, etc. India must have been a spiritual place in the 1960s when young people from all over the world were traveling to experience its atmosphere, but 50+ years of a dysfunctional state have created a population that can't afford to do much else than survive.
    No wonder that the brain drain continues. In fact, it accelerated in recent years as all sorts of professionals (from doctors to plumbers) now look for opportunities outside India (Singapore, Australia, Canada, Dubai, the USA, Europe, you name it). The Chinese government estimates that about 37% of Chinese students educated overseas have returned to China in the past 30 years. I suspect a lot of this has happened recently. India's Economic Times estimates that only 1% of Indian students abroad plan to return to and work in India. Those who do are basically those who couldn't get a visa and stay abroad. In 2012 almost two-thirds of H-1B visas (work permits) issued in the USA went to Indian nationals (up from 58% to 64% of the total). Chinese citizens were second with 19,850 visas or 7.6% of the total, not even close to India (the two countries have similar populations). While in China it is now mainly the wealthy who want to emigrate to the USA, in India it is just about anybody. China has created real opportunities for the new generation (and plenty of stable jobs for the old one) whereas India has created opportunities only in mining and insourcing IT from the USA.
    For young people it also matters that India has no great city that looks "modern". You may or may not like Dubai and Singapore, but they do look modern. So does Kuala Lumpur. And so do most of the Western cities. What is the appeal of aging, chaotic and filthy Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad, etc for a young person? There aren't many young people who have to take a train every day from Victoria Station in Mumbai and dream of doing so for the rest of their life. The Chinese youth can see a proliferation of skyscrapers, bullet trains and subways in every major city (even cities like Urumqi that you can't find on the map). It does look like China is the future. Does a young person look at the mess and filth of Delhi or Kolkata and see the future?
    If you are a young female, the problem is compounded by a level of gender discrimination that is rarely seen anywhere else in the world. India has also become infamous for cases of gang rapes. There is hardly a day without the news of another brutal attack on a woman, and those are probably a tiny percentage of the total since both authorities and families discourage women from going public about a rape.
    Some of these problems are historical. Literacy was low when the British came, it was low when the British left, it is still low today. Which great cities that attracted millions of foreigners has India ever created over the centuries? For example, Islam created Istanbul, Granada, Baghdad in the past, and today Dubai and Kuala Lumpur. These were/are cities that attracted people from all over the world. Many cities along the Silk Road (starting with Beijing itself) were magnets for business men, preachers, philosophers, scientists and workers from other parts of the world, and sometimes very distant ones. I don't think India ever had any city of that caliber. Women have always been discriminated, and, in most parts of India, treated like little more than furniture. Some issues may require a change in the very nature of Indian society. But the same was true in China when the reforms began.
    Don't get me wrong. There is a lot to be liked in today's India (i won't even mention ancient India, which probably ranks first in the world in terms of stunning monuments). For example, most cities are crime-free (not even pickpockets in the crowded stations). You rarely see any violence of any kind: no matter how much people fight to get into the subway or to get a seat on a train, it rarely turns into a violent confrontation. (Compare with the USA, where all it takes is a slight mistake while you are driving and there will immediately be some other driver cursing at you and, if he's a member of the National Rifle Association, you better drive away before he pulls out his machine gun). You need to bargain prices but people are fundamentally honest and won't try to take your money in any other manner. Even in the poorest neighborhoods, children don't beg (unlike pretty much every other poor country in the world, where you are constantly followed by barefoot children begging for money). Also, metal and glass still rule, with plastic bottles confined to the Western drinks and the ubiquitous water bottle (the real environmental curse of the 21st century). Also, Caucasians don't wash their hands before and after meals: Indians do all the time, even in the poorest food joints (which, by the way, is the reason why so many foreigners get "food poisoning" in India: it is not the food itself, it's the germs you put in your mouth when you don't wash your hands, although you then blame your dyarrhea on Indian food). Also, India has had three Muslim presidents, a Sikh prime minister and a Catholic party leader (compare with Pakistan, an Islamic republic that de facto persecutes all other religions, or even with the USA, where a black president is major news).
    But that was not the point. The point is that there has been little real progress in the living conditions of most Indians during the 20-year economic boom while the living conditions of most other countries (starting with China) that were in the same situation have improved significantly.
    Indian commentator Kishore Mahbubani spoke of "a failure of imagination". That's close to what i feel.
    See also Another great illusion?
    For a comprehensive analysis of the second generation of "Asian tigers" (1990s) see this page.
    For a detailed timeline of India see this page.
    TM, ®, Copyright © 2012 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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