Chautauquas

Blabberings on technology, the web, mobile world, India, books, events, communities and everything else (Chautauqua: An old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the participants)

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Monday, August 14, 2006

Happy Independence day, India

Out here in Virginia one can feel Fall quietly making its way into the air, into people's moods, conversations and melodies. The last time I wrote nostalgically about India was when Spring was making a similar entry, when the dogwoods were blooming and the season's last snow flakes were quietly settling on my window. Strange. Maybe it's a change of season thing. Or maybe it's just fall, come fall and it's the festive season in India (at least where I grew up). The weather tonight is like late September in India. And that's what it reminds me of.

It reminds me of streching and yawning, trying to continue sleeping on the cot in the moist freshness of dawn. It reminds me of long hours spent drinking with friends by the canal under a low moon waiting for the shadowy train with its windows of checkered light to come. It reminds me of lovers slowly ambling down college roads in the gathering dusk wishing that the girls' hostel was open just a wee bit longer (In my college girls had to be in their dorms/hostels by 9:30 PM!!). And it reminds of stopping by the roadside and drinking tea on a chilly midnight on numerous spur-of-the-moment trips to Kasauli and Dagshai. I think it's a change of season nostalgia. Anyways...

Today, India celebrates its 59th independence day. I haven't lived long enough to recap the 59 years and I'm not wise enough to talk about the 26 I've seen. However, an article in the economist (sorry, password required) sums India's contradictions disturbingly well. Here is an excerpt.

LOOK at the big picture, and India's future seems assuredly bright. It has banished famine and cut absolute poverty by more than half. Economic growth is among the fastest of any country. Its newly confident businesses are spreading their wings. Having long been “hyphenated” with Pakistan as a dangerous trouble-spot, the country is now seen as half of an “India-China” pairing that is transforming the global economy. If this were a race, India, as the younger country, and a vibrant but stable democracy, would seem to many the better long-term bet.

Look at the detail, however, and you may despair at the depth and complexity of the problems India faces. For all its achievements, poverty remains entrenched. Some 260m people survive on less than one dollar a day. Nearly half of the country's children below the age of six are undernourished. More than half of its women are illiterate. Half its homes have no electricity, and in one state, Chhattisgarh, 82% are not even connected by road. Nor is there a huge pot of money to throw at these shortages. The government's average budget deficit, from 2000 to 2004, was exceeded only by that of Turkey. Even when it does spend money, the pipeline between government coffers and the intended beneficiaries is corroded by corruption, and cash seeps out.

As the World Bank notes in a new report (“India. Inclusive Growth & Service Delivery: Building on India's Success”. World Bank Development Policy Review, 2006), this contradiction puzzles fresh observers in three ways. First, they find the rampant economic optimism hard to swallow: it seems to exaggerate changes in the fundamental shape of the Indian economy. Second, even though the economy is booming, the performance of the public sector seems to go from bad to worse. Third, India “is the best of the world, it is the worst of the world—and the gaps are growing.” India's top technology colleges set global standards. Yet “many, if not most, children finish government primary schools incapable of simple arithmetic.”

The article however ends with hope. Here are the last two paragraphs:

All of this reads like a list of reasons for gloom about India. Far from it. The beauty of reducing the country's myriad problems to two big, related, ones, is that of all simplification: it makes the solutions seem simpler, too, even if this economic diagnosis of India's ills suggests cures that are mainly political.

Most recent Indian governments, and the present one above all, have a clear and sensible idea of their priorities: investing in infrastructure, health and education, and in improving agricultural productivity. It is not the policies that are failing so much as the machinery for implementing them. In electoral politics, good policy is often forgotten for vote-grabbing promises of jobs, contracts and subsidies. And the Indian civil service, like bureaucracies everywhere, is adept at resisting reform. But India is big enough to have plenty of stories of successful reform that can be imitated: most involve making providers of taxpayer-financed services more accountable for their delivery. Spreading those lessons should not be beyond the world's biggest democracy.

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