Friday, January 06, 2006

Dispatch from India (2)

It is early afternoon, and we are headed out of Delhi. Our destination is a nearby suburb. Of course, terms are relative: A town or “suburb” here can mean a million people. As we leave the center of Delhi, we pass more of the long narrow slums that line the main arteries. It is impossible to get used to them. We continue on. The traffic gradually thins out, the three-wheelers replaced by rickety lorries and a smattering of expensive European sedans.

The roads widen, and the quality of the pavement improves. Now we are on a divided multilane boulevard. The density of habitations drops, and soon we are traveling past landscaped green areas, small clusters of buildings, an office park, and forested areas. Here and there are reminders of where we are--hand-drawn wagons at the side of the road, dilapidated stands where vendors sell fruit or fabrics, weather-stained buildings in need of repair. Still, things look more developed, and there is less of the oppressive grey dust.

We see a sign indicating a biotechnology cluster nearby. A few of the buildings we pass could have been transplanted from Silicon Valley--rounded forms, cryptic logos, lots of glass. The intersections are a less chaotic than in the city. The lights and signs look maintained, and most of the drivers actually heed them. This is one of the areas where India’s much-touted advancement has had a profound effect.

We turn off the main road into a residential neighborhood. Well-maintained homes are interspersed with broken buildings, but there are signs that the latter are slowly being replaced. Almost all of the older, crumbling buildings are occupied by squatters. We wonder where they go when these structures are demolished. There are massive low-income housing projects on the outskirts of the cities, but we have been told that the officials in charge of relocating people are instead auctioning off the apartments on the open market, most likely pocketing part of the proceeds. Some of those who win the lottery to get into these places collaborate with the officials, or illegally rent the places out because the cash is more important to them.

Wherever we go, the talk turns to politics, development, education, the future of India. The recurring motif is corruption. In the public sector, every job, it seems, is awarded on the basis of a bribe paid to the appropriate official. Applicants typically borrow money to pay the bribes. They then are forced to extort money from all comers to pay off the loans. And so the cycle goes. People bribe for the privilege of being bribed.

The local papers carry stories every day, about newly breaking scandals involving various political leaders. The stories are usually planted by their opponents, but are reported breathlessly by the local press. Then there are the purges and counter-purges, threats of retribution, and grandiose posturing on an embarrassing scale. After two days here, we wondered if we had stumbled into a particularly unstable moment in Indian politics. We were told, with a wry shrug and a smile, that it is just business as usual.

The vicious and desperate infighting among political factions is driven, not by competing ideologies, but by competition to control the limited feeding space around the trough. The main differences between this kind of corruption, and that of the current crowd in Washington, is that in the U.S. there is so much to go around that even Enron didn't get noticed for 15 years; here there is far less to go around, but the spoils are far more equitably distributed--trickle-down economics in action. Ideological differences are mainly window dressing, used to mobilize those voters whom no-one has bothered to buy. So say our local sources. Is this view accurate? Given that it is repeated by almost everyone we ask, no matter their political philosophy or affiliation, it probably contains more than a bit of truth.

Somehow, through it all, India does not appear in danger of giving up on democracy altogether. Perhaps the fragmentation of various factions guarantees that. The question is whether the political chaos is mere noise, or a real impediment to broader advancment. As we have seen this afternoon, there is real material progress. Perhaps we shouldn’t read the papers, but merely focus on what is within our reach.

After a pleasant afternoon with family and friends, we drive back into Delhi, back into the dust and the crowds. It is late dusk. The shadowy forms of the shanties, the makeshift fires here and there, the dull red glow in the sky, give everything the feel of one of those post-apocalyptic movies, where strange machines grind on through the night, past encampments of people thrust back into the stone age. It is an eerie and disquieting feeling.

Next: Kolkata


Anonymous Gerald O D'Sena said...

Having lived in and being educated in India, I enjoy your dialogue, and understand its perspective. Much of what you write about, was the same when I lived there, except now there is recognition that the stress on education that always existed, is now in the forefront, and is being utilized in a fashion that I feel is providing an impetus to the citizens of the country.Will write more later. Thank you for your fluent expression of thought, and your engaging views.

January 08, 2006 7:16 PM  
Blogger Carlos Zapato said...

Thanks for your thoughts. Do you think there are specific policies that would help India develop more effectively?

January 13, 2006 10:28 PM  

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