Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Final India Dispatch: Kolkata

To the minds of westerners, Calcutta has long symbolized mass human misery. The few images that are available, in venues such as Life Magazine, National Geographic and the occasional documentary on Mother Teresa, typically depict unending seas of people living in unbearable conditions. As we prepare to land, we wonder: what is Kolkata like today? Does the name change mean anything?

We arrive at night. The airport is a huge improvement over the disaster that is Delhi's airport. Outside the terminal, the air has a slight tropical taste, complemented by palm trees and people in short sleeves. The temperature on New Year's day is comfortable--a foreshadowing of the unbearable heat to come in summer. Only vague impressions, lights and silhouettes, are visible from the car, but already the feeling is different. Kolkata is more vertical than Delhi, and there is life everywhere. It has the feeling of a real city.

Kolkata was the heart of British India, and in the light of day, the signs are everywhere: in the architecture, the place names and the air of history. The largest edifice in the city is the Victoria Memorial, a gargantuan marble palace with domes and columns and several wings, sitting near one end of the Maidan, Kolkata's huge open-space park. There are, in the old sections of town, rows of grand houses in varying mixes of European styles. Some were built by the Brits, others by various Bengal princes and tycoons, who managed to ride out the colonial period in grand style.

A British East India Company cemetary lies just off the main shopping street, serving as a quiet sanctuary in the midst of chaos. The monuments inside are ostentatious, though stained with soot and mold, and evince a strangely Egyptian obsession with pyramids. Most of the people buried here died before they turned 30, yet they had been captains, professors, mayors, barristers, and society ladies. There are few visitors to the cemetary, and those we see today are speaking something that sounds like Czech.

Woven around this monumental infrastructure are the slums and bazaars, crushed into an endless maze of narrow, twisting streets and alleys. Cutting through it all are a few major thoroughfares, vestiges, ironically, of the pre-British era, when townsfolk made pilgrimages from their communities to the north to local burial grounds and temples in the south. Hordes of people wend their way through these alleys, and along the edges of the larger avenues, past shops, tea-stalls, cobbler stands, and open-air vegetable markets. Laundry hangs everywhere. We wonder where they wash clothing, and then pass the answer: huge, rectangular stone wells, at intervals along the roads, gushing water into open cisterns. We pass men, stripped to their breechcloths, bathing in water scooped from the cisterns in banged-up metal pots. Amid all the filth there is still a desire to keep oneself clean. In a society still constrained by strict codes of modesty, such a ritual is out of the question for women, so we are left wondering how they accomplish the same goal.

We are told that the hordes are largely from outside the city--Biharis, East Bengalis, others, who have swarmed into the only major city in this part of India, in search of work. And they do appear to be working; at night there are few of them left on the streets--they have found shelter in the tenements that crowd in among the old buildings. But with the carelessness of people who do not own the place, they litter on a gargantuan scale. There are cleaning crews that come at night, but overall there hangs an organic smell, part decaying garbage, part local spices and the aroma of cooking fires.

Bengal is an anomaly in India, a state run by a Marxist government. Everywhere there are pro-worker slogans painted or scrawled on walls. They are not official, but are sanctioned by the local officials. Contrary to today's orthodoxy, Bengal is also one of the more prosperous states in India, with a growth rate among the top eight. It is not one of the centers of high-tech growth, but has attracted a sizeable new-industry element, mostly in software. Still, the population of poor grows faster than the economy. With the influx of migrant workers and refugees, the human burden seems more than the place can bear.

Outside the city itself, we pass wide open spaces that are being converted into industrial parks and tract housing. The construction is done by crews using their hands, moving dirt in small baskets carried by relays of villagers, men and women alike. Where labour is so cheap and plentiful, it would make no sense to bring in heavy equipment, so there is very little. But there are ambitious plans afoot, judging by the miles of land that have been marked off for future construction.

Final thoughts from this trip:

Is India a credible rival to China, as the next economic superpower? All of the numbers say that it is falling steadily behind, but is still in the running. India’s overall GDP growth lags that of China, but at 7% for the past decade, is far ahead of that in the G8 countries. In foreign direct investment, India has fallen off the map. Still, India has key strengths that could keep it in the game, including the emergence of a young manager class and the continued flood of graduates from its highly-regarded IIT system. In certain sectors, India is ahead, especially business process outsourcing, where English language skills count. India runs a trade surplus with China, but the base is narrow and could evaporate quickly.

Statistics don’t lie, but they don’t tell a complete story. Nothing can replace direct observation, for forming a sense of the texture of a place. For this writer, having traveled in the interior of China, as well having spent a lot of time in its showcase cities, the contrast with India is unmistakable. For all its troubles and challenges, China has crossed a threshhold. Its worries are now different from those of India. It is no longer coping with the kind of poverty and suffering that we more typically associate with the “third world”. India still is. China's corruption, while pervasive, is driven by constructive pressures--the desire to control and be credited for advancement. India's corruption is driven by the desire to steal.

The irony is there for all to see. Ideologues in the West insist that China, a dictatorship, cannot possibly be a better model than India, a democracy. Perhaps they will eventually turn out to be right. China certainly faces deadly challenges, including its own growing gap between the rich coasts and the poor interior. But so far, the results say China is doing better. India’s political freedom, which is real and is to be nurtured, has nevertheless not produced a class of political leaders with a sense of mission. India must develop a sense of mission, if it is to fulfill its promise.


Anonymous murgie said...

From the New York Times's Nicholas Kristof: http://select.nytimes.com/2006/01/17/opinion/17kristof.html?hp

Offers a similar take on India vs China; blames Indian democracy for inability to improve infrastructure. This may be correct but is incomplete.

My own take is that there has been improvement in infrastructure even if it has been limited. The benchmarks used by you and Nick Kristof are natural to you, not to Indians, who compare with what was the norm till a few years ago, and find things changing for the better. I grew up in Bombay, and didn't think anything would ever be implemented to improve the quality of life. Yet on my last trip home (Jan 2005) I was amazed to see that air quality had noticeably improved, due to a rapid expansion of public transportation (buses) using CNG (compressed natural gas). There is no disputing that there is still a LONG way to go before we match even middle-ranking countries of Asia in infrastructure, but what has been achieved in the last few years actually suggests hope. India may be a tortoise, but the tortoise is moving!

For all the mess and chaos, how things don't fall apart in a major crisis is still very remarkable. Last July 27, Bombay experienced enormous rainfall within a short period and the over-construction of housing without adequate drainage showed dramatically. There was chest-high flooding in many areas and many had to abandon their cars and struggle to get home. Yet unlike New Orleans which buckled under Katrina, dwellers of even the slums that you like many others (including most Indians as well) have found disturbing showed incredible unselfishness and generosity and helped many stranded folks with water, biscuits, and suggestions on safer ways to walk home.
The day before Divali a terroist explosion in Delhi killed 60+ people. And the next day people were out doing their festival shopping, regardless. Terrorists kill, but they don't succeed in creating terror.
It's impossible not to be optimistic after reading such stories.

I also don't see the need to do an India vs China comparison, and allow story-seeking journalists set the agenda for everyone else. Also while visual evidence from Shanghai and the prosperous coastal cities of China is powerful, economic statistics from India come from an open society (a society that has been open for 5000+ years, and allowed the whole world to see it, warts and all), and inspire more confidence in their reliability.

For India my concern is less with the pace of change, or even with the state of infrastructure, than with the ever-increasing inequality. At some point this will have to become unsustainable. While better roads and cleaner cities are important, wider access to better quality primary education or elementary health care should get more attention.

January 16, 2006 8:15 PM  
Anonymous Brent said...

IMHO India's also made a big mistake by putting so many of its eggs into one language basket, i.e., English as the foreign language that students study in school, to the virtual exclusion of many other non-Indian tongues. In this sense, China has an advantage even in outsourcing, since it indeed does have a large pool of English speakers (all those "sea turtles" returning with newly minted degrees in the USA), but the Chinese are more diverse in their foreign language skills, with lots of people learning Japanese in particular, as well as French and especially German. (An old business associate of mine was astonished at the numbers of Chinese who were at least conversant in German-- he'd worked for a while in Austria-- and he chalked it up to China's continual fascination with German classical music composers, scientists and inventors like Daimler and Heisenberg, mathematicians like Gauss, and philosophers, especially Kant, who gets much higher billing than Karl Marx these days.)

The upshot of this is that China is sort of moving in the direction of Eastern Europe and Israel, where people have a wide range of foreign language fluencies and can attract business from across the world. (Even the Philippines has a big Spanish-speaking population and lots of people who know Japanese, since so many Filipinos work for a while in those countries.) As a result, China is less sensitive to the "bottoming out" that's currently occurring with US/UK outsourcing, and can get offshoring business from throughout the world.

I don't think that India's history as a British colony is an excuse, since at independence, very few Indians could actually use English. I just sense it's a misappropriated infatuation with the economic potential of US-based outsourcing which, as we've come to realize, has hit a peak and is starting to decline. Fortunately, some Indian companies have caught onto this and are having their workers train in German or French to try to capture more business, but they're starting from behind in the pack. India needs speakers of those languages, and fast, or else it's going to lose its outsourcing edge.

January 18, 2006 12:31 AM  
Anonymous murgie said...

The importance of English to India goes way beyond the current (possibly transient) outsourcing wave. Americans do not easily appreciate how diverse India is -- the most diverse square mile in New York City will not have anything close to the diversity of the average square mile in any Indian city. It is normal for an Indian to be at least bilingual, even to occasionally fashion one sentence with more than one language. On an Indian currency note I think the denomination is now written in some 24 languages, and these are distinct languages, not dialects, and many with histories and literatures extending deep back into history if not antiquity, with different scripts, and associated cultures and traditions.

Once you reckon with differences in religion, caste, language, etc. English is one the few sources of glue providing a pan-Indian identity (cricket is another). Other identities based on caste or religion do also prevail, sometimes generating violence and hate, sometimes celebration. The pan-Indian identity fostered by English is no guarantee we'll solve our problems -- the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen described India recently as an inherently argumentative society, and certainly the evidence for even hair-splitting argument goes back to the days of the Buddha! But I think it improves the chances.

While the very strict old-fashioned Anglo-Indian English teacher I had in elementary school may not always approve of the way English has developed and has been used in India, I think the way we've taken it and made it our own is one of the few things we've done somewhat right. In first imparting English education, the British may have intended only to create a few cheap clerks for British firms but notwithstanding differences with the colonial power enough folks saw in it more good than bad that the language developed roots and has helped bind Indians whose other identities would have otherwise made it hard to unite (amongst ourselves or with others elsewhere) for any purpose. My only concern here is that in some parts of the country this domestication of English and creation of a local English may sometimes have gone to the point where knowing the local language or at least being familiar with its typical accent, drawl, etc becomes critical even to understanding the local English.

Your point about English by itself leading to diminishing returns in the glocal outsourcing market may be valid, but given a population of a billion I am sure there is someone somewhere in India learning Estonian or Swahili. Perhaps there should be more opportunity in India to learn Spanish or German with presumably more market importance. But given the scale and nature of problems we face English as lingua franca is critical: its importance to us goes way beyond outsourcing. And it's gratifying that even our liguistic chauvinists who periodically vent against English for political expediency haven't succeeded much.

January 19, 2006 6:27 AM  
Blogger Carlos Zapato said...

Interesting comments from both of you, and lots of truth. To the comments by Sen, I would add the observations by Dipankar Gupta (Mistaken Modernity) that India has adopted the trappings of modernity without fully appreciating the underlying values, in particular the notions of fundamental equality of rights.

I agree with you Murgie that the India-China comparison may not be necessary, but it is one that is raised all the time, by, of all people, Indians. In my travels I constantly heard people defensively raising pre-emptive arguments as to why India is doing almost as well as China.

Here is the defining statistic: Since Independence, the percentage of Indians in poverty, as defined by the Government's own standard, has declined from over 60% to around 30%. The population has grown 3-fold, meaning the TOTAL NUMBER of Indians in poverty has increaased from about 200 Million to almost 350 Million. By the former measure the glass is half full, the the latter it is half empty. That is the conundrum.

January 27, 2006 10:45 AM  

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