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Thursday, October 27, 2011

India, twenty years after

It has been twenty years since the fairly ambitious economic reforms (grouped under the headings of liberalization-privatization-globalization) were launched in 1991 under the stewardship of the then Union Finance Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, with the blessings of both the International Monetary Fund and Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. Many of my readers have grown up over this period (I have in mind all who were less than 18 in 1991), so what went before is history to them; even, as I fear is likely, mostly unknown history.

In  short then, India did not really change course (that is, shake off its Nehruvian socialistic legacy, as modified in the Indira Gandhi era) of her own will; she was forced by extreme circumstances. The public sector driven model of growth had stagnated, if not entirely failed, technology had remained by and large primitive, the economy was in the doldrums, poverty and unemployment were rampant, shortages of essential commodities a part of daily life, corruption was perceived to be eating into the vitals of society like a cancer (sounds familiar?), and we had come perilously close to national bankruptcy. The Soviet Union had collapsed, the US was triumphant, China was growing spectacularly along the path of ‘market socialism’ shown by Deng Xiaoping, and Rajiv Gandhi had induced a vague sense of national urgency: ‘the future is being determined by drift and not by direction’. So it was decided at the highest level to give ‘new ideas’ a try (in a manner of speaking – basically it was a tentative throwback to 19th century free-for-all capitalism which had been thoroughly discredited and reviled worldwide three generations ago!) In  a nutshell, government began to relax controls and step back in almost all spheres of life, while encouraging private initiative and capital, both domestic and foreign, to ‘go forth and multiply’.  

What has happened in these twenty years, if we try to draw up a report card?

First, the good news.

  • We have jumped on to a much higher GNP growth curve, and for more than a decade we have been among the fastest growing economies in the world,
  • The economy has certainly opened up to a considerable degree, so that well-off urban consumers today can buy almost all global brands of consumer goods off the shelf,
  • Our foreign exchange reserves have ballooned,
  • Some sectors, such as telecom, IT, pharmaceuticals, automobiles and airlines have experienced spectacular growth,
  • We now have several dozen dollar billionaires (growing yearly), and more than 100,000 high net worth individuals (owning disposable assets worth more than a million dollars), and a comfortably off, high-aspirational middle class estimated to be anything between 60 and 150 million strong,
  • We are a nuclear power (but so are failed states like Pakistan and North Korea!), planning missions to the moon, and being engaged by big powers including the US, Russia and China in globally significant cooperative projects (albeit still in a rather small way, considering our size and our idea of our own importance).

However, the flip side list would be much longer (I’d prefer my readers to draw it up for themselves, perhaps helped along by a lot of things I have written here earlier!).

In order to emerge as definitely a great power respected worldwide within another 25 years (one generation), India, I think, absolutely must concentrate on achieving at least the following

  • Maintaining an overall annual economic growth rate of 7%-plus per annum,
  • Quickly reducing the annual population growth rate to about 0.5%,
  • Sustained pursuit of anti-poverty programs to reduce the proportion of desperately poor people to less than 5% (compared to varying current expert estimates of between 26 and 40%), and
  • Conserving and improving upon all the resources, natural, cultural, technical and spiritual, that we (still-) have.

In turn, in order to achieve the above, we must

  • Mount a serious and sustained national anti-corruption campaign, starting with massive electoral reforms,
  • Reorganise education so that it simultaneously serves two equally critical objectives: a) giving the vast majority of the population basic education and saleable skills (by which I mean everything from plumbing to surgery) for a living, alongwith a minimum of civic sense, and b) allowing the intellectual elite to flourish, so that a new outburst of creativity of the highest order is encouraged, equally in the sciences and the arts: there is no other way for a country to be regarded as a world leader,
  • Build infrastructure on a war footing – roads, ports, airports, canals, bridges, dams, power stations, housing, new cities by the score and the like,
  • Make the richest 10% pay for all the developmental expenditure in a much bigger way than they have done since 1947 through a war on hidden wealth and a combination of sternly implemented income tax, wealth tax, inheritance tax, luxury consumption tax and gifts tax (in 2006, they held 53% of the country’s total wealth: see the table under the heading ‘Living standards’ at this website. The figure has been rising continuously, and I won’t be surprised if it has crossed 60% in 2011: 10% of the population holding 60% of the country’s wealth – and that too, not taking account of the huge black economy!), because there are no other sources of the enormous funds that will be necessary, and tens of millions of people enjoying the advantage of good roads and clean drinking water is infinitely more important than a few thousands living in palaces and driving BMWs,
  • Ensure a far stronger, more efficient maintenance of law and order in day to day life, with particular attention to the weakest sections – women, children, the handicapped, the old and the ill, more especially the poor among these categories regardless of caste, creed and location  – than we have had the good fortune to enjoy so far,
  • Make a concerted and vigorous nationwide campaign to improve the natural environment and preserve the literary/artistic heritage (both being so neglected and so seriously on the verge of ruin at present as to raise fears that the country will soon become unliveable physically and barbaric culturally).

A few things must be remembered in this context:

  • Though our GDP (in purchasing power parity-adjusted terms) might exceed that of the USA by mid-century, by per capita income we are still likely to remain a rather poor country, given our enormous population,
  • Right now, we are rapidly becoming a dual nation – in terms of the rural/urban divide, the educational divide, the cultural divide, the income/wealth divide – can progress be sustained for long under these conditions?
  • We are not, I think, a hardworking nation: we work only if we are compelled to (which I think explains the success of NRIs). Is there a solution to this problem, without dictatorship of some kind (which I am against because of both strategic and moral considerations)?
  • We do not learn from past mistakes, unlike many other nations. Can this be changed?
  • The young among the most privileged sections, in terms of both education and income, are rapidly becoming sure that there is nothing to aim for in life beyond money and shopping: your degree of success varies only in terms of how much you make and spend (and how you make your money is unimportant: being a fashion model or video jockey or cocktail shaker is ‘better’ than being a teacher or poet or scientist or soldier if it helps to make easy money more quickly. Note well: their parents overwhelmingly agree – no ‘generation gap’ here!). Also, aping American slang is their only index of smart discourse, and ignorance, far from being shameful, is rapidly becoming okay, if not actually a matter of pride: one no longer has to know anything to claim the right to hold strong opinions. Has any nation become great with this quality of human resources?  Can google really substitute for both brains and consciences?

In March 2010, I wrote a post titled Join this debate. The response from my readers was rather tepid. I am trying to rekindle the argument. Let us see whether I succeed this time. For clarity’s sake, readers may comment categorically on a) whether they agree that I have a big dream for my country or not, b) whether it is a good dream, c) whether it is likely to come true within the near future, and d) what obstacles stand in the way. Do write in with thoughtful comments. Most of my readers are much younger than I am: remember it is your future that I am discussing here.

P.S.: I have been reading Sugata Bose’s new biography of Subhas Chandra Bose, and have been trying to think of India’s future as Subhas might have thought if he were alive now, and about my age (exactly the age when he vanished from the public eye). I refuse to believe that his thoughts would have been less valuable for India than Nandan Nilekani’s. No personal slight intended against the last-named: it’s only that I hate to see ‘dwarfs in giant’s robes’ being hailed as giants. As I wrote somewhere before, once we had the likes of Vivekananda, Gandhi, Tagore, Subhas and Jagadish Bose to look up to, now we have SRK and Dhoni and Nilekani and Hazare. Speaks volumes for the road India has travelled since 1947…

Thursday, October 20, 2011

IT glory!

An old boy of mine, who has been working for a top-of-the-line IT company for nearly two years, has written bitterly about his experience here. It makes me sad, firstly because I love the boy, and secondly because, despite this being the ground reality, millions of parents all around this country are still drumming it into the minds of their teenage children that they must 'study science' to the exclusion of all other subjects, then sit for the engineering entrance exams, then get a 'good' job - only to end up in this state of disillusionment and misery in their mid-20s: after which, if they blame their parents for ruining their lives, the parents would give the lame excuse that they only did what 'everybody' said was best for their child. The post also gives a glimpse of the sordid reality behind India's so-called success story. It takes a brave young man to confess the truth publicly. I hope a lot of my readers will not only visit that blogpost, but also comment here, saying  they now understand what I warn them about and against, though I know how unpopular it makes me with their parents who supply me with my daily bread...

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Story sequel

This is a post with a difference, in the sense that I didn't write it. Some time ago I had tentatively posted the first part of a story in the making, and got disheartened with the almost complete lack of response. It turns out, however, that someone was deeply interested: my old boy Debarshi Saha (a student of engineering, too) has taken the trouble to write the conclusion of that story in his own way. I have pasted the thing as he wrote it below. Goes without saying that both he and I will be glad to read comments about how it went down...


These people are incomprehensible; and yes, also frightening! How do you account for the wordless language that binds me and my customers together? No matter how strange the request, how varied the tastes, I never disappoint them. Earlier, when I was a novice, my customers would praise a certain seller and his lip-smacking recipe, and advise me to be more like the individual. Those days were strange- me combing the streets of this town to find the elusive recipe that would entice his customers away from him, finding it, and perfecting my art; Now, I come up with improvisations frequently, and love to deliver to my customers the tangy taste that lingers behind- and keeps bringing them back to me frequently! Over the years, I have learned to love them all- Yes, I love the bespectacled banker who is always in a hurry, the little girl who gives me an impish grin, the young couples who always fiddle about with their mobile phones, and even the schoolboys who chatter like magpies- I love them all. I have learned to live with the condescending sneer directed by some towards me, the mournful air assumed by hapless lovers, the happy smiles some bestow towards me, and the gasps uttered by some on finding my paani-puri too spicy!

I often look wistfully at the temple gates, and catch myself feeling equal, at par with everybody else, in front of the Creator- who, strangely enough, was the one who ordained me to be different from my fellow-men! Is Life one never-ending cruel joke? I have spent many seasons in the sun, spent countless hours trudging down the water-logged roads to home, getting drenched in torrential outbursts, but still, I have held onto Hope, maybe the most beautiful thing of all. Walking down lonely and dark roads, with only the stillness of the surroundings to keep me company- I have been able to hear my own voice for once, in this industrial town, where most people are stone-deaf. I remember the day, when, as I was wending my way back home along a dark alley, I witnessed an accident. The man was flung from his scooter like a rag-doll, which skidded and thumped onto the wall, sustaining serious damage. He hadn’t accounted for the careless patch of oil left behind by some callous tanker, which led to this disaster. I remember rushing to his side, and cradling his head in my arms- He looked up at me beseechingly, with eyes that wanted to live, out of a socket that had begun to bleed. I hysterically screamed at the top of my lungs, rushing towards a nearby shop for help- and after that, the moments seem to have gone by in a flash. He was helped onto a private car, and whisked away to a hospital- by the kindly owner of the shop. I returned home, and spent the rest of the fateful night tossing and turning about in bed, thinking about the fragile gift of Life, which we all possess; but so few of us cherish! I remember going down on my knees and thanking God profusely, clutching my wife and son tightly to my chest.

The next day, I went about my work as usual and I remember thinking, “I wonder if he’s all right. Let no man die before his time has come.” I do not remember all the details, but I remember the motorcycle that halted at my stall, the person who jumped off it and embraced me like a brother! The flush that filled my cheeks and the wave of joy that ran through my heart- sent my pulse racing, when I learnt that the person was the victim’s son, and that his father owed his life to my timely action, and that he was now on his way to recovery. His father had wished to see me, and so I accompanied him to the hospital- in the midst of Life we are surrounded by Death, aren’t we? The man was a private construction contractor, who offered me a daily job as a worker- an offer I refused, and wished to pass onto my prodigal elder son, who had returned home with an empty pocket and a heavy heart, rife with evil habits. He gladly accepted, and I returned home feeling on top of the world- Little did I know the evil design that Life seemed to have fashioned with the fabric of fate.

A fool and his money are soon parted; a drunkard and his life are soon parted too. Intoxicated with country liquor, my son fell to his death from 5 storeys above while trying to climb onto a precariously constructed porch. This happened six months after that day, and has been a memory that haunts me to this day. I cannot begin to assuage my grief still; as the thought torments me every waking hour- Did I send him to his death? He was my flesh and blood, and I will always love him, no matter what. I wanted him to be a man; he ended up a corpse. I wanted him to work hard with his hands and tools; he drove the nail not through the plank of wood, but through my heart. I attempted to drown my sorrows, partaking of the same victuals that pushed my son towards his death- As I stumbled back, with every drunken step leading me towards home, I started thinking; Was I better off dead, or a quitter? I had hoped a few drinks would help me forget him, but after one too many, I started shouting his name all over town, with slurred verses and blurred vision. I have put all those days behind me, with my wife’s love, care and support in those dark times. But, all I wanted was words, his words; and all I heard was nothing.

I now have a radio to keep me company- the foot-tapping, peppy beats of popular numbers that the garrulous radio jockeys belt out are a big hit with my younger customers. They affirm Life and its endless stream of energy, as do marriage halls bedecked and adorned with streamers and flashing lights, venues for the banquets hosted by Life. I have started saving money to arrange for my younger one’s marriage, so that his child will be born, not into a world of bleak landscapes and squalor- but into a world where he might have a chance to live his life. In my childhood, I wanted to be like Mohan, my neighbouring grocer; like Birju, the village fisherman- and then I never became any of them. I would want him to go back to my village, far from the madding crowd, and live a simple, yet happy life. Do I aspire too much for my family? I close my eyes for a moment and the moment’s gone, while all my dreams pass before my eyes with curiosity at my naivety. Had I not yet learnt my lesson?

Anything you do in Life might be insignificant; but it is very important that you do it- because no one else will. All we are, is, dust in the wind, a drop in the endless ocean of Time, the same old song- still, we are humans, albeit divine beings having a worldly experience. None of these words are mine, but the wisecracks by the inquisitive author, who happened to frequent my stall once and still does now, though nowadays he doesn’t linger that long- my stories are getting over quickly! Upon hearing my story, he remarked that a story worth remembering was a story worth narrating. He struck me as the sort of fellow, who, having endured snide remarks from his bourgeoisie friends, was impatient to exhibit an understanding of Life, far beyond his years. Well, he badgered me with questions and “read my eyes” for a long time, when at last he came to his best & final offer of letting me finish my story! How I loved him then, even as I started searching for answers- for becoming the hero of the story, the poor hero whom everyone loves but no one wants to emulate!

I proudly brandished the faded, smudged old sepia photograph of me and my family- the only one proof of our lives - kissed it, held it to my heart and said, “Tell them, let everyone know, that I lived a very happy life and died a very happy man. Tell them, living Life was the happiest moment of my life, although I didn’t know it!” If any of you read this story, or if he ever writes it- do stop by my stall to stare at Life, otherwise you might miss it altogether. My daydreams have transformed my beloved town into a town of signs and spectres; my experience with Life has left me with a map of society’s rituals and mores, and my photograph, with the story of one man’s broken heart.


Hello everybody! This is the first time that my muse has granted me permission to reveal myself to you all, who might be reading his story. I couldn’t bring myself to accept the fact that the calluses on his hands, the way of feeling under-rated and unappreciated, the twinkle in his tired eyes when he laughed, were not enough to make him unhappy, to take away his courage, when he looked into my eyes and proclaimed himself to be a very happy man. I flung down my pen and stared at the ceiling, thinking to myself the same thought that would come back to haunt me again and again. You know the riff of a tune, the strains of a violin, and the whiff of the melody in a song that plays over and over in your head- this was the thought that pulled at my very heartstrings, when I realized that maybe Happiness was something you could only pursue, and never reach.

I attempted to visit him many more times, but he never set up his stall near the temple gates again. I wrote nine letters, five of which I put in envelopes, and none of which I posted- he was a man, who carried his home about in his very heart. I resolved to forget about him; He was just another man I had known, among the anodyne sea of acquaintances I had. But I never could. He taught me to keep fighting and to live, something I had never known. Whenever I snuggled into my cosy bed on a chilly night, whenever I sat down at the table to partake of a sumptuous meal, whenever I watched happy people milling around me, I remembered him and his eyes. He had the audacity to dream when Life seemed to be one un-ending nightmare; he had the tenacity to keep dreaming when he should have stopped hoping. Life had not granted him a field of dreams to till; he still had the courage to smile back at Life, when Life frowned at him. But, I did not tell you all this to serve as a mere homily- I wrote down all this so that you all could live your lives, before it is too late. It is never too late to live, is it?

[The paani-puri seller went back to his village, and set up an elementary school, with just two students- his younger son and Mohan the greengrocer’s son. Moved by his efforts, the villagers chipped in and built their school brick by brick. His younger son would go on to become the first graduate from their village, with the help of an NGO that received a letter from a certain individual. Coming back to the village, his son re-modelled his father’s dreams into the first school for his village and neighbouring villages- he named it in memory of his father, and dedicated its mission to the spirit of a brave heart, his father. His grandson would become the first doctor to receive the President’s medal for extraordinary services rendered to his countrymen. The NGO nominated his son as their President, and continues to serve many more fighters across the country. It all started with the letter from the author, who sent his friend’s life story to the NGO. He would go on to publish many more novels, after numerous initial rejections, and eventually win the Sahitya Akademi award. In his emotional acceptance speech, he would affirm that every beauty of Life, and Life itself, deserved a novel. He had dedicated his first published novel to the spirit of his friend, who taught him to live luminously betwixt the two legions of darkness.]

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Steve Jobs, RIP

Well, Steve Jobs is dead. Goodbye, Steve, and sleep well.

Something very personal first. Sudhirda was taken from me by the same disease, cancer of the pancreas. Money and fame gave Steve a few years’ respite, but not very long. No matter how cruel it might sound (and I say this only because Sudhirda mattered to me infinitely more than Steve did), I find it comforting to think that money and fame can take you only so far. I only wish, as one human being for another, that he had got the Biblical three score years and ten.

There is a global outpouring of ‘grief’ in progress right now, of course, and it is only to be expected. Most of these mourners are actually dimly conscious that when they assure the spirit of Steve that they will always remember and admire him, they actually mean that he will be entirely forgotten in, at most, ten years’ time. And that’s quite fitting, too, I think, because (and again I don’t care how unfashionable this sounds), the finest thing he did in his lifetime was composing that Stanford University 2005 commencement speech. As for all the other ‘world-changing’ achievements, he was just one of those techies with sharp marketing skills who got lucky (it only happens in the USA, too!) – anybody who really knows anything about the history of scientific invention and innovation (I wonder how many engineers today belong to that category) will concur wholeheartedly. Glorifying him out of all proportion is actually insulting lots of equally talented innovators who never made the headlines simply because they didn’t make much money; some among them actually helped Steve himself a great deal from behind the shadows. And basically he was nothing more than a toymaker (what’s the iPad more than a toy? And how important is it in our lives if weighed beside, say, electricity or chloroform? One might as well say that the men who designed Barbie and the zip fastener and the first aerated cold drink changed the world forever!). Gandhi was born this month, and this country finds it more cool to mourn Jobs right now than him, regardless of the fact that someone of the stature of Albert Einstein (who, I think, will be remembered a trifle longer than Jobs) had said at the time of his death that ‘generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth’. The father of an old boy of mine, a doctor, noticing the ‘mourning’ on Facebook, exclaimed this morning ‘A toymaker is more important than Gandhi now? The world has progressed a great deal indeed since we were of your age’.

Someone has saluted Steve Jobs on Facebook with ‘We are what we are because of you’. I wonder whether or not that would have made Steve squirm with embarrassment, despite his billions. I know for a fact that some great ‘successes’ are acutely ashamed of their success. Michael Jackson hated listening to pop music, and Andrew Grove, maverick founder CEO of Intel Corp, once remarked about what the internet was doing to humanity: ‘We are drowning in a vast ocean of trivia’. As for Steve’s success, the Dalai Lama would have said with a gentle deprecating smile that he was only one of those who created a world where ‘we have wonderful things to communicate with, and nothing to communicate’ (most sms-es are forwarded jokes and similar crap, aren’t they?). If that makes a ‘great man’, I can do without greatness. I shall think Solon and the Buddha and Michelangelo and Tagore and men of their ilk when I talk about vision and greatness. Let history judge. Very ordinary people can look like giants if we ourselves have become pygmies…

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Panagarh: perpetual nightmare

This is about something close to home that has been irking me no end for a long time. A tiny stretch of highway in a more or less permanently hopeless condition has been making an otherwise swift and pleasurable road trip to Kolkata a nightmare, and nobody really seems to care.

As I think I have said before, I regard the building of this new highway as one of the few unequivocally good things that have happened to this town in the last forty years. It has cut down travelling time to half, made driving a pleasure rather than a nasty chore, and greatly increased land values in and around Durgapur, among other things. It comes back to me that back in December 2000, when we were going to Asansol to catch a train for a holiday trip, we were marvelling at how much smoother and wider the road now was. And already at that time we were talking about how all the ‘flyovers’ had made things simpler for highway drivers (much of the time on the road earlier was spent idling at railway crossings), and how only a little narrow congested stretch through Panagarh was keeping things from being idyllic: how it had become essential for the road and bridge to be widened, and for a flyover to be thrown over the crowded market stretch.

In the years that followed, the luxury Volvo buses came into regular service, and travelling by road became a dream: I have sometimes done the trip in two and a half hours flat, sleeping comfortably all the way. Things had changed so much that the airconditioned coaches in the trains were rarely filled up any more. And yet, there was this one nagging glitch: people in thousands of buses, cars and trucks got stuck for long spells at traffic jams only at Panagarh.

And now, with the road in that short stretch having become filled with potholes and frequently waterlogged, the nightmare has returned in full force. People are getting stuck for hours together, and accidents, even fatal ones, have become a daily routine, as this news report takes note. I find it strange to think that despite the daily suffering of so many people, and the colossal waste of time and money, the authorities are dragging their feet over making essential repairs, leave alone starting construction of that long-delayed flyover. Ten years is not enough to address a major public grievance in this country, which, as so many people insist, is ‘progressing’ very rapidly. Apparently even the land needed to widen the road was acquired as long ago as 2003, and yet! If I know the authorities concerned (and I learnt a great deal about them in my journalistic days), the district magistrate would pass the buck to the National Highway Authority, who would in turn blame either the finance ministry for not coughing up the funds needed or the local politicians for creating hindrances every inch of the way, who in all probability would point at the strenuous objections of the hundreds of shopkeepers of various descriptions whose establishments line both sides of the road – objections which couldn’t be addressed one way or the other in a whole decade! As my father used to say, ‘Not taking a decision is itself a decision, and that is one thing we Indians are congenitally good at.’ I wonder: would this kind of a logjam have been allowed to persist for so long in either a capitalist country like Germany or a communist dispensation like China? Or is there something special about India that cannot be understood in terms of these paradigms?

[psst: Do vote on my poll if you haven’t already]