On the Road to Disaster in India

World Politics Review |


On the Uttar Pradesh-Bihar frontier, the chungi system is alive and well. One of the most unnecessary legacies of British colonialism, no less than five kilometers of trucks -- those colorfully decorated and melodically horned belching beasts, overloaded with everything from steel beams to sacks of flour -- sit idle, waiting to show their permits, sales tax chits, and other sheaves of documents to corrupt officers.

My mother and I are on a nostalgic road trip from Delhi to Calcutta, driving on both emperor Akbar's famed Grand Trunk road and its newest incarnation, the much touted "Quadrangle" project of major highways linking India's largest cities: Delhi, Calcutta, Mumbai, and Chennai. We're visiting the cities of our birth -- me in Kanpur, and my mother in Banares (Varanasi) -- and taking an honest stock of India's superlatives: economic growth, social freedom and religious diversity, yes, but also over-population, corruption, and pollution. India's northern belt is ground zero for all of these. That India arrived late in initiating economic reforms is an old story. Now we are told that India is unstoppably on the move. Tell that to the truckers now 40 km behind us. In certain stretches, the Quadrangle's two lanes are smooth. But even a clear highway is precarious here. Rather than bypass villages, the road sometimes goes straight through them, picking up cattle, pedestrians, cyclists, and beggars along the way. We swerve constantly to avoid these and other impediments. There is so much uncoordinated construction that we drive on detours of detours. On the best stretch, 75 kph would be cruising Nevada-style. But on our left the cab of a tractor-trailer is face down in a ditch. A crowd has gathered and barefoot, dust-covered women are weeping. Those stuck in the chungi line and those scraping forward on the Quadrangle expose the twin disasters of India's current development paradigm. Rather than treating infrastructure -- roads, ports, railways, airports -- as the sacred pillar of broad economic growth, it remains haphazardly executed at best. Building a two-lane highway for a billion-person country could hardly be considered planning with foresight. Not only will this Quadrangle not live up to its promise physically, but India's politics, the other failure, are also completely out of synch. The federal government recommends one policy, the states do another, and corrupt intermediaries siphon off everything they can. My mom said it best back at the U.P.-Bihar checkpoint: "Bihar might as well be another country without a military." India is smilingly synonymous with chaos. Unlike China, it cannot be said with a straight face that India has a plan. A fair sampling of articles on India today would reveal headlines about the growing number of Indian billionaires on the Forbes list, Indian firms snapping up Western steel and auto makers and competing for Arab oil, and the country's blossoming IT and biotech sectors, but also the proliferating suicides of indentured farmers, the Maoist-Naxalite insurgencies in eastern states, and the bloody sectarian tensions playing out from Gujarat to West Bengal. Indian businessmen proudly boast that "India works when the government gets out of the way." But who will protect their giant retail grocery stores when they are attacked by mobs of angry local farmers, as happened to the Ambani clan's newly minted outlet in the state of Jharkand recently? It's great that even the dhobi wallah can talk on a cell phone while pressing clothes on a wooden cart with a 5-kilogram iron, but that doesn't change the fact that if he tries to pedal his bike to the next town, he is likely to be hit by a truck. No doubt development is a messy process. But to assume that just because Western industrialization witnessed employment, growth, declining fertility rates, and improved education the same will happen here is as useful as praying for the afterlife. Many of the relatives we are visiting are part of the new so-called middle class in India, owning a car, a motorcycle or two, and satellite television. They have adequate education, and are proud of their material achievements. And they have kids coming out of their ears. The cities they live in -- such as Kanpur and Banares -- are polluted with filthy trash beyond my and my mom's worst memories. In the current low season, from the holy sangam point at Allahabad where the Jamuna and Ganges rivers meet and we collected a bottle of holy water, to the fabled ghats of Banares where we floated on a raft and witnessed candle-lit evening prayers, the Ganges feels like a fetid swamp. India's most famous living writer, Khushwant Singh, said it best: "As we multiply, so do our problems." Indian officials will smugly lecture you about how redistribution of wealth is their problem; the outside world should just focus on investing and profiting in India. It's a pity they don't heed the advice of so many prominent Indian economists -- Nobel laureate Amartya Sen only the most noted among them -- who have devoted their careers to various aspects of sustainable development, by which social and environmental factors have a tremendous role to play in maintaining economic success. For India's agricultural masses and urban squatters, education, sanitation, and healthcare have no translation, let alone progressive policies. The famed director Shekhar Kapur is currently directing a film about the coming "water wars" between Mumbai's elites and slum-dwellers. India, like the majority of the planet's countries that I call "second world," is perpetually on a knife's edge: rising in status while dwindling in resources, growing richer in some places and poorer (as if that is even possible) in others, trying to build one nation while globalization and money empower narrow political and corporate interests to place their agendas above all else. In India all of this is playing out in what will soon be the most populous country in the world, with neither rules nor historical precedent to guide it. For all the good news about India, there is one fact its leaders cannot transcend no matter which deity they pray to: A country is an organism, not a Lego set. Zones of development and zones of depletion cannot be kept separated. It is a race between the two to engulf the other, and in India the outcome is far from certain.

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