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India: After the blackout As India’s growth rates hit the buffers, the poor are sinking beneath

a tide of seeming government indifference to their plight as politicians focus on looking after their cronies. Is it goodbye to the Asian tiger?

Portable power generators in use in New Dehli. Photograph: Getty Images Early last summer I went trekking in the Himalayas high above Dharamsala. I had just finished a book and wanted to get away from the heat of the plains and clear my head in the clean air and crystal silence of the mountains. Within a day, I had walked beyond the last metalled road. Along with the tarmac, I left both the telephones and the electricity grid far behind me. Soon I was heading into an apparently premodern world: up in the hill villages, the harvest was being cut by hand with sickles and bound in sheaves, stacked one by one into stooks. Oxen ploughed the narrow terraces with wooden ploughs. In the villages, stone houses with wooden fretwork balconies like those in Mughal miniatures tumbled down steep mountainsides, slate roofs alternating with roof terraces where the women were drying apricots and stacking kindling for the winter. You could almost taste the woody resin-scent of the deodars and the warm peach-brandy aroma of the drying fruit. One of the goatherds who wandered past our camp the second evening said he was on his way to consult the local oracle, a shaman who channelled a Pahari deity and was celebrated for the accuracy of his prophecies. It was trekking as time travel: I seemed to have walked up into a Jack-and-the-Beanstalk world about as far as I could imagine from the noise and pollution of New Delhi. It was therefore something of a surprise the following morning to be woken by the sound of passing schoolchildren. Looking out of the tent, I saw a party of 20 immaculately dressed children with beautifully laundered uniforms – white trousers and white shirts for the boys and white salvars for the girls – heading down the hill on their way to the new private school that had, they said, just opened up in the valley below. Not one of their parents had had any education and the older generation in the village was entirely illiterate, but this school would teach them until fifth grade. After their 13th birthdays, they said, they hoped to continue their schooling up to the age of 18 in the senior schools of Dharamsala. Later that morning, at the top of the pass, I stopped in at the village they came from, Shakti Dehra, and fell into conversation with the headman. Within minutes, Joginder Rajput had whipped out a cellphone and begun talking to his younger brother who needed him to send down some bullocks for the ploughing. The government telephone network had failed to get landlines up to the village yet, he explained, but there was a good signal from one of the private cellphone companies and about half the households in the village now had mobiles. Two or three also had Tata Sky satellite television, he added. The government had not provided electricity – something that is still true in about one-third of India’s villages – but the villagers had pooled their resources and bought a diesel generator and now they could gather to watch the Indian Premier

Indian futurologists have projected that China will overtake the US in gross domestic product between 2030 and 2040. *** How far Shakti Dehra was typical of a much wider scenario in India became clear this August after the country suffered what the international media soon christened “the largest power blackout in human history”. as measured in dollar terms. with a population of 105. and that India will follow suit by roughly 2050. . placing itself in the same league as Europe and the United States. but still came home with 88 medals. None of the basic services that the villagers needed – roads. in reality only 320 million had electricity in the first place. Life went on as before.League cricket matches. They were not going to allow themselves to be left behind. The situation varies from state to state. India’s creaking electricity grid had finally collapsed in the middle of the hot summer. thousands of stranded commuters and a coal mine full of trapped miners in Bengal. but what the power failure did was expose to international scrutiny the scandalous state of Indian infrastructure and the failure of the Indian state a full 65 years after independence to provide even the basic necessities for modern life across most of the country. India’s supposed rival China narrowly lost first place to the US. but in some of the more backward areas the provision of power is quite amazingly hopeless. It also highlighted the growing suspicion that India’s dream of a rapid rise to the international top table might be just that – a dream. India carried on much as it usually did: it muddled through. however. the largest state of all. due to the load of supporting hundreds of thousands of air-conditioners. In Uttar Pradesh. Despite the government inaction. education. For over a decade now. It didn’t help that the power minister insisted that “India has the world’s best and largest power grid”. On winter evenings when they were snowed in. the power failure came at the time India had just produced its lamentable performance at the London Olympics where the nation of 1. To add to the growing sense of depression felt by India’s middle class. they could pass the time with old Bollywood movies. and had supposedly plunged 700 million people across 21 of India’s 28 states into darkness. electricity or telephones – had been provided by the state. yet the villagers had found a way around most of their problems. health. Even Grenada. When power returned. bar worse-than-usual traffic chaos. In reality. won a gold medal.2 billion won only four medals – two silver and four bronze. New Delhi Television aired a show entitled Powerless Superpower: Are India’s Superpower Dreams a Joke?.000. and hyphenated with China as the dominant force of the near future. 38 of them gold. It was able to do this as the government provision of power is always so inadequate that the rich all have their own generators or “inverters” – a sort of giant rechargeable battery that can keep the fans going until power returns – while most of the poor get so little electricity anyway that its disappearance was barely noticed: of the 700 million people allegedly left powerless. 125 million people – 63 per cent of households – still have no power at all. The Wall Street Journal pointed out that since 2006 China had added about six times more power to its grid annually than had India: an average of 84 gigawatts against 14 gigawatts for India. sanitation. they were determined to educate their kids and inch forward. India has marketed itself as the coming superpower.

when you look at government delivery of basic services to the poor.7 million children under the age of five die from easily preventable illnesses such as diarrhoea.They have pointed out that. despite the success of India’s middle class. declaring the US-India relationship “the defining partnership of the century ahead . the most basic health measure that any government can provide for its people is to immunise very young children. only eight out of 25 countries have immunisation figures as bad as India’s. India’s remarkable growth figures have. India is not simply emerging. A full quarter of its population – about 310 million people – live in poverty. mostly in export revenues. against 100.000 in Europe and 70. only 60 per cent of all infants are completely immunised. as in the much-trumpeted acquisition of Jaguar and Land Rover by Tata Motors in 2008. In 2009. India has the highest number of children dying anywhere in the world. 48 per cent are stunted due to lack of nutrients: child malnutrition is sadly something for which India wins a gold medal every year.” he told the national parliament. but more importantly by the United States. amid talk of space missions to Mars and fleets of nuclear submarines. In 2006. . India ranks 66th out of 88 vulnerable countries listed in the Global Hunger Index. Average incomes are projected to continue doubling every ten years. it has also been home to one-third of the world’s poor. and roughly 35 per cent on less than $1 a day. measuring by purchasing power parity. India has already overtaken Japan to become the third-largest economy in the world. Pakistan – and by some indices has been failing to compete with the poorest in subSaharan Africa. 1. In India. In the course of the past decade. India has been struggling against being hyphenated less with China than with its more desperate and impoverished neighbours – Nepal. last year the number had more than doubled to 55. and the country stands third in technical and scientific capacity – behind America and Japan but well ahead of China. Bangladesh. Every year. . however. as the Indian economy trebled in size. Sixty-nine per cent of Indians live on less than $2 a day. and as the country tripled its defence budget to become one of the world’s top ten military spenders. however. 23 Indians appeared on the Forbes list of the world’s billionaires. The number of cellphone users has jumped from three million in 2000 to 100 million in 2005 and 929 million by 2012. even at the height of India’s boom. “India has emerged. Some of the profits have been spent buying prestigious foreign businesses.” A year later when Barack Obama came to Delhi he announced his enthusiastic support for a permanent seat for India on the United Nations Security Council. compared to 86 per cent in Bangladesh. successfully masked a far less appealing set of statistics which shows that. India’s aspirations have been endorsed not just by David Cameron. Even in sub-Saharan Africa. India’s information technology sector alone has earned the vast sum of almost $50bn annually. while Eritrea takes the silver. The number of television channels rose from one in 1991 to 150 by 2007 and more than 500 today. Of those who do survive until the age of five. Hillary Clinton told an audience in New Delhi: “I consider India not just a regional power. Likewise.000 in the US. Its adult literacy is not quite the .” The statistics are impressive: India is said to train a million engineering graduates a year. but a global power. For.

only three contracted. especially the novel move of promoting the power minister Sushilkumar Shinde to home minister within 24 hours of the summer blackout. In a few years India has gone from what seemed to be imminent domination of the world economy.” I was told by Arun Jaitley. China is a world power. by comparison. Congress-led United Progressive Alliance coalition government. “Melancholy about India’s economic prospects is a result of miscalibrated expectations. India did well to have an average 8. This now-floundering coalition is headed by the 80-year-old prime minister. and that is why the Indian economy is struggling to inch forward. the national deficit is growing. president of the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research.9 per cent growth rate during these boom years. the country needs to grow at roughly 6-7 per cent just to keep standing still and provide jobs for the hundreds of millions of young people who will be pouring on to the labour market in the next decade. inflation is high and the value of the rupee plummeted by 20 per cent in the course of the summer.lowest in the world. *** The slowing of India’s economy is part of a global malaise. Manmohan Singh.5 per cent. the Maharajah of the Brics. it saw its annual growth rate sink from a peak of 10. “The boom wasn’t made in India. outside its control. slipping from the world’s second-fastest-growing economy to ninth place. The global tailwinds are now acting strongly against it. Thanks to the global recession.4 per cent in one quarter of 2010 to 5. almost all the main emerging markets were growing at roughly 7 per cent between 2003 and 2008. growth rates are down across the board: this year China’s growth will fall to 7. Public borrowing has quadrupled in the past five years. Adult literacy in China. With India adding 18 million people – more than the population of Chile – to its total every year. It therefore matters very much when the same year that India suffered the power failure and the Olympic debacle. but it was hardly a huge surprise. Other economic indicators are equally alarming. Ruchir Sharma.5 per cent (down from 11 per cent in 2007) and Brazil’s to less than 2 per cent (from 6 per cent in 2007).” The intense disappointment now being felt across India is partly due to unrealistic expectations. but at 63 per cent India is lagging behind Malawi and Sudan. is 94 per cent. “and nor is the current recession. “He is increasingly becoming a sulky and embittered old man.” Sharma told me over the phone from New York. According to the political analyst Pratap Bhanu Mehta. the leader of the opposition in India’s upper .” The political columnist Swapan Dasgupta puts it more bluntly: “We are just deluding ourselves if we ever thought we were a potential competitor to China. to what the emerging-markets analyst and author of Breakout Nations. in comparison to which we are merely a glorified Rotary Club. According to Sharma. has meant that domestically the finger of blame was pointed at the inept.” Yet the inept way that India has handled its succession of crises. angry with the world. has called merely a “50-50 bet”. the man once credited with masterminding India’s liberalisation from 1991 onwards but who of late has turned into an exposed and vulnerable target.

was “unfit for human habitation”. as it emerged that one of Manmohan Singh’s coalition ministers had been corruptly underselling the 2G telecom spectrum.000 people. “The bubble of his reputation has been punctured and he still doesn’t seem to understand where his government has gone wrong.” A succession of corruption scandals has not helped the government’s reputation. filled in some cases with rubbish. This was followed by the crooked and wasteful mismanagement of the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. “He is unable to impose his will either on his coalition allies or on his own ministers.” says T N Ninan. . entrepreneurial country such as India when the government ceases to govern? When there is no delivery of public services but people continue to yearn for development and self-improvement? Just south of my farm outside Delhi lies the cyber-Gold Rush. Tragically. ambitious. shabby-glossy boom city of Gurgaon. Since then a new scandal has emerged after it became clear that between 2004 and 2009 state-owned coal deposits were corruptly sold to friends of ministers for well below market price and without any attempt to have a competitive auction. human faeces and even the odd snake.house. The flawed auction may have cost the treasury as much as $40bn. a mirage of gigantic cranes constructing rings of new estates full of call centres. Gurgaon was a small. semi-rural Haryana market town with a single large Maruti car plant to one side. when contracts to build stadiums were awarded to government cronies who built blatantly substandard facilities at inflated prices. When I moved back to India eight years ago. Only one thing seems to keep the current coalition in power: the ineptitude of the main opposition.” More neutral observers are equally unimpressed: “He is a very weak prime minister. flanked by billboards advertising the latest iPhones and iPads. The rot set in four years ago with the first hints of a telecommunications scandal. software companies and apartment blocks. What was farmland and a pool for water buffaloes when I moved in is now the largest mall in Asia. *** What happens in a bustling. several national teams declared on arrival that their accommodation. the Rajya Sabha. according to the comptroller and auditor general of India. the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party. The pace of development is breathtaking to anyone used to the plodding growth rates of western Europe: the sort of construction that would take 25 years in Britain comes up here in five months. chairman of Business Standard Ltd. the state watchdog investigating the allocations. There are still no accurate figures but the city’s population has probably topped five million. Since then the cranes have galloped towards us at such a speed that Gurgaon now virtually abuts the edge of our house. from the end of my road you could just see a now much bigger Gurgaon in the distance. The job of a prime minister is to persuade his team to follow his vision. it was home to no more than 100. The first time I lived in Delhi in the late 1980s. This time. Manmohan seems to have lost his way. the only thing saving the present set of corrupt politicians is the equally abysmal performance of their rivals. the hard-pressed Indian treasury may have lost another $34bn.

the more depressed I get with the government. which has simply been unable to keep up with the city’s hyper-growth. In one way. restaurants and multiplexes. Ruchir Sharma certainly believes that “state-level governance is improving. private borewells provide water. The state of Bihar. “Jay” Panda. Gurgaon is also a catastrophic mess. in short. Many of the states once regarded as the most backward – Bihar. or health or education provision. most of them still half built and ringed with scaffolding. and it is this that is saving many parts of the country from complete collapse. a vast example of the same self-help spirit that has brought satellite television to the Himalayan fastness of Shakti Dehra.” read the adverts. is a case in point. West End Heights. pools of black sewage lie hidden behind the tower blocks advertised as millionaires’ dream homes. building new roads. Yet here.Here an increasingly wealthy middle class has precariously settled inside an aspirational bubble of fast-rising shopping malls (there are 26 up so far and more on the way). “But the further I go from Delhi. with the most corrupt and violent politicians. Its failures are largely due to the failure of the state-level Haryana Urban Development Authority. No one collects the rubbish and drifts of waste float through the rutted streets from the roadsides where they are dumped. as strong central governments of the sort which ruled India from independence until the late 1980s are likely to be a thing of the past: since 1989. but in many places in India it is the different provincial governments that are managing to save their regions from the mess created by the paralysis of the floundering central government machinery. There is no working drainage system. all Indian governments have been coalitions. which like Bihar now has a 10 per cent growth rate. attracting large amounts of investment and transforming this former wasteland into the biggest engine of growth in eastern India. the longer I stay in Delhi. however. the more optimistic I become. designer labels. golf courses (seven at present). It is. These new neighbourhoods. In their place there is a new patchwork of smaller regional parties that are perceived as being more reliable at guarding local interests. espresso bars. but on a monstrous. the government of Nitish Kumar is credited with turning the state around. one of Orissa’s most influential . Windsor Court. and where growth is now at its fastest. Gurgaon is not typical. This means regional parties have become progressively more powerful and have taken over more and more of the administration of people’s lives. barely the beginnings of a public transportation network and virtually no government housing. Orissa. There are no reliable supplies of water or electricity.” But as well as being a boom town with a growth rate equal to anything in China. in the north of India.” This is just as well. fleets of private buses provide transport and are directed by private security guards who act as traffic cops. Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand – are the ones where governance is improving most strikingly. and there has been a gradual waning of the popularity of the big national parties such as the Congress and the BJP. Another state that has done much to attract investment and build infrastructure is Orissa. On my visits. “Come to Gurgaon. The best are doing very well indeed. Private electricity generators provide power. “Come Live the Good Life. It was once regarded as the most dangerous place in India. mega-city scale. are invariably given unrealistically enticing names – Beverly Hills.

In her book. Only 16 per cent of Indians with children in government schools were satisfied with the reliability of their child’s teacher. And it is always the poorest who are most vulnerable: poverty remains India’s most pressing problem. less than half of the teachers in the state sector were present and engaged in teaching. a single.young MPs. A World Bank survey in 2003 indicated that among primary school teachers in the government sector there was an absentee rate of 26 per cent and about a third of those in attendance were not engaged in teaching. health care and sanitation remains woefully inadequate. if the wage earner becomes ill or needs expensive treatment. are left by the government to fend for themselves. It is a similar story with education. One of the most revealing recent microstudies of Indian poverty is Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life. so. According to a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). As the state does not provide essential medical facilities for most of its citizens. the losers remain. when a group of migrant Tamil labourers reclaimed the land from a snake-infested bog on the edge of the airport. “Cold storage and better roads – these things may not sound sexy. half of it would rot before they could sell it. inequalities in earnings have doubled in India over the past two decades. is enthusiastic about how the basic infrastructure his state government has constructed has changed the lives of the people. the New Yorker writer and Pulitzer prizewinner. In many places the state doesn’t provide for the poor at all. and in some states. When even the state governments fail to step in and save those abandoned by the paralysis in central government. Boo examines the lives and dreams of the people of Annawadi.” Panda says. In 1990 the top 10 per cent of earners made six times as much as the bottom 10 per cent. India is the only country in the world where as much as 80 per cent of health spending is in the private sector. The shanty town was born in 1991. a bad health episode can finish a poor family. One of the saddest and most depressing features of India’s rise has been the way inequalities have grown almost as fast as the economy as a whole. in other words. tiny. “When I talk to my rural constituents they say that connecting their village to a good road network doubles their income as now they can get their produce to market when. the rest of his dependants will quickly sink below the poverty line. the year Manmohan Singh kick-started India’s economic liberalisation. and almost everywhere access to water. The poor. nationwide. before. suffocating “sumpy plug of slum” that squats between the glossy luxury hotels around Mumbai Airport and a fetid lake of raw sewage. Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum by Katherine Boo. Boo sets out to study what she calls “the infrastructure of opportunity” that allows these most economically marginalised of India’s dreamers – the rag- . such as Rajasthan.” he says. but they are the simple things that actually change the lives of the rural poor. Now those in the top 10 per cent earn 12 times as much. “Building roads does far more for the poor than the kind of subsidies and handouts favoured by the Congress. 6 per cent were satisfied.

excrement-filled swamp-lake that frames the slum. and the absence of any helping hand from the state. cooking. actually went down. long-term residents find their lungs clogging up in the “spoon-it-up air”. As a result. like the dark streets of Dickens’s London. Her scavengers can succeed in flourishing against all the odds. or sleeping off the effects of the grave-digging liquor dispensed from a hut”. flirting. is a place of violent inequality and discrimination. first spun by the BJP in 2004. and it was the comptroller . never mind justice. and as a result people will no longer accept snail-like growth rates and inept governance. apologising to the factory owner for making a mess. A whole variety of ancient enmities could rise to the surface. bathing. *** Mumbai is. like the fish that somehow continue to swim in the junk-rimmed. A boy loses a hand in a shredder and stands there “with his blood-spurting stump”. Here. I think it’s coming to a stage where India could become ungovernable. “In order to create a large middle class a much larger underclass has been pushed down into poverty. after all. For a decade. despite all the deprivation and injustice. she asks. Boo’s book shows that liberalisation is indeed slowly lifting millions out of poverty. a city where more than half of its citizenry live in makeshift housing. “You now have huge cities populated by migrant labour living on less than 20 rupees [25p] a day. corruption is being exposed: Freedom of Information legislation introduced in 2009 allowed the 2G scam to be documented. and how do individuals keep their humanity in “undercities governed by corruption. waiting for water at the public tap. Most nights “the place was bedlam: people fighting. the skies rained cellphones. The frustrations which will come with the failed take-off are going to create strange and terrible kinds of violence. like Gurgaon. irrigated by rivers of new money. which was already lower than sub-Saharan Africa. tending goats. who has become increasingly anxious about the tens of millions of Indians who have internalised the unrealistically high aspirations of “India Shining” propaganda. she writes. Meanwhile real power has fallen into the hands of a corporate. heavy with sand and gravel blowing in from a nearby concrete plant. “hope is not a fiction”. and now it has stopped.pickers and migrant labourers who have been thrown off their land and sucked into Annawadi – to survive as Slumbai attempts to reinvent itself as a glamorous world city. lining up outside the little brothel. where exhausted people vie on scant terrain for very little”? This is also a question that has preoccupied the novelist Arundhati Roy. Ninan hopes that the growth of the boom years has given glimpses of possibility to millions. a place of rapid expansion and unlimited opportunity. TVs and cars. Boo’s Mumbai. Yet it is also. but she is equally interested in the moral questions: why don’t more of our unequal societies implode. “A poor person can’t get a hearing. middle-class oligarchy. Growth rates are not an indicator of well-being – during the period of highest growth our per-capita food grain intake.” Yet the same rising expectations that are to Roy a cause of apocalyptic anxieties are to other observers cause for optimism. The tens of thousands mobilised by the anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare in 2011 showed the extent of middle-class frustration and anger at government graft and failures of governance. playing cricket.” she told me.

What eastern Europeans are to modern Britain – economic migrants in search of a better life – the Jacobeans were to Mughal India. In the longer view of history. As early as Roman times there was a dramatic drain of western gold to India. If this happens. allies and cronies. “It may not be at Chinese levels of 11 per cent. Lahore had grown richer than Constantinople. It was only after the arrival of the various colonial powers that India came to be perceived as poor. but instead as part of a desperate effort to cash in on the riches of the Mughal empire. History is on its side. India is well placed to be able to grow again. A thousand years later it was India’s extraordinary wealth that drew in the merchant adventurers of the East India Company. the hope is that the mass frustration felt across the country about the barriers blocking the progress of India’s economy will bring the pressure that is needed to make major reforms at the centre. if India can learn to reform its institutions and clean out its political stables. and the growth rate is maintained until the end of the decade.5trn by 2020. during the reign of Nero.” announced Montek Singh Ahluwalia.2 per cent. It was.and auditor general of India – the government’s own anti-graft tsar – who started the investigation into the coal scam and has pursued it and the audit into the Commonwealth Games deals with such vigour. prosperity and opportunities. and with its two million inhabitants it dwarfed London and Paris combined. said that her economists had reached similar conclusions. then one of the two wealthiest polities in the world. Bids for government contracts all need to be held by competitive auctions and governments should have less discretionary power to award contracts to their friends. the country head for HSBC. India has only recently come to be seen as a poor country. the deputy chairman of India’s planning commission and a close ally of Manmohan Singh in liberalising the Indian economy. India urgently needs to begin creating better infrastructure – its road. Anti-corruption measures need to be beefed up and the Central Bureau of Investigation needs to be removed from government control so that it can independently investigate the corrupt. it should not find it difficult to revert to its rightful and natural place as a rich country and a major . but we believe we can return to at least 8. whoever they are. “Once world financial instability settles down. the Pandyan kings even sent an embassy to Rome to discuss the latter’s balance of payments problems. If that happens.” Naina Lal Kidwai. At a recent New Delhi conference there was widespread agreement that an 8 per cent growth rate is still realistically achievable in the near future. the Indian economy will more than double in size to $3. electricity and transport systems all need huge investment. the Gurgaon of its day. so at some point the world economy will turn the corner and high growth rates in the “breakout nations” will resume. In the long run. Just as the slowdown was due to wider forces outside India’s control. They came to India not as part of some Tudor aid project. things can only get better. right up to the office of the prime minister – an important demand by Hazare that Manmohan Singh has so far resisted. the Mughal city of Lahore is revealed to Adam after the Fall as a future wonder of God’s creation: by the 17th century. What is happening today is merely India’s slow return to its natural place at the forefront of the world economy. In Milton’s Paradise Lost. *** In the meantime. in terms of rapid growth.

After all. will be published by Bloomsbury in February newstatesman. India’s people thrive wherever else they go in the world. India has the talent. “Return of a King: the Battle for Afghanistan (1839-42)”.com/writers/ william_dalrymple . and it has the resources.power. All it lacks is the political will. William Dalrymple’s new book.

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