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Islands in the storm

Flooded roads, Maoist massacres or worsening poverty, the inability to work together is holding India back. Unless change comes from the top, there will be no UPA-3, writes Samar Halarnkar.

columns Updated: Jul 14, 2010 23:27 IST
Samar Halarnkar
Samar Halarnkar
Hindustan Times

‘Each one for himself or herself. As in Benares, in the Ganges, each for himself and looking after his own salvation.’ These observations were made around 1912 by a French wanderer called Henri Michaux as he drifted across conquered India, recording the “living challenge of the Asiatic peoples to our terrible Western monotony”. In his book, A Barbarian in Asia, Michaux exults, “Love live the last resistants!”

A century later, we are still the last resistants. Not for us the comfort of the same McBurger from sea to shining sea. Not for us the conformity of blue jeans and office suits. Not for us the efficiency of Walmart, small government, building codes, one authority or working to a plan.

As the monsoons wreak their annual havoc on the cities of emerging India, it’s quite obvious that we are building new infrastructure with scant regard for the basics of town planning, quality standards and common sense, cooperative administration. So, Delhi’s grand, new interchanges are flooded after the first monsoon showers. Oops, it turns out that the road engineers didn’t build drains. So, despite a wealth of experience at her command, the chief minister of Delhi still needs to do the job of a drain inspector.

There is no method to the madness. Workers uproot old pavements, laying sandstone tiles, carefully chosen to match the buildings of the Raj. It takes weeks of haphazardly strewn debris, an inhuman, shambolic tent city of workers and much shoddy execution before the new pavement is ready. Within days, sometimes hours, along come another lot of workers and tears up the pavement.

Things are now so comical that Sheila Dikshit, chief-minister-turned-drain-inspector, announces a date — not to finish work but to clear debris. She also orders that the men and women working for a host of agencies — MCD, NDMC, PWD, DMRC — must show results. The Municipal Corporation of Delhi promptly declares the flooded areas are not in its jurisdiction and blames the Public Works Department and the Delhi Metro.

In India, whatever goes wrong is usually someone else’s responsibility. So the director general of police in India’s most-insurgency-wracked state publicly blames the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) — outsiders flown in and deployed in remote areas where the state police refuse to go — for the deaths of more than 100 CRPF troopers. After years of ignoring injustice and poverty, to expect 66,000 ill-trained troops to bring order to a region half the size of Europe is a bit rich. India is still so poor that we struggle to understand how badly off we are.

A new global report says there are more poor people in eight Indian states than there are in the 26 poorest African nations combined.

The Indian official’s ability to work towards his or her salvation to the exclusion of realities is not new, but it is surprising. The Judeo-Christian ethic that defines the Western world was built on the power of the individual. Yet, Western civilisation in its order provides a great example of cooperative effort. No man is an island. Indians are, by instinct and tradition, a people given to living in groups. We define ourselves and our bonds by caste, community, religion and organisation. As a nation, these bonds lend us unique, colourful identities and help us survive poverty, tragedy and destitution.

We now need to break some of these bonds while working for the public good. At the very least, the Indian bureaucracy must acquire the ability to work with those not of the group, to accept responsibilities that go beyond the group. Corporate India has learnt these techniques, borrowing the best practices of the West and infusing them with native resilience, creativity and the ability to work long and hard.

A test case for working towards the common good in the public sphere is emerging as the government’s next great challenge looms: transforming India’s hidebound bureaucracy and reforming the wasteful, corruption-ridden social-security schemes that could theoretically eliminate poverty. As part of its ‘Re-Imagining India’ series (, this paper has reported how a handful of inspired, energetic bureaucrats and politicians have shown that governmental India can work as a team.

Successful as they are, these initiatives are still islands of order in a sea of chaos. The overwhelming lesson from successful public initiatives is that teams mirroring the old social order rarely work. They need an infusion of talent and ideas from the outside; combine it with a strict adherence to standards, laws and quality; while retaining the ability to be flexible and nimble. That’s how the Delhi Metro works. That’s how the National Health Insurance Scheme (it offers 60 million poor Indians a cashless, paperless insurance anywhere in India) works. That’s how, in a country where more than half the Rs 55,000 crore of the 2010-11 food subsidy will be wasted, the Chhattisgarh government has become the only state government to deliver to its citizens a modern, efficient system of distributing food to its poorest people.

Change must come from the top. Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh need to show that the UPA intends to reform one of the world’s most regressive bureaucracies. The alliance did just enough creative thinking to squeeze through as UPA-1 and UPA-2. Unless it begins the really hard work of finding answers to the big administrative questions, an endlessly aspirational India won’t vote in a UPA-3.

First Published: Jul 14, 2010 23:23 IST