Standstill Agreement / Reflections on India

The Imphal Free Press
March 23 2010

An article by a foreign travel writer, Sean Paul Kelley, which this newspaper reproduced in its Sunday edition [read Reflections on India below], damned the lack of concern for public good of Indians in general. There are dime a dozen such articles, but this one was different for the fact that it was not written by somebody embittered with India. It also contained a whole lot of truth uncomfortable to Indians but one which the author felt was an attribute which would drag the country down. The article is worth the while because it puts up a mirror for Indians to have a peep into their souls and retrospect. We are here however interested in narrowing down the canvas to Manipur – which incidentally local politicians with a discernable sense of pride and in the same breath, a disguise defensive flattery meant as an overt statement of loyalty to nation – often refer to as a miniature India. Yes, at least on this count, the scenario is a ditto for Manipur. Nobody cares for the larger common good. Everybody is possessed by a narcissistic obsession with the self, despite eulogies paid to the notion of selfless service.

Corruption is the biggest example of this myopic self obsession. Nobody will argue that this scourge has become institutionalised, and people do not any longer feel there is anything seriously wrong with it. Those who become direct victims of corruption, as for instance candidates in job recruitments or promotion tests, unfairly pushed aside because of bribes and not merit, would lament, but few others would. It has become an accepted practice and in fact, the frowns that were once natural at witnessing opulent displays of wealth of obviously dubious origins by individuals have altogether disappeared. Quite to the contrary, anybody wealthy also earns the awe and respect of society. The only other class of people who can outmatch them in terms of command of this awe and respect are those who are armed with lethal weapons and can, or would, without hesitation kill. Money in the society today, except in the case of a decreasing number of honest entrepreneurs, has become a by-product of corrupt, dishonest practices and not a measure of professional success and enterprise as it should ideally be. The injustice perpetrated is not paid heed to, just as those who pollute the atmosphere or the rivers and lakes foolishly believe they have nothing to lose personally. What goes around comes around, and all the abuses heaped on the society will come around, as it indeed is already.

But corruption is not all about this lack of public concern for public good. Everybody is interested in looking after their own welfare alone, without once realising that this too amounts to extreme social myopia. Not because this is the prime example (there are plenty of examples) but because it is closest to public memory, we are tempted to read the ongoing cease work strike by Manipur government employees, possibly even by essential services in a few days from now, in this light. The strike as we all know is no longer about a pay hike, for the government has agreed this demand would be conceded to. On the other hand, it is about a retrospective implementation of the hike so that like Central government employees, state employees too can take home arrears for the last four years. Although we have reservations about the Union government taking a unilateral decision to raise salaries of its employees, knowing full well state governments would be left in trouble because of it, one fact needs to be digested by the state government employees. The Union government and the state government have very different resources and naturally are also very different pay masters. Under the current disposition, unless it has the blessing of the Union government, Manipur government is not in a position to emulate the Union government in this matter at all. To pay arrears, the government would have to burden itself with an additional Rs. 200 crore debt. This Rs. 200 crore rightfully belongs to the whole state and not just the government employees. Yet, most employees do not care. This, according to the strikers, is the lookout of the government and not their problem. All they want is their arrears of a few lakh rupees each, which even employees who treat their government jobs as part time engagements, and seldom attend office, want in entirety. As we said before, the employees are just the immediate examples, but the attitude is almost all pervasive. Everybody sees only himself: “My problem and the society’s problems are two different things. I want my problems taken care of, even it means damning the society”. Well, we are all damned indeed.

Reflections on India
Sean Paul Kelley

If you are Indian, or of Indian descent, I must preface this post with a clear warning: you are not going to like what I have to say. My criticisms may be very hard to stomach. But consider them as the hard words and loving advice of a good friend. Someone who’s being honest with you and wants nothing from you. These criticisms apply to all of India except Kerala and the places I didn’t visit, except that I have a feeling it applies to all of India, except as I mentioned before, Kerala. Lastly, before anyone accuses me of Western Cultural Imperialism, let me say this: if this is what India and Indians want, then hey, who am I to tell them differently. Take what you like and leave the rest. In the end it doesn’t really matter, as I get the sense that Indians, at least many upper class Indians, don’t seem to care and the lower classes just don’t know any better, what with Indian culture being so intense and pervasive on the sub-continent. But here goes, nonetheless.

India is a mess. It’s that simple, but it’s also quite complicated. I’ll start with what I think are India’s four major problems–the four most preventing India from becoming a developing nation–and then move to some of the ancillary ones.

First, pollution. In my opinion the filth, squalor and all around pollution indicates a marked lack of respect for India by Indians. I don’t know how cultural the filth is, but it’s really beyond anything I have ever encountered. At times the smells, trash, refuse and excrement are like a garbage dump. Right next door to the Taj Mahal was a pile of trash that smelled so bad, was so foul as to almost ruin the entire Taj experience. Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai to a lesser degree were so very polluted as to make me physically ill. Sinus infections, ear infection, bowels churning was an all to common experience in India. Dung, be it goat, cow or human fecal matter was common on the streets. In major tourist areas filth was everywhere, littering the sidewalks, the roadways, you name it. Toilets in the middle of the road, men urinating and defecating anywhere, in broad daylight. Whole villages are plastic bag wastelands. Roadsides are choked by it. Air quality that can hardly be called quality. Far too much coal and far to few unleaded vehicles on the road. The measure should be how dangerous the air is for one’s health, not how good it is. People casually throw trash in the streets, on the roads. The only two cities that could be considered sanitary in my journey were Trivandrum–the capital of Kerala–and Calicut. I don’t know why this is. But I can assure you that at some point this pollution will cut into India’s productivity, if it already hasn’t. The pollution will hobble India’s growth path, if that indeed is what the country wants. (Which I personally doubt, as India is far too conservative a country, in the small ‘c’ sense.) More after the jump.

The second issue, infrastructure, can be divided into four subcategories: roads, rails and ports and the electrical grid. The electrical grid is a joke. Load shedding is all too common, everywhere in India. Wide swaths of the country spend much of the day without the electricity they actually pay for. With out regular electricity, productivity, again, falls. The ports are a joke. Antiquated, out of date, hardly even appropriate for the mechanized world of container ports, more in line with the days of longshoremen and the like. Roads are an equal disaster. I only saw one elevated highway that would be considered decent in Thailand, much less Western Europe or America. And I covered fully two thirds of the country during my visit. There are so few dual carriage way roads as to be laughable. There are no traffic laws to speak of, and if there are, they are rarely obeyed, much less enforced. A drive that should take an hour takes three. A drive that should take three takes nine. The buses are at least thirty years old, if not older. Everyone in India, or who travels in India raves about the railway system. Rubbish. It’s awful. Now, when I was there in 2003 and then late 2004 it was decent. But in the last five years the traffic on the rails has grown so quickly that once again, it is threatening productivity. Waiting in line just to ask a question now takes thirty minutes. Routes are routinely sold out three and four days in advance now, leaving travelers stranded with little option except to take the decrepit and dangerous buses. At least fifty million people use the trains a day in India. 50 million people! Not surprising that waitlists of 500 or more people are common now. The rails are affordable and comprehensive but they are overcrowded and what with budget airlines popping up in India like Sadhus in an ashram the middle and lowers classes are left to deal with the overutilized rails and quality suffers. No one seems to give a shit. Seriously, I just never have the impression that the Indian government really cares. Too interested in buying weapons from Russia, Israel and the US I guess.

The last major problem in India is an old problem and can be divided into two parts that’ve been two sides of the same coin since government was invented: bureaucracy and corruption. It take triplicates to register into a hotel. To get a SIM card for one’s phone is like wading into a jungle of red-tape and photocopies one is not likely to emerge from in a good mood, much less satisfied with customer service. Getting train tickets is a terrible ordeal, first you have to find the train number, which takes 30 minutes, then you have to fill in the form, which is far from easy, then you have to wait in line to try and make a reservation, which takes 30 minutes at least and if you made a single mistake on the form back you go to the end of the queue, or what passes for a queue in India. The government is notoriously uninterested in the problems of the commoners, too busy fleecing the rich, or trying to get rich themselves in some way shape or form. Take the trash for example, civil rubbish collection authorities are too busy taking kickbacks from the wealthy to keep their areas clean that they don’t have the time, manpower, money or interest in doing their job. Rural hospitals are perennially understaffed as doctors pocket the fees the government pays them, never show up at the rural hospitals and practice in the cities instead.

I could go on for quite some time about my perception of India and its problems, but in all seriousness, I don’t think anyone in India really cares. And that, to me, is the biggest problem. India is too conservative a society to want to change in any way. Mumbai, India’s financial capital is about as filthy, polluted and poor as the worst city imaginable in Vietnam, or Indonesia–and being more polluted than Medan, in Sumatra is no easy task. The biggest rats I have ever seen were in Medan!

One would expect a certain amount of, yes, I am going to use this word, backwardness, in a country that hasn’t produced so many Nobel Laureates, nuclear physicists, imminent economists and entrepreneurs. But India has all these things and what have they brought back to India with them? Nothing. The rich still have their servants, the lower castes are still there to do the dirty work and so the country remains in stasis. It’s a shame. Indians and India have many wonderful things to offer the world, but I’m far from sanguine that India will amount to much in my lifetime.

Now, have at it, call me a cultural imperialist, a spoiled child of the West and all that. But remember, I’ve been there. I’ve done it. And I’ve seen 50 other countries on this planet and none, not even Ethiopia, have as long and gargantuan a laundry list of problems as India does. And the bottom line is, I don’t think India really cares. Too complacent and too conservative.

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