I just got back from Hong Kong, and on the way back I stopped in India, as I usually do.
India had been on a tear, economically speaking, for much of the first decade of this century, but appears to have paused for a breather over the last few months. Things are a tad slower than the frenzied pace of just a few years ago; the confidence (hubris?) has mellowed just a little; the shine – well, India's shine was always in the eye of the beholder.
And every Indian living comfortably abroad eyes India askance, wondering why the country is unable, 65 years after kicking the colonial oppressors out on their royal butts, to fix problems as basic as the lack of clean drinking water and mass illiteracee (or is it illiterecy?). Every non-resident Indian, indeed every visitor to India, is taken aback by the backward infrastructure, the most visible sign of failed development policies. In our naivete, we believe we have the answer to India’s woes. "If only I were prime minister for a day, India would leapfrog China. Heck, it would outdo Norway." But they won’t be, and India can’t.
Mumbai, I hear, remains a city with global aspirations, a can-do attitude, and an infrastructure and urban environment that competes with that of Abidjan (after the Côte d’Ivoire's civil war), and loses.
But I wasn’t in Mumbai this time. I was in Delhi. And whenever I go to Delhi, I make it a point to stop by the tony South Extension market. For its ambience, and for a coffee at the Barista café on its South side. Here, you can tell the temperature of the economy just by observing the honking crush of cars cramming into South Extension’s dusty parking lots. Are the cars BMWs and Mercedes, or are they Hyundais and Hondas (no Tata Nanos here)? Are they new, or a couple of years old? Are the drivers uniformed or sloppy? And so on…a thousand economic indicators flashing up or down.
But short term indicators aside, in this market, as in many of the pre-mall era markets of India, hidden in plain sight is an indicator of the long term prospects for the country, and an explanation for its pathetic infrastructure. Notice, this non-resident Indian is not suggesting he has the solution to India’s ills, just a diagnosis of a problem that afflicts its infrastructure.
No, the explanation is not corruption – corruption, too, is a symptom of this disease; and corruption would be too obvious a diagnosis, even for a distant, disconnected, non-resident desi.
And no, it is not democracy (that became the favorite excuse of Indians trying to rationalize the giant leaps China has made, and India hasn’t) that is holding India back.
It is, wait for it... the floor tiles in the pedestrian gallery along the storefronts. These are a signal clue; the fundamental building block of the Indian infrastructural nightmare. And they've been there all along; since the market was constructed. Few appear to have noticed. A glance at the floor will reveal that each shop has had to install its own floor tiles. In a market almost as old as independent India herself, the shopkeepers have been unable to ever agree on a common floor tile for the whole market. The result is that in this fancy bazaar for the well-heeled, the floor changes color, design, and even level, every six to eight feet.
Inside their air conditioned shops, the shopkeepers tend to spotless showrooms, displaying global brands of apparel and luggage, Gucci shoes and over-sized coffee-table books, Xbox Kinects and iPhones. Outside, in the common market square, cow shit accumulates and mangy stray dogs roam because the shopkeepers are loath to agree on who will pay for the dung or dog removal, or how the expense will be shared. The parking lot remains unpaved, and in the monsoon, turns into quicksand. The shopkeepers don't trust the association they've elected with the paving job, or with the funds to do the job; or with having the patience of Job that will be required to get the government permits to do the job.
And the shopkeepers' inability to see the larger interest, their unwillingness to come together for a project larger than each one’s own immediate needs, points to a reticence to subordinate any individual freedom to the constraint of the common good. It's also the reason drivers in India drive with their high beams on at night.
Of course, it is easy to point to the tragedy of the Indian commons from the comfort of my cosy armchair (not located in India). And one of these days I will share with you my equally shallow and inconsequential discourse on the symbolism of India’s chaotic traffic as a metaphor for its social organization. Yet another prime minister for a day.
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