Friday, May 30, 2008

A Right to Walk May 18, 2008

When the Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) fiasco was being discussed in a high-level meeting in Delhi, a dazzling thought came into the head of a senior official. ‘Why don’t we just get rid of the footpath!’ he exclaimed triumphantly. Someone gently pointed out to the worthy administrator that his wife also happened to walk on the same street daily and what would she say about eliminating the footpath?

What Americans call a sidewalk, and the British a pavement, we call a footpath. In romantic minds it conjures images of tree lined boulevards and sidewalk cafes in gay Paris. But in a typical Indian town let the mind focus on the image of children walking home from school on a busy road without a footpath. A lorry comes hurtling at them at 70 km per hour, and suddenly those children could be yours. In a nation where people mostly walk, it is frightening that footpaths are non-existent or disappearing. We build roads for cars—pedestrians are nuisance. Where footpaths do exist in a few cities, they have either been encroached upon or filled with garbage or taken over by hawkers, litterers and urinaters. Walking to the bazaar is not for the faint hearted.

Kanthi Kannan, a lady in Hyderabad, has started “The Right to Walk” movement to address this problem. She filed a Public Interest Litigation in 2005 praying for the Andhra High Court to save footpaths in her neighbourhood. She bombarded municipal officials with Right to Information emails, asking why the width of the footpath leading from Mehdipatnam to Sarojini Devi Eye Hospital had been reduced and a structure resembling a Dargah built upon it. By March 2008, her efforts had met with some success. Footpaths were restored, parking forbidden on them, but the structure remained untouched. She discovered that no one is responsible for footpaths. The municipality thinks it is a problem of the Roads and Buildings Department, which denies it and says its job is only to build roads.

Mumbai used to be wonderfully endowed with broad sidewalks. I worked there in the 1980s when the municipality approached my company, asking us to build a narrow garden along the long stretch from Mahalaxmi Station to King George’s hospital. They wanted us to illegally encroach upon the footpath in order to prevent squatters from taking it over. Such was the political power of the squatters! We did build a lovely, longish garden along E Moses Rd but l felt guilty about cutting into the walking surface. I consoled myself that at least the pedestrians were now walking along flowers, grass and trees.

Prosperity is beginning to spread in India but happiness is not. This is because our government repeatedly fails to provide simple public goods which citizens in other nations take for granted. Footpaths are one of them. It may seem churlish to worry about footpaths when there are more pressing problems of hunger, illiteracy and water. Remember, however, India’s future rests in its cities. By 2020, half of India will be urban, middle class, and crowded. What will be the point of becoming prosperous if it isn’t safe to walk?

Kanthi Kannan’s noble example shows that instead of sitting around and complaining, citizens can make a difference. The starting point is to extend your circle of concern beyond your front door (as Yudhishthira did in the Mahabharata when he insisted on taking a stray dog into heaven). You will discover that municipalities do respond to citizen pressure if citizens are united and relentless. Demand footpaths but don’t be surprised if they demolish your proud garden if it encroaches on the pavement.

Why India is not a threat May 04, 2008

On a recent lecture tour of the Far East I was repeatedly asked a fascinating question: Why does the rise of India not threaten the world in the same way as China does? We in India don’t realize the depth of fear that China inspires in the East.
My first reaction was that India is a democracy and democracies are supposed to be more peaceful. I was quickly reminded that democracies have been known to invade places like Iraq.

True, but democracies tend to have more voices and more checks and balances. India’s democracy, in particular, is a coalition of twenty parties. It cannot govern itself--how could it possibly threaten anyone? India’s inability to take advantage of an historic opportunity to climb to world power status through the Indo-US nuclear deal shows this. My audiences found it inexplicable that Indians could quibble over a treaty that is so obviously in India’s self-interest. Someone wondered if we had a self-destructive streak. The consensus was that had China been a multi-party democracy, and had it been presented with the same opportunity, it would grabbed and run with it. .

Asian security analysts, I was surprised to note, had deep respect for India’s military capabilities. They seemed to know all about our navy’s aircraft-carrier force, our air force’s latest Sukhois and MiGs, and our army’s professionalism (although they felt that we had been badly let down by DRDO). They believed that India’s military did not threaten Asia because of the turmoil in our neighbourhood. Terrorist threats from Pakistan, an unending civil war in Sri Lanka, Maoists in Nepal and Bangladesh’s chronic instability—these were huge distractions which prevented India from thinking strategically about its role in the world.

East Asians who had visited India felt that we still needed to get our act together. Although India’s economy was growing brilliantly and Indian companies had become world beaters, they found our physical and social infrastructure “depressing”. What is the point of having a world class airport in Bangalore if it is isn’t well connected to the city? What is the point of having a million government primary schools if half the students can’t read a single sentence? One speaker asked why Indians are still wedded to democracy when it has failed to deliver the most basic public services.

Nevertheless, I came away with a feeling that East Asians are cheering us and believe that history’s momentum is on our side. They have their own reasons, of course—they fear China and desperately want a countervailing power. They don’t trust Japan—the wounds of the Second World War have not yet healed. They wish that the Indian state would show more determination, however, and shed its old self-perception of a victimized Third World nation. Some expressed the hope that India’s rise would improve Asia’s image as a whole. India’s mind was closer to the West. Indians spoke good English and were more open. The West distrusted Han China profoundly because it was closed, and the Tibetan protests had not helped.

Buddhists in the audience seemed to cheer India’s rise because the post-9/11 world needed our traditions of tolerance and non-violence. I was surprised to see how many remembered Mahatma Gandhi and Tagore. They even wanted me to feel embarrassed about our nuclear weapons. On my way home, I asked myself that if it is true that the Indian state is genuinely less aggressive, then that is in fact the right answer to the original question about why India’s rise does not threaten the world. I, for one, do not want an intimidating India which seeks military greatness. .


War of the creamy layers, April 20, 2008

One of our great triumphs as a nation is that we widely condemn social discrimination. This was demonstrated again on April 11 when the Supreme Court allowed a 27 per cent quota for Other Backward Castes (OBCs) in higher education. I am against all quotas but I support vigorous affirmative action. Our leaders in the future will be next generation OBCs, and if they are not better educated, governance will not improve. Why then do I feel a deep pain in my gut over the court judgement? This case, alas, was not about social justice; nor about legitimate OBC aspirations. It is was about a war between two “creamy layers”--middle class factions of the backwards and forwards-- in which the nation may have lost. I fear this “landmark” judgment will do irreparable damage to our few good institutions.

The ordinary family in the village merely wants a good school to lift its children out of poverty. IITs are as alien to it as the Queen of England. The hidden purpose of the OBC quota was to push the wards of OBC netas, babus and elite into our top institutions via an unfair handicap. But the strategy backfired because the Court has excluded the “creamy layer”. Since the aspirations of OBC voters and politicians are different, the quota controversy was unreal. It was not about compensating for disadvantage. As Mayawati has discovered there are poor Brahmins and rich OBCs.

The India of our dreams is one where everyone will belong to the middle class. High economic growth, of the sort we have today, can deliver this dream. But individuals of talent will play a disproportionate role. Since talent is such a scarce resource, successful nations nurture it through elite institutions like the IITs. They don’t place a person with 20th rank in the IIT-JEE exam in the same classroom as one with 20,000th rank. At the same time they meet the demands of the others through an adequate supply of reasonably good institutions. This is how they achieve excellence and equity.

The clamour for quotas in higher education arises from scarcity. We have very few good colleges because education, unlike industry, has not been liberalized. It is firmly under the control of netas and babus, whose energy is spent in doling out favours. Because the government refuses to give autonomy to universities, less than 50 out of 300 can produce an employable graduate. If they had the freedom to set their own fees, curriculum, salaries, and standards, many of our colleges would take a leap upwards.

By contrast Indian industry is more autonomous. In competing for customers it has been expanding supply at breakneck speed. In March, India achieved a miraculous 300 million mobile phone customers in a country of 200 million households. Before liberalization, we had five million phones in 1990. No one talks about quotas for telephones any more because the market has raised both supply and quality. The same thing could happen to education. Prosperity doesn’t trickle down; it goes down like a flood.

The political class is dead set against liberalizing education because scarcity would disappear. So would the need for quotas and so would vote banks. The roots of individual failure are laid in school. World Bank data shows that Arjun Singh presides over one of the worst primary school systems in the world, worse than many African countries. His job was to reform it. Instead he let loose a caste war. But voters are no fools and they can see through his game. If he thinks the Congress Party win will votes from his game, he is mistaken.