Friday, July 29, 2011

India's parallel universe

Dear Comrades,

If my old paper, the Straits Times, is to be believed, Gautam Adani is the ultimate proof of the rise of India’s parallel state. I don’t mean the underground economy. I mean a do-it-yourself dispensation that doesn’t need the state, which is withering away not as Marxists once hoped but in the American sense of everything being privately run.

There’s a difference though. American pioneers created their own postal and transport systems before the behemoth of the state was born, while we are turning to private enterprise because the behemoth is gasping for oxygen. It’s too soon to declare nothing works, but the system is breaking down.

Kolkata, the ultimate in urban mismanagement, is also the awesome shape of things to come.

Several armed men stormed into a middle class Kolkata flat in broad daylight the other day, killed the 93-year-old lady of the house (probably inadvertently), tied up the other two women, and looted their belongings. Robbery and burglary may be as common in Mumbai but it was distinctively West Bengal for the neighbour who frantically dialled 100 for help to hear only a beep.

In another crisis, the emergency number just rang and rang. Either the telephone was out of order or it wasn’t the supposedly round-the-clock attendant’s work break.

Any condominium for the well-to-do has its captive power supply. Some make private arrangements for water and garbage disposal. These are services the municipality claims to provide. Our taxes are supposed to finance them. But the money is lost in a bottomless pit, and we have to make our own arrangements. The compromise where I live is to privately pay the municipal cleaner to do the job for which the municipality already pays him out of what we pay the municipality.

The services the state still runs are for those who can’t afford any better. Time was when India’s elite enjoyed the luxury of first class air-conditioned coaches on long-distance trains with superb dining cars. The decline of the railroad set in with independence, and now trains are only for pass-holders or those who must travel cheap.

The post office, now India Post in brightly painted red and shiny veneer instead of sturdy panelled teak, is another example. One can’t associate today’s dilatory postmen with the heroic class victims of Hemanta Mukherjee’s stirring song, Runner, and even less with “the soft sandalled feet… the brawny brown chest” of men who braved all hazards to deliver Kipling’s overland mail.

India Post long ago stopped printing those blue air mail stickers, presumably because customers don’t correspond with people abroad. If they do, they use those cheaper irregularly shaped, see-through aerogrammes on which the ink smudges. I regularly bring back sheafs of air mail stickers from London and Singapore (they are freely available in post offices in both places) but have to fall back on aerogrammes because good quality envelopes with lots of high-value stamps tend to go astray in the post, even when you persuade a reluctant counter clerk to frank the stamps in your presence.

As for local letters, instead of buying a five-rupee stamp, I find myself paying up to a hundred rupees to a courier company for delivery even in the same city.

The degree of disrepair varies from institution to institution and place to place, but the direction is downhill. Even Delhi, the Last Cantonment as I called it in indignation because Rajiv Gandhi had dared to call Calcutta (as it then was) a dying city, is going that way.

Adani bypasses hassles, divisive politics and inefficiencies in grand style, says the Straits Times, quoting The New York Times. “In the spirit of the workaround ethos typical of India’s private sector, Mr Adani is working around the subcontinent itself.” His Korean-made cargo ship takes coal from his Indonesian or Australian mines to his private Mundra port for his power plant that is served by his own railroad spur. “His business plan is to do as much as possible without relying on the creaky infrastructure of the Indian state.”

It’s all that old Gujarati’s fault. Mahatma Gandhi’s self-help campaign relieved authority of obligations even to clear faeces or provide the cloth one wears. Canny Indians with an eye to profit began doing both for a consideration. Collusion can’t be ruled out. Dig deep and you might find these entrepreneurs are second cousins and business partners of those responsible for the state’s collapse.

It’s no fault of the Adanis that thanks to this conspiracy, only they can live comfortably in India.

Sunanda K Datta-Ray / July 30, 2011, 0:38 IST
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...