Hey folks – I’ve enjoyed your comments on my India 60th post, but there are some misunderstandings.
First, I don’t live in America, as some of you imagine, and I am not even American. I’m a British journalist and have lived in India for 18 of the past 24 or so years, first for the Financial Times in the 1980s and then, from 1995, back in Delhi and writing primarily for Fortune magazine and The Economist, plus the New Statesman.
And yes, I have traveled extensively – to all states in India, apart from the North East (which I’ve never written about in Riding the Elephant). In the past two or three years, my city visits have included Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Cochin, Agra, Jaipur, Varanasi, Lucknow, Jalandhar and Kolkata, plus elsewhere in areas such as Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Orissa, Pondicherry and the Himalayan foothills.
So I’ve seen a lot of the country, not enough maybe, because nothing is ever enough in such a massive, varied and rapidly changing place. But I have to wonder, without wanting to be too confrontational, how my journeys compare with those of some distant comment writers.
I rarely, if ever, criticize the Indian people or the country. My targets are almost always corrupt indolent self-serving politicians, bureaucrats and others who slow the country down for their own benefit.
I first came here in 1982, when I was the London-based industrial editor of the Financial Times, to write articles on India. I’d spent 15 years or so reporting Britain’s economic decline and was fascinated by what I sensed was a country just beginning to grow and expand – extremely slowly, but nevertheless on the move.
I came back a year later to open the FT bureau in New Delhi, and reported events such as the Sikh troubles in Punjab, Indira Gandhi’s army take-over of the Golden Temple and her subsequent assassination, as well as the Union Carbide gas disaster in Bhopal. Then Rajiv Gandhi came to power and sowed seeds of modernization that have come good in the past few years – his contribution to modern India is frequently under-recognized.
In 1988, I was posted to Hong Kong, but came back in 1995, four years after the 1991 liberalization had started.
That was when I became aware of, and was horrified by, the appalling waste that I often write about today. Corruption was on the rise as the well-connected and powerful seized opportunities to amass enormous wealth, and the poor were being ignored.
These are the failings that lay behind my India 60th post. The country has done brilliantly, but could do so much better if public servants performed in the interests of the country and the desperately poor. Sure, the article was broad brush – the idea here is not to write more than about 700 words – but I covered the major points, and we will have a much broader and longer look in a special FORTUNE magazine spread of India articles at the end of October.
Most of the comments on my post praised India for the 60 years, despite China’s greater advances, while others disliked my criticisms. There frequently seemed to be a reluctance to accept that it is the job of a foreign reporter impartially to watch, learn, analyze and report what he or she sees. And some comments have been wrong – of course businessmen have changed, for example, since liberalization reformed the rules.
I knew my Uttar Pradesh-Bihar comparison with Pakistan would be attacked. The detailed situation in those two Indian states is of course quite different from Pakistan, but corrupt self-serving politicians in both those states and Pakistan have worked for themselves and their cronies, not for the benefit of the population. My main point was that both have lacked stable governance because democratic institutions have failed. The good news is that UP and Bihar now seem to be improving under their present chief ministers.
On the same day that my post appeared, Amartya Sen, the Nobel Laureate, wrote in the FT about how poverty rates had not come down as fast as they should have done and said:
“Some failures are huge, such as continuing undernourishment, particularly of children, and of course the scandal of a quarter of the population (including half of all women) remaining illiterate……A democratic country can hardly want to maintain a divisiveness that makes it part California and part sub-Saharan Africa”.
That may be a bit harsh, but few of the comments sent to this blog seemed willing to face up to India’s problems of poverty and dramatically widening gaps between the very rich and the desperately poor.
Of course democracy is great, but it is not an end in itself, which some writers seem blandly to suggest. It should only be a means to an end – governing a country well in the interests of all its people – and that sadly is not happening enough in India. OK, other countries have their problems too and are not perfect (including America according to several of you who live there) but this blog is not about those places. It’s about India.
Please keep the comments rolling – je