Posted by: John Elliott | October 13, 2009

India’s lethargy, drift and corruption escalate into crises

“For Delhi, every day is pivotal and every hour is vital”

Living in India as a reporter for a total of nearly 20 years, I have always been curious about why problems are left to fester till they escalate into crises instead of being tackled before they do serious damage, and why everyone assumes that, to use an English theatre expression, “it’ll be alright on the night”.

Current events make this not just an academic question that can be left, like the problems, for another day, or month, or year, but one of immediate importance.

20070406001609101 trimmedInefficiency, lethargy and corruption have come to haunt the country and dominate the news this week on two quite different issues– the alarming spread of Naxalite violence (right), and the inadequate preparations for the Commonwealth Games that are to be staged in Delhi a year from now. That’s leaving aside, for a moment, India’s appallingly inadequate defence readiness in Arunachal Pradesh and elsewhere on its north-eastern borders with China where tensions are rising.

Talkatora Stadium, one of the Delhi games venues

Talkatora Stadium, one of the Delhi games venues

“For Delhi, every day is pivotal and every hour is vital,” Mike Fennell, the Olympic Games Federation’s president said in Delhi yesterday at the end of a week’s visit to the capital that exposed serious delays on both construction projects and operational systems. And so it is across a whole raft of issues that require action.

Palaniappan Chidambaram, the home minister, has been issuing that message to States increasingly besieged in recent weeks by Naxalite rebels, but his strong warnings about the need for immediate action have been diluted by a pathetic debate about whether or not the primary focus should be on economic development in Naxalite areas (of course it should, long term), and whether the Indian Air Force should fire on rebels in self defence (obviously, what else should it do!).

The armed forces have been issuing Fennel’s warning in different words to the Defence Ministry for years to accelerate orders for urgently needed new equipment ranging from guns to helicopters and training jets that are mired in bureaucratic inertia, corruption, and the manipulations of competing suppliers that trip up each other’s potential orders. (The same applies to equipment needed for internal security such as tackling the Naxalites). How Pakistan and China must enjoy watching the self-inflicted  damage that India does through all this to its own war readiness – could those two countries themselves do more damage in a border war?

Cgames_0That all is not well with preparations for the Commonwealth Games has been apparent for months. There are various reasons for this, but they basically come down to political and bureaucratic inefficiency that frequently stems from individual ambitions to gain in terms of personal patronage and financial gain rather than to get a job done.

Well-founded gossip about massive extortion on every games contract has been swirling around Delhi, and about how that extortion is not just making those involved richer but is also disrupting progress on contracts and on the hiring of much needed foreign help (a point made by the Olympic committee in the past week).

Sometimes the lack of action on potential crises is intentional, stemming from a belief that some blood-letting is needed before a major issue can be tackled. I first came across this when I was part of a Financial Times interview with Indira Gandhi, then the prime minister, shortly after 6,000 people had been killed in riots in Assam. We asked Mrs Gandhi why she had not acted earlier to stem the killings, and she replied that one had to let such events take their own course before stepping in.

I remember how horrified I was by her answer, though I now understand (but don’t accept) the logic. The same probably applied in a slightly different way to the Khalistan movement in then Punjab that she allowed to escalate into a crisis that led to her putting troops into Amritsar Golden Temple, and later to her assassination.

Then there are the Naxalites, who have been threatening areas of India since they started as a peasant revolt in West Bengal 40 years ago. The government assumed they would slowly fade away or, at worst, remain virtually out of sight in remote forested tribal areas where they have operated since the 1960s.

0508_mz_naxalite_YwyPa_17466 trimmedThree months ago, on this blog, I asked “What must Naxalites do to rate as a real threat to India?” I wondered whether Delhi was in denial about the approaching crisis, along with the rest of the world, because the Naxalites had not assassinated a top leader.

Since then the rebel atrocities have escalated, and it is now clear that they intend to threaten urban centres in the coming years, not just where the tribal forests. They are already active in more than 223 of India’s 600-plus districts (see map) across 20 states. Between January and August, they were involved in more than 1,400 violent incidents, and the killing of nearly 600 civilians, according to official records.

In the past few days, widespread attacks have included killing 17 police, blowing up mobile phone towers and stretches of railway tracks and disrupting power supplies, not just in their home areas of Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal in eastern India, but in Maharashtra on the borders of the west.

So why is it that India waits for crises before acting? Maybe the country is just too big and complex, its borders too long, and its peoples too varied for any government to govern effectively. Maybe centuries of repressive foreign occupation, plus the debilitating shortages of 45 years of economic controls after independence, have bred an acceptance of things as they are.

That of course does not fit with the new international image that India has of itself as a big (almost super) economic and diplomatic power. Sadly that image is not sustainable. China’s recent 60th anniversary celebrations show the gap between the two countries, as does a comparison of last year’s Olympic Games in China with India’s stumbling towards next year’s events.


  1. You revealed a very interesting angle of Indian politics,” one had to let such events take their own course before stepping in.” Years before when I read Indira Gandhi’s biography by Katherine Frank, it observed that Indira had intervened in the dispute of Hindi replacing English as the national language. It said that she defied the then PM, and went to assure Tamil state before things went out of hand. I was appalled when the biography further said the then PM (Lal Bhadhur Shahstri) wanted the problem to escalate. Years later, when she and Congress came to power I think they followed the same route. I suspect Kashmir crisis of 1989 may have reached present proportions because of this idea let’s allow dispute to go on before we do anything! Otherwise it’s difficult to conceive that Indian intelligence was not aware of the revolt that was being fostered.
    Though I cannot completely reason out the motives behind such a behaviour, I think it has got something to do with the vote bank politics of Indian politicians. May be aiding such a dispute is helpful in garnering more votes or something like that.

  2. […] hotels, highways and flyovers – which he did successfully, albeit at some cost to the city   For the last two years India has needed a “Rajiv Gandhi” to take charge of the Commonwealth Games (CWG) that are to be held in just […]

  3. […] I wrote last October, the armed forces have been warning the Defence Ministry for years to accelerate orders for urgently needed new equipment that are mired in bureaucratic inertia, corruption, and the […]

  4. it’s sucks and sick to talk about corruptions. people will never learn the effects of greed, why chossing corrupted leaders.

  5. What Mr Elliot says about the current situation in India is not a negative side of the picture but it is the reality. Corruption and nepotism have for long been the key issues about which everybody talks but none of the mainstream parties has the political will to take effective steps for fear of skeletons falling out of the closet. The tragedy is that in the process many people are losing their confidence in the democracy itself. For a while, the globalisation of the economy was supposed to work wonders. Far from it, the globalisation process has seen a rise in not only prices but also of corruption.

  6. Corruption slows down development across the world. I think corruption can be stopped by replacing paper curreny with digital cash.
    What do you think?

  7. Mr. Elliott raises legitimate concerns that should be addressed. But it is far from pervasive doom and gloom; and it would be foolish to think so.

    Numerous and substantive examples and evidence from all spheres of economic and political activity suggest that lethargy and inefficiency is not pervasive or a permanent state. To name a few: acute price competition in most segments of the economy, sustained high growth rate, significant increase in international trade, significant improvements in operating efficiencies and profits of public sector companies, lowest telecom rates in the world, substantial jump in savings and investment rates supporting sustained secular increases in economic growth. Highly competitive and largely peaceful political markets and a political system acutely sensitive and responsive to demands of the polity. The administrative system while still slow and corrupt has significantly increased its ability to prevent large scale social and economic disruptions.
    India started its reforms 10-15 years later than China. Adjust for this later start and the growth trajectories are similar in many respects.
    The Naxalite issue will be solved; it was solved once before in the 60s. Historically India has dealt with major political turbulence through a sustained democratic and political engagement with the disenchanted groups — witness the secessionist movements in Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Assam. Each time India’s obituary was prematurely written accompanied by a lot of handwringing. Each time the system succeeded in absorbing and accommodating emerging political groups and interests.
    So while there is a need to address the issues raised by Mr. Elliott, it would be naive (and contrary to evidence) to assume lethargy and inefficiency as a pervasive or persistent state of mind or fact. Rational analysis of evidence suggests otherwise.

  8. The same might be applied to every country in the world… but look at the scale and overal achievements.

    Results speak for themselves.

  9. Pray tell me which country in the world is not lethargic, proactive and not drifting and is totally without corruption. This post with some minor modifications about the problems faced can be written about any country in the world. I can write about the UK and the USA, Ireland and most countries of the European mainland, and the less said the better about Australia and most Asian countries.

    Yes, we can be much better than we are if we were to be different, but that can be said about every country in the world.

  10. The naxalite problem was more localised 40 years ago in West Bengal and Kerala, although violent it was regarded as a home ministry responsibility or a policing responsibility, a bit like dealing with dacoits. The naxalites did indeed fade away for a while, but they are back with a vengence an many more pockets and better armed and organised, and … Read morewith greater local support. The Home ministry and state governments are just not equipped to deal with them. But calling in the army is a gigantic step. It was for that reason that the Khalistan movement grew. But then Indira was heavily criticised for bringing in the army.
    The Commonwealth games is a completely different issue and should not be linked with the Naxalite problem. More with the ability of any nation to stage large events, rather than keep peace and order. Greece did not do very well on the Olympics either, much infrastructure was barely complete.

  11. A very good question, sir. Why is India full of structural prevaricators? Certainly not because of “centuries of repressive foreign occupation, plus the debilitating shortages of 45 years of economic controls after independence”, which you have so kindly advanced as candidates.

    More likely, it is a combination of:

    (1) Few people who are capable and want to do their job versus the many, many more who are neither capable nor want to do their job, but do offer much competition by mouthing nice sounding mantras non-stop …. poverty, deprivation, reservation, more reservation, more schemes, more programs, how bad globalization is, how bad MNCs are, what a vile blow to the mangroves in Bandra creek … stop that airport, that power station….stop, stop

    (2) A fervent hope that the problem(s) would somehow go away on its (their) own

    (3) Finally, an assessment that one is not up to the task of actually dealing with the task at hand.

    Then the is CYA — a sound axiom of functioning in government and babu-dom. But that is hardly unique to India. It is not as if there is no corruption in China. There is, but they get the job done anyway. Corruption, deplorable as it is, by itself cannot explain (just as bureaucracy’s CYA motto) why we are so bad at getting things done and on time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: