The Myth of the New India

In 1994 we spent three weeks in India and Nepal. I was deeply struck then with the disparity between the Hi-Tech image India was projecting into the world and what the actual reality on the street was like.

While we were there, an outbreak of the Black Plague occurred. For a week or two, countries adjoining India closed their borders to her. It caused us some grief because our travel arrangements required us to be in Nepal by a certain date and our flights were canceled. I still remember well the all-night cab ride across the boonies to reach a Nepalese border station where they hadn’t yet received the closure news. We ended up reaching a small airport in eastern Nepal just minutes before the connecting flight to Katmandu took off.

When news of the plague first broke out, we were in New Delhi. We called the American Embassy and learned that just $2 worth of Tetracycline Antibiotic each, obtainable at any pharmacy, was the answer. In the unlikely case that we saw any symptoms in ourselves, we just had to take it and the problem would be handled. We got some of course and went on about our business.

But, it turned out that $2 was beyond the spending horizon for most of India’s poor so they just had to wait and hope for the best.

A rather large scandal broke when we were there over all of this. 10 years or more earlier, the government had established a series of local heath clinics in preparation for events as this. When the newspaper reporters went out the see these health clinics in action, in most cases they simply found the empty shells of buildings and the rubble within. The clinics had simply been forgotten by the Indian bureaucracy and had died on the vine without anyone noticing – until the day came when they were needed.

In Calcutta, I still remember the local guide in the cab telling us how wonderful and advanced Calcutta was as we rolled through a late afternoon miasma of smoke as thick as fog. Garbage was piled up on the sides of the road as tall as a man with people sitting and lying upon it. Starving women clutching scrawny babies would step out the fog and try to pass the babies into us through the cab windows. Eventually, after listening in disbelief to this fellow and watching the insanity for 15 or 20 minutes, we turned a sharp corner, went up a short alley through a gate and entered a five-star hotel in the midst of the city. A very plush hotel that didn’t seem to have any windows.

So, I can relate to the story, below. Poverty is perhaps understandable but denial on this level is not.

I’ve categorized this story under ‘The Perfect Storm’ because the rising disparity between the haves and the have-nots is, indeed, one of the growing factors of destabilization in this world. And I’ve also categorized it under ‘Politics – How not to do it’ with obvious reference to the Indian government.


By PANKAJ MISHRA – in the NY Times

INDIA is a roaring capitalist success story.” So says the latest issue of Foreign Affairs; and last week many leading business executives and politicians in India celebrated as Lakshmi Mittal, the fifth richest man in the world, finally succeeded in his hostile takeover of the Luxembourgian steel company Arcelor. India’s leading business newspaper, The Economic Times, summed up the general euphoria over the event in its regular feature, “The Global Indian Takeover”: “For India, it is a harbinger of things to come — economic superstardom.”

This sounds persuasive as long as you don’t know that Mr. Mittal, who lives in Britain, announced his first investment in India only last year. He is as much an Indian success story as Sergey Brin, the Russian-born co-founder of Google, is proof of Russia’s imminent economic superstardom.

In recent weeks, India seemed an unlikely capitalist success story as communist parties decisively won elections to state legislatures, and the stock market, which had enjoyed record growth in the last two years, fell nearly 20 percent in two weeks, wiping out some $2.4 billion in investor wealth in just four days. This week India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, made it clear that only a small minority of Indians will enjoy “Western standards of living and high consumption.”


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