My wife, Rosemary, and I visited India for three weeks in November and December last. It was her first visit to India. I had been away from India for twenty years, and was looking to observe changes in the last two decades. We travelled through Punjab, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, besides New Delhi. Most of our travel was carried out in rented cars. Each car came with a driver, freeing up for us to observe all around. We were able to observe bottom-up, talking to the drivers, tour guides and the occasional man on the street. With one exception, we did not schedule meetings with the intellectuals and the elite. There just wasn't time.

I should explain at the outset that my criticism of India springs from a deep reservoir of love for the country. It distresses me when I see India not performing to its potential. India's explosive economic growth is common knowledge. Some of the traits I have identified below act as a brake on its unimpeded progress. I believe the euphoria surrounding the growth must be tempered by a recognition of these traits, which are undeniably a part of the national make-up. Signs of economic progress were abundant. India has definitely entered the age of motorbikes; they were ubiquitous. I saw few bicycle riders in Punjab and Rajasthan. There appeared to be more of them in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, but they were still vastly outnumbered by the motorbikes. Even the old Delhi airport appears brand new. The new International airport in Delhi is a marvel, and a thing of beauty. The new airport in Varanasi was opened just two weeks before our arrival. It has a lovely, modern look. For the first time I saw four-lane divided highways in India — more on that later. The heart of Jalandhar (Punjab) appeared to be all dug up as construction of overpasses continues.

But I saw much that left me deeply concerned.

The biggest problem appears to be people's contentment while living in the midst of squalor. It doesn't take much effort to clean up a neighbourhood. This task should be rightly undertaken by village councils (panchayats) in the countryside, and city governments should do the same in urban areas. Here is the catch. People's representatives feel no pressure whatsoever to clean up; there are notable exceptions, though. Udaipur is relatively a clean city. We learned that when the city tended to relax its efforts, Udaipur's people organised voluntary work to clean up whole areas, shaming the city government into action. But we saw harrowing examples of squalor just about everywhere else. I was distressed and embarrassed.

An unsettling trait was people's tendency to settle for mediocrity. In outwardly nice office buildings and homes, we would find frayed interiors, and messy bathroom facilities in urgent need of repair and cleanup. In fact, finding a clean and adequate toilet became an urgent challenge for us! But those who worked or lived there were apparently quite happy with the way things were. The point is, it really wouldn't take much effort to repair and clean up. When I visited my old chemical engineering department at my alma mater, Panjab University, I was in for a rude shock. I had memories of a new shining building and facilities from my time. But the place was caught in a time warp. They didn't even pretend to spend any money on maintenance. The stones on the steps of the lovely staircase of my memory were dangerously chipped. Windows were filthy and some were broken. The boat-like white structure on top of the building was awash in trash. How do people continue merrily in such run-down facilities? Why does it not bother them?

The city of Chandigarh, where Panjab University is located, was once the crown jewel among all Indian cities. It was the first planned modern city of India designed by architect Le Corbusier. It was full of broad boulevards, lovely white buildings and beautiful lawns. Alas, they are no more! The buildings are a drab patchy black with dirt and soot, the lawns are brown or non-existent, and the boulevards are groaning with traffic jams. Why did the city let this happen? I wondered about the missing sense of pride.

We were impressed with the new four-lane national highways. But not fencing them off on both sides has created very real problems. In our travels through Rajasthan, we found cows and water buffaloes meandering around in the middle of the highways. Some were munching on the plants planted in the divider strip. People freely crossed the highway in numerous areas. In some places the highway totally broke down under the pressure of village folks on both sides who just took it over and set up shops and stalls. The cost of fencing (and building overpasses for pedestrians, tractors and the like) would have been a pittance in relation to the overall cost. Whoever is responsible for the operation of the highways has clearly stumbled. Here is the third trait that distressed me — a trait of the public sector, really — lack of follow through. The private companies did a great job building the highways. The government is already letting them go to seed. The modern airports I mentioned above are world-class, built by private enterprise, on budget and ahead of schedule. I have serious concerns about how they are going to be operated.

Some misguided religious sentiments appear to be doing great harm. Take the example of people's reverence for the cow. The stray cows in markets and roads in towns and cities (not to mention on national highways) do serious damage to the effectiveness and safety of transport. It appears that the average traffic speed in as well as between cities and towns is 20 to 25 miles an hour, at best. It can shoot up to 60 miles on the new national highways. That is, till you have to negotiate your way through a herd of stray animals. There ought to be a national law calling for collection and removal of all stray animals. Let those who care for the welfare of the cows donate money to build cow shelters (gaushalas). Unfortunately, politicians are too weak-kneed to provide real leadership.

While we heard not a single voice railing against the entrepreneurs, corporations and their “animal spirits,” we heard universal condemnation of the government and the “corrupt politicians.” It appears that public good is a foreign sentiment to most politicians. There are some sterling exceptions, however. Nitish Kumar's name seemed to be on every tongue, far from his home State of Bihar. What people seemed to crave in other reaches of India was his five-year record of stellar performance as Chief Minister.

Private enterprise is the silver lining in India. It can rightly claim credit for the 9% plus growth rates currently fuelling India's economy. Another bright spot was the prevalence of education down to the smallest village. We saw schoolchildren in uniform everywhere we went. While education too suffers from teacher absenteeism and incompetence, the sight of school uniforms truly warmed my heart! The institutional problems are conducive to solutions, though progress can be painfully slow. How do you change people's attitudes? Perhaps the spread of education and rising incomes will affect them for the better. It is just a hope.

(The writer's email id is sminhas@sbcglobal.net)

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