China succeeded in every aspect of socio-economic endeavour where India has failed

An Indian, standing on the embankment of the Huangpu river, as he gazes at the impressive Shanghai skyline, is assailed by an assortment of unfamiliar emotions. The first is one of admiration for the Chinese; our Asian brethren who emerged from foreign invasion, a world war and sanguinary internecine conflict to attain nationhood, two years after India, to find themselves in thrall to harsh totalitarian rule. It was only after the passing of Chairman Mao that a pragmatic, new leadership adopted free market practices and opened up China to the world. The result, to all outward appearances, is a modern, prosperous nation, knocking impatiently on the doors of the first world.

The second emotion is dismay that China succeeded in every aspect of socio-economic endeavour where India has either failed or is running in the same place. On a recent visit, I walked through residential areas in Shanghai, Wuxi and Suzhou, away from high-rise concrete, stainless steel and glass condominiums to observe the lifestyle of the common Chinese. The lower-middle classes reside in complexes and colonies much like our own: flats built cheek by jowl with hawkers vending vegetables on rickshaws and small neighbourhood shops dispensing tea and snacks.

And yet there were significant differences which spoke of a quality of life alien to us. The smooth, unbroken and tree-lined pavements are used freely by pedestrians and cyclists. One saw neither open drains nor piles of garbage; nor did one encounter stray animals or need to navigate past their excreta while walking. One came, frequently, upon uniformed sanitary workers conscientiously picking up litter and depositing it in motorised rickshaws. Absence of construction debris, plentiful garbage bins, public toilets, fire-hydrants and enclosed electric transformers spoke of an omnipresent civic authority which not just functioned but also enforced civic rules and laws; something sadly absent in India.

Traffic flowed freely on narrow but well-maintained roads, uncluttered by hawkers or parked vehicles, which are confined to designated areas. Low noise levels were attributable to all two and three-wheelers being battery-powered on legal mandate. My search for slums or pavement-dwellers was fruitless, either because they were absent or astutely camouflaged. Part of the explanation lay in the fact that every construction site — and there were hundreds — had a multistorey pre-fabricated accommodation complex for workers and families, with attached kitchens and crèches.

Smaller cities like Suzhou have an ‘old quarter’ and people continue to live in tiny congested houses on cobbled streets lined with ancient canals. Once again, high standards of sanitation and hygiene have enabled the residents to not only live healthy lives but also earn a living by catering for tourists in sidewalk cafeterias by the canal-banks. No expense was spared to provide for the Chinese citizen aesthetically designed and well-maintained public amenities like parks, libraries, museums, theatres and opera houses in every city, something unheard of in independent India.

One could go on in the same vein but this is not meant to be a paean to China. In fact, I would readily yield to the superior knowledge of China experts who know of the deep flaws in China’s social, political and economic systems, and who predict an impending implosion due to ethnic fault-lines and economic disparities.

Instead, let me speak of the most overpowering emotion an Indian experiences on a visit to China; a silent rage against India’s rulers, for having failed the nation so badly. Not only do we lag decades behind China in most fields, but nothing that our political leaders say or do gives an iota of hope for the future. Sixty-six years after independence, India’s enduring slums, its growing urban decay and rural poverty, its dysfunctional public services and increasing indifference to mounting garbage and pollution problems speak volumes of the motivations, priorities and capabilities of its leadership, political and bureaucratic.

Of the 51 government ministries that run our country, one looks after ‘Planning’ and another, ‘Programme Implementation’. We are painfully aware that most of the government’s plans and programmes either do not fructify or end up in corruption scandals. Conceding that the levels of political venality and corruption in China and India are equal, the Chinese have, at least, ensured that project planning and execution, as well as administrative functions proceed unhindered, and the people’s quality of life is continuously improving.

If the farcical functioning of Parliament is a pointer, it becomes obvious that our leadership is so deeply preoccupied with the politics of survival that it has abdicated all responsibility for the functioning of ministries and departments; with the malaise infecting state administrations down to zilla and panchayat levels. The insecure politician clearly imagines he has found a panacea by handing over much of his responsibilities to the bureaucracy. In their turn, the all-India administrative and police services have not just failed to perform their tasks honestly and effectively, but having been entrusted with a vast spectrum of vital responsibilities extending from municipalities, to airlines, and industrial enterprises to intelligence services and national security, have consistently let the nation down.

Notwithstanding its burgeoning population and GDP, India is steadily losing ground to China in every index of development and progress, largely due to poor governance. Anna Hazare, Kejriwal and Naxalites are all sending messages; is the politico-bureaucratic establishment listening?

(The writer is a former Chief of the Naval Staff. Email: arunp2810@yahoo.com)

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