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A Prize, Then a Murder
December 10, 2003
About the most inspiring experience I've ever had came in a tiny village called Bilgaon, early this year. Two young engineers from Kerala, Anil Kumar and C G Madhusoodanan, designed and, with the help of Bilgaon's villagers, built a 'micro-hydel' project there. When it began operation, it supplied 300 homes with electricity for the first time ever. You read that right: the first time ever. I won't repeat the details in this column; if you like, you can read articles I wrote about Bilgaon here and here.
But I will repeat what I felt over and over again in Bilgaon: that 'if there is any patriotism left in this country, it is here, it is here, it is here.' That these young men chose deliberately to put their education to immediate, innovative and practical use, making a visible difference to the lives of their fellow citizens -- to me, this is a remarkable thing. How many of the rest of us engineers go to remote corners of this country to work among people this country has forgotten? What else is their quiet, unselfish and yet effective work, but patriotism?
In March this year, someone called Madhu Ganesa-Pillai, as moved by what Anil and Madhu had done as I was, nominated them for the 'Global Indus Technovators' awards at MIT. I heard about this because Ganesa-Pillai wrote to ask me for some details about them to include in his nomination. I next heard from him in the third week of November. That's when he wrote to tell me that they had won the award. It's hard for me to put down on this screen just how overjoyed I was by this news.
The Technovator awards went out to all kinds of brilliant people for all manner of outstanding work. But me, I can't think of more deserving recipients than this pair. Bravo to them, and may they, and this recognition, inspire many others to do work like theirs. I could say many similar things about another young engineer who's been in the news of late. You know about him, I'm sure. While Anil and Madhu worked on a dam, he was helping build roads. Very special roads, actually -- our beloved prime minister's 'pet project,' the Golden Quadrilateral highway system. And as far as I can tell, patriotism was sprinkled generously where he was working as well.
The details of his story, yes I'm sure, are now familiar to you reading this. As the Indian Express first reported, Satyendra Dubey wrote to our beloved prime minister a year ago to point out widespread corruption in the GQ project. Because he knew his knowledge, and his letter, would annoy some very powerful people, he asked the prime minister to keep his name confidential. That did not happen. Nor was any action taken on what he had to say. Instead, his letter was passed from department to office to who knows where. So he wrote some months later to his boss in the National Highways Authority of India, saying that 'due care has not been taken to maintain the secrecy of my identity [which] has been leaked. This disclosure has exposed me to undesirable pressures and threats.' Didn't help much.
In late November, Dubey was dead in Bihar, shot mysteriously by so far unknown people. Dubey graduated in 1994 from arguably India's finest educational campus, IIT-Kanpur. There's an online petition to the prime minister to protest his death. I've been reading some of the comments from those who have signed. Their general thrust: If this is what an idealistic young engineer can expect while working on a project of 'national importance,' what is the hope for the country? Why should graduates from IIT stay behind in India? The whole thing is dismaying. From the delight of the award Anil and Madhu got, Dubey's murder plunged me into despair. I am still struggling with the irony here: one Indian engineering effort brought recognition at the world's best known technical institution. Another led to death in India. And both within a span of ten days.
Yet oddly enough, if there is a silver lining in this tragedy, I see it in the tone of the reactions to Dubey's death. Because it bares some ugly truths, and if we ever want to do something about them, it's best that we know and understand them well -- as many signers themselves seem torealize.
First, what happened to Dubey is indeed what anyone who works on a huge project in India, and hopes to retain integrity, must expect. Corruption is so widespread now in India that our default assumption about anything involving money must be that someone is siphoning a lot of it away. Almost certainly, someone powerful. So the rare person who is straight, intends to remain that way, and actually has the temerity to complain, is an immediate threat to the siphoners. He must be eliminated.
Second, ideology means nothing. Put it another way, the only ideology that means anything is loot. We may be secularists, Hindutvawadis, Communists, anything. But whoever we are, whatever we profess, corruption is today part of our national character: from paying off a traffic cop to siphoning millions of rupees is merely a slope. We may like to pretend otherwise, but in our bones we all know that's true.
Third, corruption on this scale rubbishes everything we think contributes to the country's 'development.' Consider the state of the roads, anywhere in this country. Consider the absurdly low rate of convictions our police boasts. Consider the struggle to keep our names on electoral rolls. Consider so much other dirt that surrounds us. Corruption undermines every effort to build a nation, even prime ministerial dreams.
Fourth, I can see no use petitioning the prime minister. He will make some pretty sounds, perhaps order an inquiry, and that's it. We know where that will end up. In Dubey's case, but also more generally, the only answer is for citizens to keep a stricter watch on all that happens in our name. Simply labelling it the prime minister's pet project is not enough; on the contrary, that is the most effective smokescreen for exactly the looting Dubey found and reported.
Fifth, a number of the reactions warn that if crimes like this keep happening, 'we will pay a heavy price in the years to come,' or 'our country will head for disaster.' Call me gloomy, but I have no use for those phrases 'years to come' and 'will head for.' For this is not about some possibly catastrophic future, but an already ugly present. A country in which a Satyendra Dubey is killed as he was is a country that is already wallowing in disaster. So let's understand: His death alone is a heavy price. Too heavy. Right now.
You can send me your comments at firstname.lastname@example.orgDilip D'Souza