August 21, 2002


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Dilip D'Souza

Living the Catastrophe

From those famed ramparts of Red Fort, for the fifth consecutive year, our prime minister spoke to our nation on August 15. He announced that his government was launching various schemes and plans for the 'development' of the country. Like: installing 100,000 hand-pumps in water-scarce areas; supplying drinking water to rural primary schools; issuing identity cards to all Indians; building bridges over the Ganga and Brahmaputra; adding 13 million new telephone lines in the next year; electrifying all villages in the country by our 60th birthday, in 2007; and much more.

You've tuned out already, haven't you? Waved it off with the cynicism that years of listening to promises like these from ministers like these has bred in us, right? We know how hollow those promises are.

Maybe that's why our prime minister summed up all this the way he did. 'I appeal to you,' he said from those famed ramparts, 'to display the same emotional unity on the issue of national development as you always do on the issue of national security. Come, let us make development a powerful people's movement.'

Why not? I'm glad our prime minister said that. Because in recent weeks, I have been feeling very emotional indeed about things around me, some of which these new government initiatives will address, at least as they are promised. So even if it was our birthday just a few days ago, forgive the dismal tone and bear with me while I recount some of it.

One Friday June 21, only days after the monsoon really broke over Bombay, the two phones in my home died. So did most of the phones in my building. We were in good company: the newspapers announced that several thousand phones in the city were dead, and that MTNL anticipated it would take 'several days' to restore them. This was because of 'cable faults' in the phone lines; with the heavy rain, water had entered the cables and damaged them.

In my frustration, I reflected: Bombay has had heavy monsoons for, oh, I'd say at least a few millennia. It's not as if this was the first time phone cables had been subjected to rain. Yet every year, without fail, water enters the cables and causes these 'cable faults,' leaving thousands of phones dead. How is it that MTNL has still not hit upon a way to keep its cables dry?

Apart from occasional brief spells of static-filled life, measurable in hours, my phones remained out of action till Friday July 26. Five weeks. It rained almost not at all during July; in fact, it was India's driest July for a hundred years. Yet through most of that dry month, MTNL did not care to, or could not, repair the cable fault. And when my phones did come to life, I could not help feeling it had happened only after the dozens of calls I made -- at my expense, of course -- to their 'complaint' numbers, shunted from one to another in true public-sector style.

Wait, there's a postscript. It stayed dry till Sunday August 4. That day, the rains resumed. Could I have been the only person in Bombay that Sunday who thought, 'There go our phones'? Sure enough, that very evening I started hearing odd crackles and static on both my phones. By the next morning, one was dead; the other followed it into the grave two days later. As did all the phones in our building. We were once more in good company: the newspapers announced again that several thousand phones in the city were dead, and that MTNL anticipated it would take 'several days' to restore them. This was because of 'cable faults' in the phone lines; with the heavy rain, water had entered the cables and damaged them.

Sounds familiar.

That's the phones. What do I tell you about the roads? I don't believe there has been a monsoon season in the last decade when I haven't thought, as I feel my bones rattle in my body: "The roads are in worse shape this year than they have ever been!" There are several stretches of road around where I live that are no more than fields of uneven rubble and loose stones. I am not talking of obscure dead-end lanes, but major thoroughfares used by hundreds of buses, cars and motorbikes every hour. As I waited to cross one of them recently, a passing car kicked up a stone that hit me painfully on my shin. I was lucky: I wasn't hurt. How many are being hurt seriously this way, solely because we don't care to maintain our roads?

Then there are the places where, if there's rubble about, you can't even see it. Because the roads flood in the monsoon. One nearby street floods reliably with as little as an hour of steady rain: that's how choked and useless its drains are. But if you can't see the stones on these streets, you also can't see the sundry holes that grace them for no reason except negligence. Believe me, it is singularly unfunny to watch an unsteady old couple feeling for those holes with their feet, trying at the same time both to hold onto their umbrellas in the wind and rain and to dodge the splash from passing cars.

Unfunny, but not uncommon.

And in this wet time, along comes Independence Day. When we celebrate our freedom and our patriotic Indians. It has always seemed particularly cruel to me that this day comes when Bombay's monsoon is at its wettest. Think about this: from where do many of us Bombayites acquire the Indian flags we proudly display on our cars and chests on August 15? From scruffy, scrawny, homeless and barefoot street kids who hawk them at every intersection. You can see them each August 15, shivering and soaking, knocking and knocking at tinted car windows to offer their fistful of greenwhiteorange.

How is it possible not to think that our yearly dose of patriotism comes to us on the backs of these very young, very drenched, fellow Indians?

In a recent harrowing article in the Economic & Political Weekly ('India, Myron Weiner and the Political Science of Development,' July 20 2002), Paul Brass writes that 'development,' as we have pursued it,

    [has] failed to transform India into the modern, industrial state of its elite's imaginings, [has] failed at the same time to provide for the basic minimum needs of its peoples.

The ranting of an anti-Indian foreigner? If you like easy answers to troubling questions, sure, dismiss Brass like that. But the things about India that he writes of are numbingly familiar to us all: from people living on garbage dumps to our failure to make even half of the country literate. Listing several Indian characteristics that are, he says, the result of '[denying the] basic human needs of this population [of] one billion,' Brass ends with the most nauseous sights of them all:

    [T]he rich, privileged and powerful sitting comfortably in their new bungalows, their five-star hotel suites, their restaurants, oblivious to all the above and prepared to deny that any of it actually exists in their country; ... ministers moving about in retinues of cars, accompanied by smart-stepping Black Cats who rush out to open their doors and surround them with their automatic rifles until they are safely inside their huge bungalows.

How do I draw all this together? How do I explain the inarticulate thoughts that coursed through my mind as I read Brass, struggled to work without my phones, heard what our prime minister had to say on August 15 and watched another drenched, nearly naked kid sell another flag to a tinted window?

To me, those inarticulate thoughts, disparate though they seem, are intimately connected. Development as we know it will only give us more mediocre phone service, more crumbled roads, more miserably wet street kids. Worst of all, it has produced an elite -- you and me -- that has learned to shut its eyes and pretend that India is 'progressing.' (Don't we have the JW Marriott Hotel and free incoming airtime?).

That understanding of the way India has developed, I believe, must be the foundation of the 'powerful people's movement' our prime minister asks us for. Only then can it work.

'India is not heading towards catastrophe,' writes Paul Brass. 'India is a living catastrophe and its people, including its intellectuals, know it.'

We may know it. What will it take to admit it?

Dilip D'Souza

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