Modern India’s Dance of Creation and Destruction

My last Letter from India for The International Herald Tribune. Thanks to all of you who have read it over the years. Keep checking here for more articles, and for information on my upcoming book.

India is today in the midst of a transformation whose scale and significance (at least when measured by the number of people being affected) are rivaled only by China’s recent transition. Sometimes, when I think of how much things are changing around here, when I reflect on the way in which societies and traditions built up over centuries and millenniums have been dismantled in just a couple of decades, I feel as if I have a ringside view at the unfolding of history.

This massive transformation of the country could not be anything but messy. It seems inevitable, really, that the process of cultural and social reinvention would be experienced as a form of upheaval, a delicate dance between building up and tearing down, between the thrill of the new and the chaos (and sorrow) of losing the old.

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Indian Scavengers Doing What Officials Can’t

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

India generates more than 100 million tons of municipal waste a year. On a per capita basis, this is far lower than most developed countries, but the amount of garbage generated is growing fast. More problematically, very little of India’s waste is properly treated. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that only about 60 percent of municipal waste in the country is even collected. A far smaller proportion is recycled.

A few municipalities have made efforts to improve the situation. In some cities, governments have teamed up with the private sector or nonprofit organizations to improve waste collection and recycling. But such efforts are small and generally geographically restricted.

If there is any hope, it may lie — as with so much else in the country — in the nation’s burgeoning informal economy. Across India, an army of scavengers and housewives and small traders collect, segregate and recycle garbage every day. Their efforts, and the economy they have built around waste, may represent a model, or at least a foundation, for a solution to the nation’s rising tide of garbage.

India’s informal economy is huge. According to a recent study conducted by the International Labor Organization, an astounding 93 percent of India’s population is employed outside the formal sector. No reliable statistics exist to indicate how many of these jobs are in waste, but the numbers are certainly in the millions.

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The Success of Ordinary Indians

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

This has been a momentous decade for India. Economically, in particular, the nation has made huge strides. Although its revitalization began in the 1980s and ’90s, the last decade has been marked by a noticeable acceleration of growth rates.

High growth rates have not automatically translated into universal prosperity. India is still haunted by tremendous, often mind-boggling, poverty and inequality. Nonetheless, the widening of horizons and prospects is unmissable, and undeniable.

As the new decade begins, I want to focus on the lives that have been lifted up since the start of the millennium. I have room to tell only four life stories. There are millions more like these. But these four men and women capture some of the hope that marks India today, and that casts little pools of light amid the shadows of deprivation that have for so long defined this country.

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Indian Farmers Turn to New Crops as Climate Gets Drier

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

ELVALAPAKKAM, INDIA — The monsoon has been vigorous this year, with heavy rains for days and even weeks at a time. The roads are in bad shape, potholed and filled with puddles. Low-lying areas of the countryside are waterlogged. Village reservoirs are dangerously full.

One of my fondest childhood memories is of the rice fields that emerge after the monsoons. I remember hectare after hectare of emerald green stretching to the horizon.

This year, I have been struck by an unmistakable sense that there are fewer rice fields. I have had several conversations with farmers in this area. They confirm a shift in farming patterns. Partly, this development is underpinned by a familiar tale of agricultural decline. Many traditional crops are labor or water intensive, drawing on two commodities in increasingly short supply. Farmers around Elvalapakkam can no longer afford to grow what their ancestors did.

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Rajasthan revisited

Conde Nast Traveller

Sixteen years earlier, I had travelled through Rajasthan on a borrowed Royal Enfield motorcycle with a Canadian friend whose flowing red curls and delicate bone structure belied his skills as a mechanic. We spent more than two weeks on the road, driving over the Aravalli mountain range that slices Rajasthan in two and across the harsh Thar Desert that dominates the western part of the state.

Much has happened in my life since that trip. I got married and had two boys. I have grown older: my hair is thinner, the lines on my forehead deeper. I have lived a lot, travelled in many countries. But the memory of that motorcycle trip has always stayed with me. It was a magical time; I have rarely felt so alive. And I suppose it was that feeling of living, of sucking at what Thoreau called ‘the marrow of life’, that has often made me wonder what it would be like to return to Rajasthan—to retrace the journey I took as a young man; to revisit, with my wife and sons, the cities and countryside I had known before I knew them.

Adult life dulls the senses. It is not a criticism of my wonderful wife or children to say that family, work, routine and responsibility can numb a man until he is barely sentient. Can travel make you feel alive again? I was back in Rajasthan, now staring down the barrel of middle age, and I was determined to find out. I wanted to know if I was still capable of feeling the world.

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In a Landfill, Locals Cling to Way of Life

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

It seems unimaginable that human beings could live amidst this environmental catastrophe. But propose to the gypsies here that they move away or that the landfill be moved, and they object vehemently.

Garbage is their livelihood, they say. Without the landfill, they would starve.

On this paradox of a people clinging to the very thing that is killing them rests much of the dilemma of environmentalism, especially in the developing world. The more time I spend at the landfill, the more I realize that cleaning up India’s air and water is going to be even more complicated than the staggeringly complicated task it first appears.

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Understanding the Puzzling Nature of Poverty

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

At least three government committees have recently been formed to count the poor in India. The variance in their findings suggests not only the prevalence of poverty, but also that its very nature is misunderstood. For all the attention directed at the issue, poverty remains something of a mystery.

A new study tries to unpeel some of the layers of that mystery.

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A Model of Development Worth Building

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

In recent years, there has been growing talk about an Indian model of development and governance — what Larry Summers recently referred to as a Mumbai Consensus. He positioned this as an alternative to an ascendant Beijing Consensus, which emphasizes the role of the state, plays down the importance of democracy and human rights, and has been embraced by authoritarian regimes around the world.

This Mumbai Consensus is far less established than its Beijing counterpart. Still, with India’s economic success now receiving general — and sometimes exaggerated — international recognition, and with a growing number of Indian companies embarking on acquisitions around the world, the outlines of an Indian model that could light a path toward development for other countries are starting to become clear.

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The Mystery of Economic Growth

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

Development is an unpredictable business. One of the central questions facing India — and, indeed, the developing world as a whole — is why some people, or countries, move ahead, while others fall behind.

Despite its temptations, however, the search for a policy toolkit toward development is fraught with pitfalls. Over the last 60 years or so, the international development community has come up with model after model, theory after theory, in search of just such a toolkit.

It has, at various times, promoted the benefits of huge, often conditional, inputs of foreign aid, the rigors of shock therapy, the virtues of free trade and the promise of the Washington Consensus (a set of policies prescribed and often imposed by agencies like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the U.S. Treasury).

Yet for all the efforts to come up with a general theory of development, the truth is that economic growth remains something of a mystery.

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A Hindu Sect Devoted to the Environment

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

The Bishnoi are devoted ecologists. Although they are friendly people, full of toothy smiles and warm hospitality, they can also be fierce when defending nature. Their ecological ethic represents a remarkable ideology in modern India, where the environment so often seems to take a back seat to the quest for economic growth.

Across the country, forests and glaciers are dwindling, air and land are being polluted, and coastlines are disappearing.

I wanted to visit the Bishnoi settlement outside Dhundli because I wondered if their way of life offered a path to sustainability. Historically, India’s environmental consciousness (such as it is, anyway) has often been driven by grass-roots, traditional movements.

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