A Grass-Roots Rapprochement Between India and U.S.

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

Recent months have witnessed something of a cooling in the relationship between the US and India. But how threatened, really, are ties between the two countries?

Even as they protest, Indian businessmen concede that they are unlikely to suffer much. In addition to the limited impact on companies’ bottom lines, though, there is another, more structural and perhaps more significant, reason why the political and public jousting is unlikely to result in real damage.

Unlike many bilateral relationships, ties between India and the United States are not, primarily, driven by politicians or the political process. The growing closeness of the last couple decades has had, rather, a distinctly grass-roots character. It has been forged in thousands of interactions between individual citizens, many of them in the context of flourishing commercial and business transactions.

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Changing Poverty’s Parameters

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

Conventional measurements define poverty with reference to national or individual income. Critics have long argued that this narrow focus is flawed.

I first came into contact with an alternative, less reductionistic, approach to development when I studied with the Indian economist Amartya Sen as an undergraduate. It was in the mid-1990s, the Indian economy was picking up, and much of the country (and, indeed, the world) was euphoric over the rising prosperity of the nation.

Mr. Sen sounded something of a cautionary note. Arguing for a more holistic view of development, he drew attention to the failures in education, women’s liberties and health that persisted despite India’s rapid growth. He exuded a broad-minded humanism that I found not only morally compelling, but accurate. It reflected the complex nature of deprivation that I had seen (if not experienced directly) while growing up in rural South India.

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India Is Getting All the Trappings of the New Century; But Is It Modern?

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

I think it is fair to say that India has become a more modern country. It clings far less to the achievements of its ancient civilization, and looks proudly and with anticipation to the future successes of what many believe is destined to be an Indian century.

When I was a boy, India felt isolated. Today, the country is a world power, its interests and actions helping to define the contemporary global condition.

But is India really a modern nation? Modernity is layered, defined more by a state of mind than by loyalty to contemporary trends or consumer fashions. As the German philosopher and social critic Theodor Adorno put it: “Modernity is a qualitative, not a chronological, category.” Perhaps the relevant question, then, is not so much whether India is a modern nation, but what form its modernity takes.

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The Promise of India’s Nascent Economy

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

This is the kind of dusty crossing that might once have been referred to as a farming town.

A couple of decades ago, it was surrounded by fields of rice and sugarcane. Agriculture was the lifeblood of the economy. Farmers clogged the streets with ox carts and gunnysacks, hawking their crops in makeshift stalls.

The stalls are still there, spilling over onto the roads and holding up traffic. It’s possible to see an occasional ox cart lumbering between flashy new cars and motorcycles. But over the years, agriculture has become less important to this town in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Many of the fields have been sold, turned into housing projects or other real estate developments. Young people no longer become farmers; they move to the cities, in search of new opportunities.

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Prying Open India’s Vast Bureaucracy

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

The Right to Information Act, passed by Parliament five years ago this week, aimed to introduce greater transparency in governance. When it was first passed, many were doubtful that it would prove effective. Skeptics predicted that officials would find a way around it. Officials themselves worried that they would be swamped by trivial and vindictive requests that would dilute the original purpose of the law.

It is true that the implementation of the act has been uneven at times. But half a decade after its passage, it is generally acknowledged as landmark legislation that is changing the relationship between citizens and their representatives; and that has the potential to transform governance in India.

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Urban Greatness Awaits Good Governance

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

By virtually any measure, the quality of life in Indian cities is abysmal. Only 60 percent of municipal waste is collected. Just 30 percent of urban sewage is treated. According to a recent government study of 127 cities, 80 percent of them had at least one pollutant that exceeded air quality standards.

A few decades ago, when the vast majority of Indians lived in the countryside and when agriculture represented around a third of national income, all of this would perhaps have been cause for less concern. But today, with India rapidly urbanizing, moving to an economy where services represent more than half of gross domestic product, cities matter a lot more. They represent both the tremendous possibility of India, but also potential bottlenecks in its development.

A study released last month by McKinsey, the consulting firm, does a good job of capturing the critical role played by Indian cities. The report, titled “India’s Urban Awakening: Building Inclusive Cities, Sustaining Economic Growth,” contains an acute analysis of the opportunities and challenges presented by urban India.

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Drowning in a Sea of Garbage

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

India is drowning in garbage. The cities alone generate more than 100 million tons of solid waste a year. Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has said that if there were a Nobel Prize for filth, India would win it. It’s a damning indictment, but it rings true.

No vacant piece of land is safe, no scenic picnic spot immune. Forests are despoiled with water bottles and paper plates, rivers and canals choked with plastic bags. Smoldering landfills of the kind by my house are ubiquitous — outside (and even inside) cities, along beaches, by the side of highways, on farms and fields that have turned barren from chemicals in the waste.

In part, the country’s garbage crisis is a tale of rising consumption. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Indian municipal waste is expected to increase 130 percent between 2001 and 2030, primarily due to urbanization and new prosperity. The type of waste generated is changing, too — an increase in plastics, e-waste and other hazardous and nonbiodegradable materials will only exacerbate the crisis.

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Prosperity and Its Risk to Culture

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

The adulation of commerce and wealth poses important questions about the place of softer, more humanistic endeavors in the country — the role of art and artists, the place of the humanities and social sciences and, more generally, the character (and breadth) of the Indian imagination.

As India grows richer, its culture is changing. The question is whether that culture will be defined solely by the nation’s new prosperity — whether a nation in the midst of a consumerist frenzy can maintain noncommercial islands of intellectual and cultural endeavor, and whether a population determined to get rich can appreciate pursuits whose returns are less immediately tangible.

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Suspicions Over Attacks Keep India Sensitive

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

For many Indians, Mr. Headley’s deal is the latest in a series of humiliating developments in the case — developments that question America’s commitment to the battle against Islamic terrorism, and more generally to the relationship between the two countries.

Almost six months after his arrest, the Indian authorities have yet to interrogate Mr. Headley. Washington’s continued refusal to grant them access has led to feverish speculation in this country. Many Indians are convinced that Mr. Headley is a C.I.A. agent, perhaps gone rogue, and that the U.S. intransigence represents an attempt to shield him and his past activities from scrutiny.

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Opening Up to the World and Its Evils

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

It was all bizarre — surreal, really. It was hard to imagine that this peaceful part of the country — a town without an airport or until recently even a broad-gauge rail connection, a sun-baked, slow-moving corner that has always felt at the edge of world — could really be on the map of global jihad.

Pondicherry’s charm has always lain for me in its isolation — its seclusion, its distance from the world, and the sense of perspective (and safety) afforded by that distance.

Yet the more I thought about it, the less surprising the apparent erosion of that safety seemed. After all, we’ve been subjected to wave after wave of globalization over the last couple of decades. I suppose terrorism is just the latest.

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