All posts tagged column

Upholding a Tradition of Tolerance

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

It’s true that I live in an especially tolerant part of India, but I think it’s fair to say that India is an especially tolerant country. The Hindu teacher and mystic Vivekananda once said that pluralism was the “backbone of our national existence,” and that India stood for the “grand idea of universal toleration.” He was echoing a widely held view of India as a country particularly receptive to difference, capable of absorbing a multitude of faiths and cultures into its own society.

For all its troubles, Nehruvian secularism is still the guiding principle of Indian political life. Its concept of equidistance among faiths, of state indifference rather than hostility to religion, is more benign (and tolerant) than European-style secularism, which positions itself aggressively against religion.

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Agriculture Left to Die at India’s Peril

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

Agriculture in this area, and in much of India, is dying. The village economy is in crisis, assailed by migration to the cities, decades of ecological neglect, and the growing unsustainability of farming.

Since the late ’90s, when agriculture represented more than a quarter of the nation’s G.D.P., its share has dipped to just over 16 percent. Over the last five years, the Indian economy as a whole has grown more than three times as fast as agriculture. The trend is clear: agriculture is being squeezed out of the new India.

Earlier this week, President Pratibha Patil called for “a second green revolution” to stem spiraling food prices and declining supplies. Such calls have emotional resonance in a country that still remembers the humiliation of American food aid in the 1960s. It’s not clear, however, how Ms. Patil’s goal can be achieved. The forces arrayed against Indian farming are formidable; they are part of the country’s great leap toward modernity.

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A Test Ahead for India’s Defiant Optimism

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

As we enter the second decade of the millennium, I feel a tremendous sense of anticipation in the nation: Is this the decade when India will finally achieve its potential?

The past 10 years have been marked by substantial excitement — and more than a little hype — over the nation’s possibilities. But over the next 10 years, rhetoric will meet reality. The question is whether rhetoric will bump up against reality, or whether reality will finally match the rhetoric.

India has always been a country of contrasts, but there is something particularly striking about the gulf these days between those who have benefited from the fruits of economic reform and those left out. At times, it has felt like the past decade was one big party — with only half the nation invited.

Sometime over the next 10 years, I suspect within the next five, we will know whether India can live up to its own expectations — whether achievements will match words, and whether the nation’s self-confidence will prove prophetic or mere bravado. Either way, as we move from rhetoric to reality, the coming decade promises to be a lot more complicated than the one that has just passed.

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Aid Money Brings a New Social Order

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune
Part two of a two-part series

The social transformation Kannan described — and that I saw all along the coast — never comes easily. When one group rises, other groups get jealous. As the conflict over the crabs suggests, rival castes fight to protect their interests. For all the progress communities around here have seen over the last five years, they have also seen violence and social disruption.

Such conflict is probably inevitable. Development is a disruptive process, and the money that has poured like a second tsunami over this stretch of the coast — more than $1 billion, by some estimates — has swept into complex societies that had remained essentially unchanged for centuries, perhaps even millennia.

In a way, what’s happening around here is simply another version of what’s happening across India. As I have driven along the coast over the last few weeks, I have come up against familiar sights: rapid transformation, a new order in which there are many winners and fewer losers, and a sense of traditional societies bending, cracking, and in some cases breaking under the strain of new money.

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Changed Forever by Disaster

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune
Part one of a two-part series

Five years ago, I woke up on a Sunday morning, checked the news online and saw that a tsunami had hit my part of the world. Early reports were sketchy. I read about just a few casualties (in Sri Lanka, as I recall), and I remember thinking that the whole thing sounded exciting.

I went down to the beach, about a 15-minute drive from my house. I walked the sand. I saw a crowd of villagers standing in a circle. They were looking down at something. It was a dead boy.

I knew at that moment that this wasn’t exciting. I was witness to a horrible tragedy.

In the weeks and months that followed, as the full, almost unimaginable scale of the tragedy became apparent — more than 200,000 dead across Asia, and almost 8,000 here in the southeastern state of Tamil Nadu — I returned again and again to the coast. Signs of devastation were everywhere: in the thatch and cement debris tossed far inland, in the village schools and temples crowded with refugees, and in the ambulances and hearse vans that drove up and down the East Coast Road.

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India’s Path Was Paved by Soviet Fall

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

The breakup of the Soviet Union had a profound impact on India. In many ways, it paved the way for a reinvention of the country: from a stultified, socialist economy to a more dynamic, capitalist one; from a foreign policy defined by suspicion of America to one defined by shared interests and even mutual affection; and from public attitudes that frowned on individualism, consumerism and ambition to a nation that today exalts those same qualities.

Most important, the death of Communism had a psychological and intellectual impact that paved the way for India’s transformation. As the economist T.N. Srinivasan (among others) has argued, it provided an opening for would-be reformers, who had already recognized the need for some form of liberalization but who had run up against ideological resistance.

The collapse of the Soviet Union wasn’t just the collapse of a political and military behemoth. It was the collapse of an idea, too, and with the discrediting of Communist ideology, Indian socialism, long the guiding philosophy of statecraft and economic policy making, confronted a crisis of confidence. Ideas that had until then been anathema to the nation’s governing class — ideas about markets, about profits, about entrepreneurship — suddenly seemed, amidst the detritus of Communism, to be incontestable.

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Exchanging One Cliché for Another

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

When I moved to America in the early 1990s, India was little more than a cipher in the American imagination. Many of my new friends were uninterested in and uninformed about the country that I desperately missed. India was defined by the broadest, and usually most unflattering, of brush strokes — stereotypes about poverty and corruption, images of crowds, maybe a vague sense of what Indians in America used to call the “three C’s”: caste, cows and curry.

I’ve been thinking about those early years in America, because I just spent a few weeks back in the country, in New York. Every time I return these days, I’m struck by the extent to which the gulf of incomprehension has narrowed. Most of all, I’m struck by the new optimism and enthusiasm that seem to have attached themselves to India, and especially to its economic prospects.

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Pollution as Another Form of Poverty

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

This is how it is all around here now days: the rural economy is booming, development is sweeping over the South Indian countryside like a wave, and villagers are being forced into choices they would rather not have to make. Too often, it’s the environment — the trees and the water and the air — that suffers.

Down by the beach, unauthorized construction and a government-built port are eroding the coastline, changing the contours of the Bay of Bengal and disrupting fishermen’s livelihoods.

In the farms and fields that surround my home, farmers struggle with declining yields and land that is turning barren. Decades of chemical pesticides have reduced the fertility of the soil. A new generation of electric pumps has overexploited the water table.

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State Health Care? Choice Is Healthy Too

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

Most of my friends came of age in the United States in the 1970s and ’80s, a time of market ascendance, during which the role of the state was steadily being rolled back. I grew up during the same period in India — a period marked by government control, when every aspect of the economy and, indeed, of everyday life was subject to bureaucratic whims and political interference.

In ways both big and small, I remain scarred by this period. For me, as for many of my generation in India, government is and always will be, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, the problem, not the solution.

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Birth Pangs of a Brash New Country

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune
Indian cities are complicated places. While they contain all the nation’s possibility, the exuberance and sheen of a people emerging from decades of underdevelopment, they embody, too, the seamier side of rapid development.

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