Jaipur Literature Festival, on state affairs and chaos in India

Ravi Venkatesan, former chairman of Microsoft India, painted a really gloomy picture of India’s future. “We should be seriously concerned about the country we are living in, if even we as elite can’t get justice.” The judiciary and law enforcement doesn’t work, he stated, and told the tale of how he can’t get a tenant out of his house who isn’t paying the rent.

“India is maybe the hardest market for anyone, local and international,” Venkatesan went on. The employees are unemployable, the judiciary doesn’t work, development banks have disappeared, the paperwork kills the companies – this chokes and suffocates the whole country, he said. Too much business in India is still based on privileged access to resources, he stated. Companies think: “If the whole pie is inedible, I’m starving as well.”

One big reason for the “mess” is, according to Venkatesan, that the middle class is withdrawing from society. The public schools are bad, so they sent their kids to private ones, same goes for hospitals. And because there is no electricity, they buy generators, instead of tackling the problem. “The classist society is back, which we once thought overcome,” adds essayist and novelist John Ralston Saul.

A mother and her children at the Jaipur train station

A mother and her children at the Jaipur train station

Journalist and author John Elliott sees a slow implosion of institutions happening in India. “Democracy is there, people get elected, but it doesn’t work, as the representatives leave the people high and dry.” The political dynasties are looking more after the family wealth than the good of the country.

Mukulika Banerjee, professor in Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics, described the plight of the farmers who switched to new types of grains, given to them by international companies. First, they generated good yields, but these varieties were very thirsty, so the water table dropped, and because of the rich harvests, the prices fell. “So when the growing of paddy wasn’t possible anymore, the went on to sand mining, brick making, growing poppy seeds, pilfering coal from trains.” They knew that it is illegal, but they couldn’t do anything else and had to survive, she said.

That’s also the reason why we see so many farmer’s suicides, adds Ralston Saul. What we need are other models of productions, for example the milk cooperative model in India, where the income is sufficient to live on.

Sunil Khilnani, professor of Politics, and director of King’s College in London, saw the professional standards for lawyers, doctors and others go down in the last decades. “Now you can buy a licence to fly an airplane – that is worrying,” he said. A lot of what happens in the country is a fix-it-deal instead of real politics.

He also complained about the fact that everybody has the right to be offended – and by doing so narrows the space for freedom of speech. Author Peter Godwin took the same line, when he said about cultural events: “If you don’t like something, you just threaten violence, and then the government says: Oh no, we can’t do this because of public security. That is threatening.”

The always present, but often not so attentive and hands-on police

The always present, but often not so attentive and hands-on police

One positive thought came from Khilnani as well: In Tamil Nadu one could see that Chief Ministers come and go, ministers come and go, but because bureaucracy is in place and organisations deliver, the state does well. “So we don’t always need great leaders.” Actually he thinks that people will one day be able overcome India’s petrified system. “This is a country with enormous potential, with young passionate people, great national resources, a great history, and people who actually believe they can change things, who are more and more passionate than the generations before.”

The temptation for honest bureaucrats and politicians to accept a bribe is huge, said John Elliott. If someone climbs up the ladder and then has the possibility to get several Million Dollars – that would change his whole life enormously. “In one little decision, he can change the prospects for himself and his family.”

Elliott thinks the petty corruption can be tackled, the one citizens worry about on an everyday basis, like to get a police officer to register a case, get a water connection, get into hospital, get the child to school. “But the big one? Hardly possible.” Also because politicians in India need a lot of money to get up the ladder, so they have to borrow money, and then pay it back by doing favours.

He also complains about the government which is more concerned about issuing new schemes – “normally with some name of Nehru or Gandhi attached” – than putting the existing one into place.

Ravi Venkatesan, the Microsoft India Ex-chairman, went on on another panel: For most mulit-national companies, India is not a relevant source of revenues and growth, because they aren’t successful here. Because of that, India is loosing out on investment, know-how and the opportunities these companies could bring. “Particularly in the last four years the amount of chaos was going up and investments were going down.”

Dogs fighting over the little bit

Dogs fighting over garbage which is still collected by hand all over India

“50 years ago India was described as a functioning anarchy. This still seems to be true,” Venkatesan remarks bitterly. This is visible, for example, in the terrible rankings the subcontinent has in the Worldbank’s Ease of Doing Business rating, he says. Companies would rather look towards Indonesia or Nigeria for investments.

For Venkatesan, chaos is everything that makes life difficult: uncertainty of governance, too much bureaucracy, bad infrastructure like roads and electricity, corruption. But somehow, he says, the companies have to cope with it, because India’s consumer market is number five worldwide and can’t be overlooked. “C0mpanies that somehow succeed here, like Samsung or Suzuki or Hyundai, can succeed everywhere.”

But unterstanding the market takes time, Venkatesan goes on. “You can’t come in and be arrogant and think, just because a formula worked in the US or Europe, it will work in India as well.” It took McDonalds eight years to figure out how to run successfully in India, he says. First they failed miserably before they adopted.

The chaos overwhelmes many a company, means Venkatesan. Not just internationals, but locals as well, who increasingly invest outside of the country.

Yashwant Sinha, a BJP member of Parliament and a former finance minister and foreign minister, doesn’t think a growing GDP and progress is all that should be looked after. In the villages of Jharkhand, he said, people are still living like in the 5th century when Buddha was teaching. “We have to ensure they get employment opportunites and we have to give them basic amenities,” Sinha said.

Local traditions still play a huge role in today's India

Local traditions still play a huge role in today’s India

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