Why India is not functioning

John Elliott - Implosion

John Elliott talking about his book

John Elliott, a  journalist in Asia since 1983, initially for The Financial Times and then for The Economist and Fortune magazine, has written a book on “how India works and how it could work better”. As he thinks it doesn’t work so well, the book is titled “Implosion”.

“I didn’t set out to write a negative book, even though people think it is,” Elliott said when he talked about his opus at the Foreign Correspondents Club.

Elliott explained he describes how slowly and gradually all institutions and organisations, that support a functioning democracy, are imploding in India. He asks if a society can be successful when it is based on “jugaad” and “chalta hai”. “Jugaad” is the art of coming up with unusual, quick-fix solutions for problems, “chalta hai” means “it’s alright, don’t bother, it doesn’t matter (e.g. rules), it’ll be alright”.

Interestingly, Dean Nelson, the South Asia Editor of The Daily Telegraph, doesn’t see jugaad in the positive light many do, because it generates great ideas due to a shortage. He believes that rather it holds India back.

For example: When Nelson moved to India, everybody told him he had to buy a converter. Why do I have to buy one?, he asked. Because there are a lot of power cuts, came the answer. Why are there regular power cuts? Because there is not enough supply, he heard. But why isn’t there enough supply? Because no one is tackling the structural shortage. So the real question is, why is no one tackling the shortage?, he finally asked. Because the politicians and businessmen have converters.

Expanding the home

Indians are the absolute, unchallenged masters of expanding their homes onto the streets – mostly out of necessity.

They (have to) wash themselves in the streets, dry clothes in the streets, cut vegetables in the streets, have their cattle graze in the streets, come together for a talk in the streets, set up their bicycle workshop or shoe repair point or ironing board or sewing machine in the streets, and some even have to sleep in the streets.


abandoned car

useless? not for the clever Indian

This is not a very uncommon sight in India. A friend of mine now found a way to profit from the laziness of the Middle Class. He rented a breakdown vehicle and brought several unused cars to a recycling yard, where he got cash for the metal.

Exploring Street Art in Shahpur Jat

Fighting against the air pollution

Delhi’s air is among the worst in the world. As I’m already living here for a year and a half, it is about time to act and protect my health.

If I don’t, I might end up having a reduced lung capacity and die years earlier than I otherwise would, as several studies, inter alia by the World Health Organisation (WHO), show. My most favorite headline about the issue was in today’s India Today: “Children in Delhi have lungs of chain-smokers!”

bad airIn my office in Chanakyapuri, one of the greenest areas in Delhi and just next to the ridge, the huge forest that runs through the western part of the city, the measurement wasn’t encouraging at all.

Regarding the particulate matter PM2,5  (particles with an aerodynamic diameter smaller than 2,5µm), the device showed a  176,2  µg/m³. The WHO recommends an annual mean of  10 µg/m³.

As for PM10 we measured 275,7 µg/m³, here the WHO recommends an annual mean of 20 µg/m³.  And the organisation explains: “Chronic exposure to particles contributes to the risk of developing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as of lung cancer.”

me and the air purifierAs I don’t want that to happen, if it can be prevented, I bought an air purifier. The neat machine is now running in my bedroom when I sleep and in the living room when I’m around. I can already feel the difference when I enter the room.

Hopefully the air purifiers for my office arrive soon. Then I should breathe good air for two thirds of the day – and therefore can compensate my additional breathing when I go for a run in the morning and cycle around the city.

Shouting, undressing and the use of pepper spray

India’s parliament set all sorts of unwanted records in the five-year term that just ended.

Never before in India’s history did a parliament work fewer hours, and this house was also passing the least number of bills. Proceedings were in fact disrupted so often, that the productive time of the lower house, or Lok Sabha, stood at only 61 percent.

Among the more frequent forms of protests were shouting down the speaker and each other, snatching papers from officials and waving placards in front of the speaker’s chair.

At one point some parliamentarians also got rid of their clothes to protest with their chests bared. Others pushed each other around, uprooted microphones, smashed a glass and a computer, and one guy even used pepper spray.

Every now and then some MPs formed a wall or circle around someone who was holding a speech to protect him or her from other democratic leaders. Even the Prime Minister was fenced off like this, while his words were inaudible as the protesters didn’t even stop their shouting for him.

the house of democracy

Gandhi watching the house of democracy. If he would have approved the proceedings inside?

PRS Legislative Research, a Delhi-based research organisation, meticulously compiled the data on this parliamentary session and pointed to the democratic flaws stemming from all the adjournments and disruptions. “Of the 116 Bills passed by the 15th Lok Sabha, a significant percentage of Bills were passed without adequate debate in the House. In the Lok Sabha, 36% of the total Bills passed were debated for less than thirty minutes. Of these, 20 Bills were passed in less than five minutes,” they write.

Another point of concern: “With the last session of the 15th Lok Sabha having ended, a total of 68 Bills will lapse.” These include the Women’s Reservation Bill (one third of the seats of all elected bodies, including the parliament, were to be reserved for women), Direct Taxes Code, Micro Finance Bill, Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill and the Bill enabling the introduction of Goods and Services Tax.

But why on earth do the parliamentarians disrupt the sessions? Well, any reason seems to be justifiable. I saw protests against the government reaction after the detention of Indian fishermen in Sri Lanka, the answer after the death of an Indian prisoner in Pakistan, the perceived lack of retaliation after an incursion by Chinese soldiers, missing official papers after a debated allocations of coal mining rights, alleged financial scams involving the federal government, and so on, and so forth.

Do politicians from the opposition or the ones in the ruling coalition who have deviant opinions think there is no other platform to make their voices heard if they disagree with the government?

Here is a suggestion: Just talk to us. So far, hardly any top politician grants media houses interviews and uses this way of speaking out. Are you afraid of our questions?



Whereas I still can’t say “Nice meeting you” in Hindi without getting stuck, the owner of this shop managed to spell out the massive German word “Winterschlussverkauf” without a flaw.

Stranded in India

I went to the Delhi High Court today to help as out as an informal interpreter. And to give moral assistance. And also because my journalistic instinct was awaken when I heard the story of this man. And I just couldn’t believe what was happening.

An 80-year-old German went to Kenya last summer for a safari. In a group of friends, he travelled around, saw a lot of wild animals, and enjoyed his time. One evening, when they were all sitting together with the owners of the guesthouse they were staying in, one of his German’s companions asked what weapons they use in self-defence in the savanna. A rifle was shown. A cartridge was handed over as a present.

The holidaymakers went back to Germany. Half a year later, in the middle of January, the old man and his wife boarded an airplane to India. The couple landed in Mumbai, flew over to Jaipur, and later on to Delhi. Never during all these flights did anyone complain about the live cartridge that was still stored away in the luggage.

But when they wanted to leave India on January 29th from Delhi, they were stopped at the gate, shortly before boarding the flight. The luggage had to be opened, and the munition was found. So the two had to stay in India, while the airplane flew without them. For eight hours, they were sitting at the police station.

The next day, the 80-year-old’s wife flew home. (The cartridge was in his wife’s suitcase, but he is the man. It’s not atypical in India for the senior men of the family to shoulder the responsibility for other family members. Whenever I fill in a form – for example to get access to the High Court today – I have to give my father’s name. There even is kin liability: Last year a girl in Mumbai posted a negative Facebook comment about a politician, and members of the politician’s party got angry, and what they did was not to harm the girl, but to destroy the girl’s uncle’s dental clinic.)

Anyway, the octogenarian stayed back – and that without knowing any English. He also had a heart surgery scheduled two days after his planned landing in Germany, which he missed. When he was complaining, he was sent to doctors in Delhi instead. But they either knew German but had no clue about hearts, or they were heart specialists but didn’t know any German. So he refused to examined there, and booked himself a room in the posh Leela Palace instead.

But the nice lodging doesn’t prevent boredom. The old man feels he has seen every corner of Delhi now. And he tried to reach out to every German person living in the city – with success. as someone (not the embassy!) finally found him an interpreter, and others help him passing the long days. 

The case is now dragging on for nearly three weeks already.

UPDATE: It is the 6th of March, five weeks after his scheduled flight, when the 80-year-old finally arrives back in Germany. According to a local German newspaper, he had to go to Court eight times, then he was so fed up that he pribed a policeman to get his passport back and flew out illegally.

Ah, the smell of Coffee….

On sunday we set out to walk to different coffee places in the city to indulge and celebrates this extraodinary stimulator.

We started the session with a terrace breakfast at India Coffee House (there since the 1950s) in Connaught Place, a fragile stalwart of the city. Then we went over to the more moderate Saravana Bhawan for their South Indian filter coffee, before we ended up being in the plush counterpart, the United Coffee House (around since 1940s). We skipped the chains Costa Coffee and Cafe Coffee Day and ended our walk with a Turkish coffee at Kunafa, Meharchand Market.

Himanshu, the guide, made positively clear that India was more than a tea country. And he cited  Cassandra Clare in City of Ashes: “As long as there was coffee in the world, how bad could things be?”

Even the birds run for cover

All is set for the trilateral rooftop terrace fitness therapy to take place this evening. But the weather doesn’t fit our party schedule.

bird taking cover

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