Thursday, February 07, 2013

Into India: The Search for Change

I am in India after a gap of 15 months, and now writing this post sitting in a hotel in Delhi. My visit is going well: I kept my expectations low, and therefore slightly overwhelmed by both the affection of long-lost friends and the enthusiasm of the education entrepreneurs about our proposition. Everywhere I go, I am filled with stories of change, a new thing in India. The stories filtering out of India may be gloomy, but it seems that India is moving on, unleashing an avalanche of change below the analysts' radar: Despite the pessimism of the media, the never-say-die reflections in popular culture (The White Tiger to English Vinglish) may be more true than their fictional nature suggests.

Indeed, my enthusiasm about change is tempered by the fact that I stopped by in Dubai before I came to Kolkata. In 2008, I called Dubai the Disneyland of Capitalism and thought the party is over: Returning after a gap of 3 years, I could see the Disneyland spirit is alive and kicking. The change was clear as I put up with my friends only a few blocks away from Knowledge Village, where I had an office previously. I vividly recall how difficult it was to commute to office then, and how I felt it was a bit out of town. Now, I was fascinated to see a Dubai Metro station just around the corner and the developments around the Marina. Dubai seemed to have recovered its buzz on the back of Arab Spring, as the Ancien Regime of Arab Capitals now decamped to Dubai to escape being lynched. This seems to be funding new property developments and the bubble is back with a vengeance (some rents reportedly going up 15% this year): The dramatic change, and the constant rumours of more change (an undersea hotel next), seems to be a natural part of Dubai's life.

The contrast couldn't be more apparent as the flight touched down in Kolkata airport. Before the plane stopped moving and the seat belt signs switched off, almost all the passengers were out in the aisle, overhead storage was opened and everyone was trying to get off the plane before everyone else. I was like - here we go again! It was ever so familiar. My Dubai excitement completely dissipated as I had to step out into the same old international terminal which, as before, always looked like falling apart. I was hoping that it would be the shiny new Terminal 3 that our flight will go to, but, I was soon told, though the terminal has been inaugurated, it would not start operating before a few more weeks. 

Indeed, the life in Kolkata seemed to have changed so little that I felt like being in a time wrap. The Dubai conditioning was making my disappointment far too apparent. But, to be fair, there has been an earthshaking change in Bengal recently, as the ineffectual communist government was thrown out after 30 years in power: In comparison, Dubai's changes are merely cosmetic and one must give credits to the voters in West Bengal for this. But what followed is a complete disaster: Change in government has now led to complete reversal of Bengal's fortunes, a rapid deterioration of its political culture, rise of violence, further depletion of its industrial base and a shameful exposure of the phoniness of Bengali intelligentsia. Kolkata's politics is a butt of joke all over India, and the humiliation of once proud Bengalis is near complete (there will be three more years of the same administration to be lived with).

Indeed, Kolkata presents a great backdrop to appreciate the changes in Bhubaneswar, where I went next. What's apparent is that new constructions are everywhere and the traditional laid-back spirit has given way to a get-rich-quick race. I was astounded by the enthusiasm and positivity. Bhubaneswar, I used to joke, has been a forever-coming-up city; no longer, the city seemed to have arrived now. The change is for real, and the prosperity has spread beyond just the capital city, just as it is happening in the rest of the country. The migration from the villages and minor cities have stemmed, as the jobs and hope has reached the rural folk. This is other facet of change that I discovered in India: This is not about bridges and Marinas, but the real change in the life of people, people who have moved from $1 a day to $1.20 a day, which is sending the revolution upward, only if invisibly. Kolkata's problems seem to be that it is going on reverse gear, its rural prosperity, which predated the rest of country's, is waning under the complete administrative breakdown, the mafia takeover of governance (backed by proliferation of chit funds and scams of various kinds) and the strange invocation of high culture in most unseemly places with comical but exclusionary impact.

Coming from Bhubaneswar, which, despite the changes, remain a small town, to Delhi, the seat of government power, the dynamics of change becomes more apparent. I did some experimentation in Delhi: I tried to be unfailingly polite to test if this is ever reciprocated, and as expected, I was pushed around, shoved aside and frowned upon, as everyone else, completely oblivious of the supposedly human imperative of reciprocity, tried to get on with the race to win, to shortchange (literally) and to jump ahead. But, while I may have despaired about civility, this time around, it was clear that Delhi has surely changed - the runaway capitalism has arrived everywhere, even at the bastion of the babu-raj. The mantra of consumption driven change is everywhere, prices are astronomical and the civility and manners of the old have completely disappeared. 

Yet, this should be regarded as a transitional phase rather than the permanent future of India. One could clearly feel the hunger for change, and when governments falter, as in Bengal, visible derision and disappointment. I commented in an earlier post that the days of vote bank politics may be over; travelling around India, it is all too apparent that the dynamics have changed. The conversations are now about jobs, and opportunities, and consumption, and indeed, India is quickly changing into a vast Disneyland of capitalism on the same coin as Dubai: But it is changing nonetheless and this is a good thing. I shall write about my adventures in Indian education, chronicles of my meetings with Indian educators, that was happening in parallel: The search for civility, that seems to be becoming my defining mission, may need to start from education.

Indeed, the education system is broken, but what I saw tells me that it is on the mend. The education sector is losing money as the students vote with their feet, and this is making the mercenaries among the education investors run for cover, allowing new configurations to emerge and committed educators gaining a voice. I shall therefore sign off with an optimism - about the light at the end of the tunnel, about India's ability to reinvent itself and about the evolving nature of change, the possibilities that emerge out of chaos and most importantly, about the existence and emergence of a new leadership which will shape this positive change.

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