Wednesday, December 3, 2008


I have a particular connection to, and affection for, India, having spent a good deal of time their particularly as a college junior living and studying there. So it was with great horror that I witnessed the terrorist attacks on Bombay and their aftermath. [Yes, I said Bombay, ignoring the Hindu-nationalist inspired name change] I have dined at Leopold's restaurant, I have sat at the India gate gazing at the Taj Hotel, and I have traveled through Victoria Terminus - the train station that was attacked - so this really struck me.

I have to admit, I have never had any faith in the emergency services in India and many times while there have I thought "please don't let anything happen where I would need assistance" because I was quite convinced in the futility of such a need. The police seem hopelessly incompetent and vaguely violent (occasionally resorting to thrashing a beggar with their canes without provocation), the firefighters nonexistent and in general the government seems obsessed with bureaucracy and hierarchy and uninterested in competence. I have stories upon stories of trying to get things accomplished only to be completely stymied by layers upon layers of bureaucratic machinations and endless middlemen.

It came as no surprise to me as a development economist, then, that when there was finally some liberalizing of the commercial bureaucracy the economy skyrocketed. Unfortunately this has not translated yet to other parts of the government. Perhaps this unfortunate event will do the same. India, an ancient civilization steeped in caste and class, is not eager to see this eternal protection of the upper castes place in society disappear - at least not among those upper castes who still control the country. But a new culture of competence must arise. India cannot long sustain its economic progress without addressing its lacuna in governance in other areas. The central government must work to create new mechanisms through which talent and performance is rewarded - regardless of position or caste. I am not optimistic that this will happen quickly though. But I hope it happens quickly enough, because to sustain this society, more economic progress is needed.

I also worry about the success of these terrorist attacks. These will surely test the fragile fabric of what is a magnificent achievement: a diverse, democratic, pluralistic, secular country of over one billion people. It is in all of our interests to assure the success of this grand experiment in democracy. As the new home minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, said so eloquently to reporters on Monday:

“This is the threat to the very idea of India, the very soul of India, the India that we know, the India that we love — namely a secular, plural, tolerant and open society, I have no doubt in my mind that ultimately the idea of India will triumph.”

I hope and believe it will, but it will take much hard work - and some help.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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