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India [Jan. 6th, 2008|03:28 pm]
Arvind Narayanan
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It's only a few days into the new year and already Scott Aaronson has set the bar pretty high with a candidate for my personal favorite 2008 quote of the year:
India: where every imaginable entity with wheels, feet, or hooves can be found on the road, making deafening noises while swerving to kill you; the water’s not even safe for toothbrushing; the beggars have their own beggars; and the cellphone network is more reliable than anything in the US.
So true, every word of it. I arrived here about a week ago, and a couple of days later at lunch, I was too arrogant to ask for bottled water. I immediately fell violently ill, and am only now slowly recovering.

The part about beggars having their own beggars is the best. John Edwards famously railed about "two Americas"; I wonder what he'd have to say about the fact that there are around seven Indias, each one significantly wealthier in comparison with the last.

Most people see this as a huge problem. I suspect they also don't know very much about economics. In reality, each of these economic strata is upwardly mobile, and the poorest one has been consistently shrinking. It's called the trickle-down effect. While some people love to make fun of it, it's the only thing that seems to work, at least in developing countries. Trying to directly change the lives of the "poorest of the poor", on the other hand, sounds very noble, but is actually a lot like trying to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

This brings me to the next part of Aaronson's quote, about the cellphone network. Cellphones are merely the most visible aspect of India's bounce from the dark days of the socialist Raj into vibrant capitalism. The way I see it, the big change of the 90s was the State giving up trying to exert overarching control over private enterprise. The big change of this decade has been the State realizing that it is imperative for its own survival to support business interests. In the latest sign of this trend, comrades Jyoti Basu and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, two of the country's most well known commies, seem to have reached new conclusions:
"Socialism is a far cry. Socialism is our political agenda and it was mentioned in our party document but capitalism will continue to be the compulsion for the future".
Oh, look who has their foot in their mouth!

My friend Samanth argues in a piece for The New Republic that journalists covering India are prone to cliches and generalizations. There is of course more to say about India's economy than simply trumpeting the horn of capitalism. I am no journalist; I won't even pretend to avoid the sound bites and lazy analogies—they are the stuff that blog posts are made of!

For the record, my personal favorite 2007 quote of the year is
Admit it - back in the 20th Century, none of you imagined that World War III would be Robots vs. Muslims. Seems obvious now.
Try not to get offended, it's supposed to be funny.

[User Picture]From: solzaire
2008-01-06 01:00 pm (UTC)
welcome, welcome, welcome
- sung intentionally to the tune of the new bollywood flick's credit song
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2008-01-06 02:40 pm (UTC)
haha thanks :)

you should post more often!
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From: (Anonymous)
2008-01-06 02:50 pm (UTC)
One thing that might be added is that cellphones in India are one of the cheapest in the world.
Also, your comment about seven economic India is very relevant. One can buy the same food, clothes, watch the same movies at prices which differ from a ratio of about 10 to 100. For example, you can watch the same movie in a theatre paying anything from Rs 5 to Rs 500 and almost anything in between. Moreover, people watching the movie for Rs 50 want to watch it for Rs 100 and so on.

Also, the percolation is quite obvious to see to someone who might looked at the conditions 15-20 years back. I remember that there were no roads, no electricity, no water and only two houses which were not mudhouses in my village in western Uttar Pradesh (which is somewhat much wealthier than eastern UP).

I am quite sure the wealth generated by opening the economy might have had a impact but I believe the another factor was the caste politics that came in UP. BJP(higher castes), Mayawati's BSP(lower castes), Mulayam's SP (muslims and yadavs) were in and out of govt regularly. Nepotism or favouritsm, whatever you call it, they made sure that their respective vote banks got the benefits. This was still better than the Congress raj when the main goal of the govt was to serve itself.
Now, my village has electricity (although it is sporadic), every other house has a telephone and the rest have cellphones, there is a water line and there is a not a single mud house. Lots of houses have color tvs, DVD players etc as well. Not surprisingly, some of it has come from people moving to cities and sending money back to villages which is where the opening the economy has come in. But the govt building the infrastructure should not be overlooked even in corrupt places like UP.


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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2008-01-06 11:31 pm (UTC)
what got me started on this whole train of thought was the fact that i bought a sandwich at subway and it cost rs. 300!

your point about caste politics is interesting. i don't know how much of a factor it is in tamil-land. but i see that it plays a big role in UP.
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[User Picture]From: sunson
2008-01-08 07:05 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2008-01-08 02:21 pm (UTC)
i seem to have trouble playing the video.. i'll check again later.
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