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India is different


Picture: From Hindu Business Line, May 13, 2005

The "India is different" (IID) camp consists of those fully convinced that lessons and learnings from non-Indian environments, life and society are mostly, if not entirely, inapplicable and invalid in India and to the Indian experience.  While in a sense this position may have some validity and while it is undoubtedly true that any "solution" must be culturally and environmentally attuned and customized to local realities to be effective, the IID-ers would have you believe that solutions to even practical problems invented, proven and practiced elsewhere, however successfully, simply hold no relevance for India. This is because, in their view, India is unique.  There is an air of jingoism involved here.  It is also a way, one suspects, to deal with and provide excuses for, simply, a poor understanding and application of those learnings and solutions.

I was once instructed that the utter traffic chaos that occurs at many of our city traffic intersections (and, in this instance they were commenting on Bangalore city intersections) is not chaos at all and is in fact the only way 'our density' of traffic could successfully contend and navigate intersections.  In other words, systemic traffic management methods and solutions that are routinely and successfully used in most parts of the world 'simply would not work in India'.  A technical gathering I was in recently was dismissively informed that India's power transmission and power grid, in defiance of all proven technological and maintenance practices worldwide, 'manages' and 'manages successfully', against 'all kinds of odds' and hence there was no meaningful relevance of internationally recommended practices and standards to the Indian power grid.    Somehow I am not too sure.

Sure, we are a unique people in some senses.  We actually 'elect' leaders among our own, whose avarice rivals that of Bokassa, Mobutu Sese Seko and other 'luminaries' of world history rolled into one and who can yet somehow make claims to piety, a 'democratic' mandate and enjoy popular acceptance  We have a growing list of leading lights of our business world routinely listed among the world's richest people - yet, as we all know, as a nation we rank close to the bottom on every measure of 'quality of life' and every index of human development.  But of course India is different we are told and that our poor are noble, happy and content and it is, in fact, the very measures of quality of life and development that are at fault, and inappropriate for us.  Again, I am not so sure.

Mumbai's train system, the proud, well-heeled, urban Indian will tell you, is the best system possible 'given the circumstances'.  It is only when you try to ride the ordinary local at Dadar at rush hour, will you have your moments of doubt.  Or, you too may proudly conclude that human creativity has hit its zenith in the Mumbai mass transit solution. Tokyo and Mexico city may take a bow to the Mozart of public transit - the Western, Central & Harbour lines of Mumbai's 'local' train system.  Yes, yes, we've heard all the supporting arguments - cheapest, most 'efficient', non-stop, most number of people transported, etc.  Thank you, but they are all a bit flaky and don't stand any scrutiny. And 3,500 people die falling off or being hit by local trains in Mumbai each year. Also ask the local commuter what she would like - not what he is forced to use.  And forget the proud, articulate, urban Indian - he/she never gets on the ordinary local at Dadar in any case.

These days, many of us have unfortunately even had a chance to 'see' better things.  We've ridden the Delhi metro - and its 'imported' coaches and 'look alike' stations and turnstiles.  So sexy, that we even made the visiting premier of Quebec ride it (poor ranger - he must have groaned with boredom). We have a new threshold of pride now.  Ignorance used to be bliss and the best keeper of the status quo.

Bangalore's public transport victims (I am one, myself) are good at telling tales about the "intractability" of the commuting problem in our city (it's unique, you see.  Forget about the fact that Chennai's is so much bigger and better, not to speak of Mumbai's very competent BEST, that far outdoes its dismal trains - albeit on the shorter hauls.  And we will say nothing about Ahmedabad's new BRT).  So many of my patient, understanding fellow victims will say, accompanied by clicking noises of the tongue & shaking heads, "what to do, sir, however many buses you put on our roads, it is not enough".  Forget the fact that two empty buses sailed by, the driver & conductor completely uninterested in stopping, before they got the one we are on, after a 30 minute wait. And that the conductor on this one shoved and abused them and refused to give them change that was clearly visible in his bag and was thoroughly unhelpful in other ways.  It is, all 'unique' and 'unsolvable' you see.  Bus transport here cannot be 'managed' like it is in KL or Curitiba or even perhaps Guatemala City.  India is different (perhaps Bengaluru, too?)

I've got to go ... the power just went off.  Can't be solved.  We have 1.2 billion (maybe more) people.  Forget the fact that that some 400 million of us don't have access to the electric grid.  India is different.  You  won't understand.  We are the nemesis of all "solutions".