IT happened one evening with Tom Friedman, the author of The Lexus and the Olive Tree and The World is Flat. Friedman has been a great advocate of India in the US, where his column in The New York Times is widely read. He has strongly argued for greater understanding of the forces of globalisation, and opening up of the American mind to a fast changing world reality.
Friedman is fascinated with the Bangalore intellect, though appalled by the city’s infrastructure. The Bangalore airport is like a Greyhound bus station with a runway attached to it, he says. But he is so taken in by how India will be the centre-stage of developments in the context of globalisation that he allows such discussions to be dropped in favour of topics like the emergence of IT and the biotech opportunity. During our meeting, he is obsessed with what he calls ‘India Version 2.0’. "Tell me what it will be like?" he asks animatedly.
But I do not want to talk about India 2.0.
I want his opinion on the barriers to India Version 2.0. Friedman is not prepared for the conversation, and I am not willing to let him off the hook. After egging him on, he states what he thinks are serious risks in India’s pursuit to become a leading player in the newly flattened globe: health, infrastructure, politics, and international terrorism.
Why health? Bangalore produces close to 2,000 tonnes of garbage every day – and half of it remains uncollected. In 1990, prior to the IT boom, an estimated 100,000 people lived on the streets. Today, I do not want to think about the numbers because the shock will kill me before the germs do. But it is not Bangalore city alone; every city in India is choking with filth. The national apathy is so pervasive that anyone who talks on health issues is seen as an NGO or activist. The infrastructure bit is easy to understand as well. Our approach to creation of infrastructure has always been based on constraints, not opportunities. When you begin with constraints, you live within its boundaries. Instead, when you begin with the opportunities, resources follow ideas.
The third risk Friedman talked about is politicians – most of them are enough to take us back by a thousand years and leave us there. With some of them leading us, we don’t need the proverbial "foreign hand". These three risks are inherent to India. Only the fourth risk, that of international terrorism, is something we have no control over. But if one dwells in some depth on each of these factors, it becomes clear that there is a common thread binding all four risks: the historic ability to trivialise everything. "Nothing will happen. Nothing may happen. Anything can happen." So why worry?
Unlike anywhere else in the world, in India, it is possible to be street-bred and still lead a full life; the heat and cold don’t kill the vast majority. Over centuries, this has given us continuity as a civilisation, but has also taken away our sense of urgency. So it is OK to under-respond to the Mumbai flood – after all, the mighty US government could not prevent the Katrina disaster. So why bother as long as we can somehow get back on our feet again? In Bangalore, sewage pipes and water pipes coexist – sometimes they leak into each other – either cleansing or contaminating the other. It is alright; why worry about it when places in Hassan or Hamidpur do not even have water?
This week, I met a young, Harvard-educated woman of Indian origin. She spends a lot of time travelling in China. She was in Bangalore, ruing that the Chinese are streets ahead of us in building infrastructure. Lately, I haven’t been flogging that dead horse anymore. But she also said something else that struck me: when she meets the average Chinese, she is amazed at the sense of pride in him. The average Chinese, she says, feels very proud and powerful. It is an unmistakable wave that is sweeping the nation. The Chinese are consumed with a sense of history like never before. If we were to be seized by something similar, we will first have to stop trivialising everything.