India Without the Slogans
By Simon Robinson (Time Magazine, May 24, 2007)

A couple of weeks ago I was on my way back to the city of Guwahati after a day’s reporting in a rural part of India’s Assam state when my rental car had to halt behind a long line of trucks and buses belching diesel fumes into the warm night air. The cause of the holdup: an army truck lying mangled in a roadside ditch, another victim, said one of the hundreds of onlookers, of the treacherous narrow and winding roads in this northeast corner of the country. Up ahead, soldiers were hammering steel pins into the hard earth to winch the wrecked vehicle up onto the road. The scene was chaotic. A few cars had managed to wend their way through the crush of traffic and were trying to slide under the low-slung metal cable tethered to the truck in the ditch. One, an SUV, was a bit too high; as it edged forward the cable scraped along its roof. Soldiers rushed in and forced the driver to stop and then made a cursory attempt to push the crowd back a safe distance. Slowly, the winch on the back of a recovery truck started hauling in the stricken vehicle. The cables groaned and creaked and the pins started to pull out of the earth, but after 20 minutes the truck lurched from the ditch and collapsed in a heap on the road.

By the time we got to our hotel there was no power to run the air-conditioning. We pressed on until we reached another lodge. This time there was power, but no cell-phone signal. A series of hiccups like this would have been par for the course in India a decade or so ago. But then came the outsourcing and high-tech booms and marketing campaigns like “Incredible India,” and suddenly India’s image had gone from pauper to looming global player.

Except the reality hasn’t. Sure, there are pockets of prosperity like Bangalore and Hyderabad, roads and airports and railway lines are under construction, foreign investment is up and Indian companies are moving out into the world. But the truth is that much of the new India is still like the old. One pointer: religious conflicts, which still hold modernizing India hostage. Just last week, Sikhs and a sect that includes Sikhs, low-caste Hindus, Christians and Muslims clashed for days, while a bomb in a Hyderabad mosque and subsequent rioting killed 13 people.

The lack of progress wouldn’t be so noticeable if India’s marketing gurus hadn’t raised expectations so high. Last year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, India’s government and industries backed a publicity campaign dubbed “India Everywhere,” which overwhelmed conference attendees with facts and figures about the wonderful new India. But since I arrived in India almost seven months ago from Africa, I have heard countless foreign businessmen and women in New Delhi and Mumbai (formerly Bombay) complaining about the gap between the image India projects and the reality. Last month, when I spoke to a group of global executives from a division of a FORTUNE 500 company who had decided to have their quarterly meeting in India, one of them asked why his cell phone kept dropping out on the trip from the airport to his hotel. “It could just be that you were passing through the diplomatic area and there may have been security issues,” offered an Indian colleague. “Or it could just be India.”

Indians themselves have the most to complain about. Take health. In 2000, 47% of Indian children under 3 were malnourished, according to government figures. Today, the malnourishment rate in kids is 46%—only a single percentage point better. India’s Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, regularly points out the country’s dispiriting disparities. “Poverty is falling, but not fast enough,” he told the Planning Commission last October. “We cannot expect harmony if large sections of our population see themselves as marginalized.”

Fixing problems is difficult in a democracy, argue Indian officials. True, compared to Beijing, which can decide to build a road today and start on it tomorrow, Indian authorities have to consult and win over the people. Many politicians use democracy, however, not to ensure that development is better than China’s but as an excuse for inefficiency, incompetence and corruption. Indians who go to China for the first time return awed by its incredible transformation, and are strangely quiet when you ask if they believe India could soon be its equal.

I came to India looking forward to a place with a sense of momentum and hope. I knew India was still poor and frustrating as well as fascinating and exciting and full of great stories. I have found all those things, but I have also realized that parts of Africa have better services and infrastructure than India, and just as good prospects for development. It’s just that Africa hasn’t yet come up with a catchy slogan to sell itself. I hope it doesn’t. Better to be surprised than disappointed

Une réponse à “Aux Amoureux de l’Inde encore”
  1. Rabz dit :

    Un Indien de 3 ans inculpé pour fusillade (Le Figaro, 21.06.07)

    La police indienne a porté plainte contre un garçonnet de trois ans l’accusant d’avoir dirigé un groupe d’émeutiers et d’avoir ouvert le feu sur les forces de l’ordre en janvier dernier, selon l’oncle de l’enfant. La police n’a pas expliqué comment un petit garçon de trois ans était capable de tenir une arme à feu.