Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Indian Way

My father has a saying, "never give people alms, give them work". In a largely poor nation like India it makes perfect sense. He grew up in a time of optimism, when a nation freed itself from the shackles of colonialism. Everyone was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi who said "work is worship". As I see him age, I see how this practice has borne him fruit. Everyone who has ever served him and continues to serve him, have prospered. He has spread his wealth by bettering the lives of those he touched and those who helped him, by giving them work. Now as an octogenarian, he has a small army of helpers who take care of him while I am away in America chasing my dreams and traversing my own path.

Every few years I return home to take stalk of the situation, and every time I return, I find my father still in command of his surroundings. He has diabetes, his vision is a bit impaired and his movement has significantly slowed, but his mind is still sharp and in control, as it was decades ago. Largely because of the people who generously take care of his daily needs in exchange for his magnanimity.

I grew up in a socialist, protectionist India, when the country was closely aligned with the Soviet Union and two car and TV models were all you had to choose from. There was one state controlled television channel called Doordarshan, whose prime directive was rural education and development with some entertainment and news thrown in for variety. A few hours of black and white fuzzy images beamed from New Delhi, defined my world view. Color television arrived in the eighties and by the nineties, it was clear that India could not withstand the forces of globalization closing in. Economic liberalization was inevitable as the free market was knocking on India's door, eager to devour a billion people with goods and services, deprived under socialism. I left around that time, and when I returned a few years later the change was in full swing. Satellite television had fallen on India like a brick and the flood gates opened and India took a sharp turn.

More than two decades later, India is still transforming, with rapid urbanization and an average growth rate of 7%. Immense amount of wealth and prosperity has been created for many in the process. The middle class has expanded and the unending thirst for cheap skilled labor from America has fueled a meteoric job growth in the IT (information technology) industry. The advent of tech companies like Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, FlipKart and Uber have created tremendous job opportunities for many. Education institutes have popped up in every corner to meet the demand, churning out assembly line software engineers. With all the wealth generated conspicuous consumption has become the mainstay. The American dream is taking shape in India as more and more expats return and crave for a mix of American and Indian conveniences. From mansions with private home-theaters, to mega cars and flat screen TVs to Gucci and Prada, there is nothing the Indian consumer can now not afford. He or she is as savvy as any other denizen in any part of the world.

But somethings have not changed, and the prospects of them changing seem remote. There are large sections of society that are falling through the cracks. The infrastructure is not keeping up with the consumerism. The environment outside ones air conditioned car window or ones gated house, is deteriorating rapidly. Lakes are turning into cesspools and rivers are turning into sewage canals, ancient rocks are plundered for high rise apartments. The glimpses of poverty I grew with are still present. The soiled face of a child in tattered clothes on a traffic island, a man strewn on a sidewalk, public defecation and urination is still a common sight. As a result the Prime Minister has rightfully launched a massive clean India campaign with much passion and fervor, but sometimes it feels that slogans and public service advertisements fall on deaf ears as a culture of corruption across all walks of life seems as intact as ever.

The present government in power is planning for more growth by inviting foreign investment via it's "Make In India" campaign. India's business friendly Prime Minister is convinced that only more factories and companies can alleviate the suffering of India's masses by creating jobs. Even American defense companies like Lockheed Martin are being given access to setup factories in India in an attempt to create jobs. There is no question more jobs can bring people out of poverty and create an environment of prosperity. But one cannot negate the fabric of the country in the process. India still has a vast rural economy and if everyone were to become an urban dweller, it would be a prime a recipe for disaster. Only 2% of America's population are farmers, and thanks to machines and corporate farming they can produce all the food the nation needs. That model is unsustainable for India, whose villages still form its very backbone. While there is a push to expand the manufacturing and service sectors the emphasis and investment to better the lives of small farmers is uneven or non-existent.

Despite all the challenges and political and social upheaval, for a nation this size, India has a significantly low official unemployment rate hovering just below 5%. That is because people in India do like to work. They are driven to be productive and have an immense desire to climb the social ladder. But what is lacking is a work ethic that delivers efficiency and time sensitivity. A large labor force, often means a dozen people employed to do the job of one. That should translate to better efficiency, but in the case of India it does not. You could walk into a bright shiny store to purchase a TV and there would be a dozen sales people on the floor serving you, but the customer service would not be what you would expect. They lack training and knowledge of the product they are selling and often are not driven sales people. Then there is a culture of lethargy and nonchalance that is infectious, almost to the point that they are there just to read out the sticker price, that is all.

There is no social safety net for most citizens. Government employees and some large corporations offer great retirement plans and pensions, but for the rest, it is a "do or die" insecure future. Against all odds of castism, racism, classism and regionalism, many Indians have to build a future. Therefore people see children as their most reliable asset and investment and then gold, real estate and tax evasion. And when all else is uncertain, India provides the largest selection of gods, godmen and spiritual leaders to put your faith into.

And so India trudges on as one of the worlds best functioning chaotic democracies in the world. Despite all the challenges and collective cultural indifference and apathy towards basic governance, India creates from its marrow some of the kindest, humblest, loyalest, warmest people a nation can offer. While sudden acquisition of wealth does spawn a certain display of brashness, barbarism and disregard for humanity among some, there are those who respond with utter kindness and loyalty when treated well. The kindness and familiarity I receive from some people who I have known since I was a dusty boy playing marbles in an open field, is something truly remarkable and irreplaceable.

Like every nation, a lot has changed in this country and somethings have not budged an inch. The disregard for the environment is appalling. Polluted lakes and rivers, toxic air, unhygienic sidewalks and open garbage dumps only seem to get worse. Hyderabad, the city I grew up in was recently named one of the best cities to live in, in India. Many who live here were shocked and amused to hear that. As when they leave their doorstep these days, they have to put on a face mask.

My evenings in Hyderabad most often end over a glass of beer with my father reminiscing about the days of clean air, open fields with greenery abound. A time when people were emerging from a feudal system and trying to chart their own destiny as a worldly nation. When 200 rupees earned after a hard days work meant you were on the rise. When you knew with a little more effort and honesty you could own a house, a car, send your children to a good school and even take a vacation. When it seemed like there would emerge a more equitable society than previous generations. Almost seven decades later the harsh reality is somewhat different. The old has been made obsolete and irrelevant in every sense of the word. The city has turned into a metropolis that has overrun everything in its path. The soft, sleepy, sophistication that once defined the people of this city has been replaced by something unrecognizable. But refreshingly, some people have held on to a work ethic of old, that was driven by hard work, loyalty and kindness. This rarity is still found in many pockets among people who are the salt of this earth and speak a common language of love and respect. It is what it is.