Saturday, 26 January 2013

Decadence and dummies

Some friends and I decided to go to the movies the other day. I haven't been much while I've been in India, mainly because it's mostly Bollywood films that are shown and they're just not much fun for me without subtitles (though I can admire the groovy dance moves as well as anyone). However, the big blockbuster movies from abroad to get a showing, so we decided to troop off to see Les Mis. I was probably about 15 when I first saw the stage version, and having gone through a phase of being utterly obsessed with it I can still pretty much sing it from end to end. So the movie version was obviously going to be a must. It helped that this particular group of friends are a laid-back, creative-type bunch who could be expected to be a little more tolerant of the occasional irrepressible burst of singing-along.

So off we went to the mall. I've blogged before about the slightly surreal experience of going to the mall in Delhi. It's not just the sparkling, glass-and-chrome contrast with the chaotic streets of the city, but the fact that malls here take the concept of high-end retail and multiply it by 10, achieving a level of swankiness that most shopping centres in the UK could only dream of.

I wasn't prepared, though, for the experience of  "gold class" cinema ticket at a Delhi mall. Les Mis had two showings, one at 10 pm (gold class) and one at 11 pm (regular). Gold Class was, naturally, shockingly expensive for India, but still only about the average price of a cinema ticket back home. I knew it was a long movie and I'd had a bit of a long week, and having had a little bit of a windfall courtesy of Mr Taxman back in London I decided to treat us so that we could get home at a reasonable hour.

There were 35 seats in the cinema. We had four; two others were occupied. "Seats" doesn't really convey it though. These were the most comfortable things I had ever sat on in my life. Each of them had enough foot room for a giant to stretch out, they reclined to pretty much horizontal, and they seemed to have about a foot of padding across their whole surface. I wanted to take them home with me.

We all got a little bit excited and giggly at the ridiculousness of it. I mean, with six people in the cinema how on earth could this possibly be making money? So my friend Subhashani's camera came out as we lounged around and called out orders to imaginary minions (apologies for the picture quality).

Varoon and me. Overexcited.

Subhashani and me. Overexcited.

Vini. Vini is way too cool to get overexcited.

 Me looking especially taken with the complimentary blankets.

Once we'd actually calmed down enough to watch the movie, it turned out to be a bit of a mixed bag. But I'm not here to write a movie review. Suffice to say that when the other two people in the cinema left at the intermission, this was pretty much our cue to get overexcited and giggly all over again (and in my case, to sing along to Do You Hear The People Sing while wondering at the capacity of my friends for extreme tolerance). 

I have to admit that for all the ludicrousness (and apparently lack of a sensible business model) it was more enjoyable than your average cinema trip. Even despite the occasional burst of Indian-style sensitive customer service - in this case, showing up to shine a torch in our faces and present the bill for soft drinks at the very moment that Eponine was about to expire in Marius's arms. 

I can't help wondering though whether the lack of other attendees was down to an unwillingness on the part of well-heeled Indians to spend extra money on a luxury cinema seat or the movie itself (though you'd think that a film consisting almost entirely of singing would go down well here. No dancing though. Maybe that's it). I'm sure places like this exist in the UK too, but who would bother forking out the extra on a regular basis? Is there really a sustainable market for this kind of thing?

As we were leaving through the underground parking we came across one of the most terrifying things I've seen in India. The photos don't do it justice, but heaped against a wall of the car park was a pile of shop window dummies (I really, really hope they were dummies) looking for all the world like the victims of a massacre deposited, Laura-Palmer style, wrapped in plastic. Presiding over them was a horrific yellow giantess. I'm not kidding, it actually struck dread into my heart.

Of course, once the brain had made sense of the information provided by the eyes and the initial horror subsided, we obviously had to get out and make a dramatic scene out of it (as those who've seen my play at the Short + Sweet theatre festival will know, I have something of a latent phobia about shop mannequins anyway):

I think I capture a terrified pose a bit better than Varoon, who looks more like he's doing a funky dance moved of the aforementioned type. I can't imagine what shop would have actually used the yellow giantess in a display, or why these poor dummies had been abandoned so unceremoniously in an empty car park. But it seemed like a somehow fitting postscript to a slightly surreal evening that managed to be rather more memorable than the movie itself.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

No, that's not it

Last year I posted a cartoon that I thought nicely encapsulated a lot of the dynamics of the Indian workplace. Being the only non-Indian in my office has given me plenty of opportunities to observe these dynamics at close hand and I continue to find it fascinating and frustrating. I'm no stranger to cultural hierarchies, but there are few places where they are more starkly on display than an Indian office.

A couple of days ago, for instance, we were called from our desks for a prizegiving ceremony. One of my colleagues from another team, a fairly senior chap, was getting an award for Excellence, and for "going above and beyond". We all shuffled into the board room and dutifully attended while the award was presented by a senior colleague, a nice old gentleman with silver hair and an avuncular air.

He handed over the award, we obligingly applauded, and then he asked the recipient what "Excellence" meant to him. Well, the chap said, I suppose it means that I always do that extra bit to make sure that what I produce is of the highest quality and meets customer needs. I was squirming at this point - I'm all for taking pride in one's work but I have an inherent allergic reaction to corporate-speak - but it was a decent enough answer. We thought.

Then the silver-haired gentleman interrupted. "No, you're wrong," he said. "That's not what Excellence means." He then launched into his own explanation of the actual meaning of Excellence, while the poor old recipient of the award (the award for, you know, excellence) was forced to smile and nod and say "thank you, Sir" for the sharing of this wisdom.

I couldn't meet anyone's eye. Half of me wanted to tell him to shut up and let the man have his moment - if you're getting an award for excellence, you should at least be allowed your own definition of what it means - while half of me was fighting back giggles at the ridiculousness of it. Of course all human societies have their hierarchies of status and we all constantly engage in communications, subtle and unsubtle, about where we fit and whether we are superior or inferior to those around us. It's just that in Indian offices, from what I have seen, those with the upper hand make no effort whatsoever to mask their claims to higher status. As a rule, senior people nakedly make their claims to not only give their subordinates any instruction they fancy and to castigate them for transgressions, but to have a superior understanding and knowledge of any subject under discussion.

I've long been critical of this, because I've seen people with good ideas to contribute be shot down because they are not considered sufficiently senior to have any ideas at all, and because it tends to discourage any initiative-taking or innovation among junior members of staff. But on the other hand, it is at least honest. There are plenty of managers back in the UK who squash people's contributions, but they tend to hide it behind nicer words and "feedback". At least Indian managers are straightforward about it.

Still, arguments about management styles aside, there does seem to be a greater willingness here to use public occasions to emphasise these points of hierarchy. I don't think I would appreciate being told in front of my colleagues that I don't know what "Excellence" means, and I think - hope? - that this would be unlikely to happen in quite this fashion back home. Hierarchy simply permeates everything in India in a way that is hard to appreciate until you spend some time here.

And that famous British class system? Well, it's still alive and well, and anyone who tells you it's not is living in a dream. Some of its manifestations are obvious - check the educational background of the current Cabinet line-up - but actually it's mostly a much more subtle system of coded behaviours that often need interpretation for non-Brits. Indian hierarchies - built on a system of detailed codification, multiple strata, and roles and expectation defined to an intricate level of detail - are out there for everyone to see. It's a fascinating contrast.

Friday, 11 January 2013

A reflection we don't want to see

It's taken me a while to write this post. I admit it, I have been putting it off. This is a blog about life in Delhi, and in the past few weeks there has been one thing, and one thing only, that everyone has been associating with the city I currently live in. That thing is rape.

I hesitated for a lot of reasons. Because a young woman is dead. Because a family has lost a daughter, in horrific circumstances. Because a young man has lost a friend and been viciously beaten. Because I am a man. Because I am a foreigner. Because the depth of pain and outrage in this city makes this a scary place for any blogger to tread. But I couldn't in good conscience avoid writing about it, since of all the events that have happened in this city in my short time here, this is the most dreadful and perhaps the one that speaks loudest about the conflicts within today's India. And not just India. The assault and its aftermath shed light on disturbing aspects not just of Indian society, but of human nature and of attitudes to women that can be found pretty much anywhere.

In the days after the attack, when the victim was still fighting for her life, Delhi went pretty crazy. Massive demonstrations called for the death penalty. Young women who have lived with fear their whole lives took to the streets to protest; men accompanied them, often speaking of their concern for their wives, sisters, and daughters. The government's repressive response was shameful and is something that I anticipate they will greatly regret.

One of my colleagues attended several demos. She told me about this one day, not long after the attack occurred, before things got really out of hand. She would be marching, she told me, to demand that the rapists be hanged. She was quite surprised, I think, when I told her flatly that I disagreed with her standpoint.

I'm not going to use this post to argue about the death penalty. I am opposed to it - in all circumstances - but that's not the point. The point is that the people marching with placards demanding death to the rapists were spectacularly off the mark - not only that, they actively obscured the real issues. Hanging the rapists may bring a brief sense of satisfaction; a catharsis that perhaps only violent revenge can achieve. But it would do nothing to address the underlying reasons why sexual violence is so prevalent here. Nothing to help tackle the reasons why India has been ranked as the worst place to be a woman in the G20 - a group of countries that includes Saudi Arabia.

As the initial outrage died down into disgust and weariness, more reasoned voices began to emerge. There are, after all, people who are prepared to look deeper and ask: why did this happen? Why has it happened before? Why, in many cases, have those previous instances now been forgotten? Why does it happen so much? And why, above all, are so many women raped who never even manage to attract the attention of a police officer, let alone the world's media? (For a much deeper analysis of all these issues than I'm capable of producing, I recommend the recent blogs at The Life and Times of an Indian Homemaker).

It's not simply a case of the existence of mediaeval attitudes towards women in India, though they certainly exist. A few months ago, a former state governor argued that women should be married off younger in order to prevent rape. A few days later, a local politician said that eating Chow Mein was to blame for the rising number of rapes in his state. And, notoriously, a religious leader went on record saying that the victim in the latest case shared the blame equally, arguing that she should have begged her attackers to have mercy on her. Another said that rape was a problem in "India" but not in "Bharat" - that is, it occurs in the "Westernised" cities (essentially, code for "places where women wear more revealing clothes"). It's not just the men, either: before the news broke about the death in Singapore, the female leader of the BJP party expressed the view that the victim's life was "now worse than death" because of her lost "honour" - a staggering insult to rape survivors and a horrifying statement about the value of female life.

Where people of influence have such noxious views, it should not surprise us that misogynistic attitudes prevail. I think it's fair to say that these views tend to be particularly characteristic of certain parts of rural north India (such as Haryana, the source of both the "Chow Mein" and "teenage bride" views mentioned above). At least part of the problem is that these are the parts of the country from where a great deal of migration to the cities has occurred in the past decade or so. The clash of cultures should not be underestimated - in terms of education, culture and background, new arrivals in Delhi are often as far removed from the city's elite as a refugee in London is from a Sloane Square socialite. When the two come together, the lines of conflict will be many.

I am not saying that migrants are the problem. Migration creates many challenges, but migrants are also driving this city's growth; the right to live, work and settle where one wishes is also an important one. Besides, as this article forcefully argues, rape occurs where there is social support for it - and that means all of society, not just a sub-set. But we seem to be in collective denial about this. The protestors' denigration of the rapists, the demand for them to be removed from society in the most absolute way possible, reflects the desire to characterise them as something alien from society, an aberration, not a product of the milieu in which they live. But this is patently untrue. There were six men on that bus, who came together by chance. By the law of averages, these were not "aberrations", but fairly ordinary members of society. Acknowledge that, and you have to acknowledge that something is wrong with a society that produces instances like this not just once, but over and over again; and where, in the majority of cases, very little or nothing is done about it.

What particularly comes out of this - and this is where I think we should all take a hard look at our own societies - is how rape is simply the most extreme and vicious expression of the ways in which men seek to control women (I'm aware that men are also raped, and that hijras in particular are vulnerable to it in India, but I'm in danger of writing a dissertation with this post already). This captures it for me:

"We need to stress the continuum between people who rape, people who judge those who get raped, and people who try to protect the women in their lives from getting raped by imposing structures of control. The portrayals of the rape of women allow for those men who want to understand themselves as protectors or avengers to do so, they allow for patriarchal structures of control to strengthen themselves and, crucially, they create women as the ‘legitimate’ subjects of rape."

Quite. Demanding that women change or limit their behaviour to prevent rape simply perpetuates the idea that rape is a norm to which women must adapt by accepting male control. Those men who demand death to the rapists because "we too have sisters, wives and daughters" are really just participating in this structure of control. It shouldn't matter if a raped woman is your sister, your wife, or your neighbour's cousin's physiotherapist. You are not what's important. She is.

And maybe this is why so many rapes are ignored, both in India and elsewhere: because in so many instances, the woman is seen as legitimately subject to the man. Because she is his wife; because she is a sex worker; because she is of low caste; because she had consumed alcohol. For lesser sex crimes, the range of categories is even wider. A woman can be groped on public transport in Delhi without any real fear of retribution: it is seen as a natural part of life and trivialised with the awful moniker "eve teasing". All of this contributes to a culture that produces the horrific kind of incident that happened on that bus. To scream for vengeance against the perpetrators forgets this.

Some Indian commentators have discussed this as a uniquely Indian problem. Our mythology is misogynist, some have pointed out (and certainly the story of Ram and Sita is pretty squeamish in parts). The practice of dowry payment and tales of associated violence reflect deep-rooted hostility to women. We are deeply patriarchal. There is some truth to all of this, though as a foreign blogger it's difficult for me to say it. It's equally true to say that these are global issues as well as Indian ones, as this article points out. Sometimes it seems that Western commentary on the matter divides between those who rush to condemn India's misogyny, and those who equally rush to point out the plank in our own eyes.

It seems to me that, while it's completely wrong to speak as though the UK and other countries don't have huge problems with misogyny, sexism and violence against women (because we absolutely do), it serves no-one if we pretend that there are not some deeply ingrained problems that are particularly prevalent in India. What I think is needed, though, is the courage to look honestly at those factors that enable rape in any culture. In India, that means acknowledging the relationship with other lines of social divide. Caste and poverty are two. Another is the social stratification prevalent in the cities, with privileged elites living insulated from public spaces, and the consequent erosion of trust. And an ongoing social dialogue that characterises women as objects of control, even in benign ways, is another. (I found this award-winning ad against "eve-teasing" a real eye-opener. Notice how the woman doesn't even get to say anything - she has to be defended by a man. This really speaks volumes about how even messages against sexual violence can feed into a patriarchal approach). In the UK, similar discourses manifest themselves in different ways, particularly along the lines of social class, sexuality and race.

Let the courts decide what happens to the alleged rapists. Let women decide, as men do, what to wear and what (if any) self defence measures to take. What deserves our collective attention, in every country, is how everyday attitudes, everyday language, everyday occurrences towards which we turn a blind eye, contribute to a culture that culminates in horrific acts like the one that took place on that bus; and how a rainbow of prejudices - not just sexism - determine who is seen as a "victim" and who is dismissed. It's not a pretty picture. But we all have to look in the mirror.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

A month of thankfulness

The title of this post might seem a little strange, given that some of the things I'm going to talk about are not things that, at first sight, one might be thankful for. It's been a month of highs and lows, joys and stress, conflict and love. At any rate it's certainly been a memorable time to cap a memorable year. And that alone gives me plenty of reason to be thankful.

There are basically three reasons why I've been quiet for a while. Firstly, in mid-November I went on my first proper holiday since I came to India: two weeks in Nepal, including an eight day trip rafting down 170 miles of the Sun Kosi river. Secondly, while I was in Nepal my grandma passed away, so I flew back to Delhi early and got on a flight to the UK to attend her funeral in Bristol. Finally, my return to work after a longer-than-expected absence coincided with the conclusion of two major projects, including publication of our key report for the year, which has meant that the usual pre-Christmas wind-down this year has been anything but.

So thankful? Yes, my main emotion as I come to the end of this emotional month is thankfulness. I feel I don't spend enough time being grateful for what I have and the people in my life. This month has brought it home to me.

To start with the most obvious reason for gratitude: an extraordinary trip to Nepal. I'm sure I don't have to explain to you why I feel thankful to have such opportunities in my life (and particularly to be able to go on such a trip after a one hour flight, as opposed to the long slog from the UK that my fellow-rafters faced). I'll hopefully put up a post dedicated to Nepal in the near future - it was wonderful, and if I write about it in detail here it will take over this post.

For now, though, I'll just say that one of the best things about the trip was spending a full eight days without access to the internet or telephone. I was pretty nervous about this beforehand. I've spent the last 18 months building up a new initiative and a new team within my organisation, and I'd never been out of contact for longer than a flight journey from Delhi to London before. It felt rather like I was handing over my baby to someone else for the first time. And I've become quite tech-dependent in India, particularly the internet which has been my main means of keeping in contact with my family and friends back home and elsewhere.

As it turned out, those eight days were eight days of tech-free bliss. It made me realise quite how screen-addicted I have become in the last couple of years. I've always used computers for work, but since in Delhi they have come to play an ever bigger part in my life outside work too. And my regular visits to HMV at Heathrow Airport have ensure that even though I don't have a TV connection at home, that screen also regularly features in my day. I don't really want to think about how many hours a day I spend looking at a screen, even though I deliberately avoided getting a smartphone here precisely because I didn't want to become completely square-eyed.

In the absence of the ubiquitous screens that dominate modern life, I had to find other things to look at. Like these things:

As you can see, we camped every night on beaches alongside the river. Luxurious it wasn't, but beautiful and tranquil it certainly was. And I didn't miss my phone or my computer one little bit.

My second reason to be thankful: my grandma. It may seem odd to say that my biggest emotion after the death of someone I loved dearly is gratitude. That certainly wasn't my initial reaction: she played a huge part in my life and I will miss her enormously. It wasn't until I attended the service of thanksgiving for her life, where I gave the eulogy along with my mum, that I realised that I was indeed thankful.

Being asked to give the eulogy was terrifying. Would I say the right things, would the rest of the family feel I had hit the right note, would I reflect everyone's experiences of her? But in the end it was rather wonderful. It gave me a chance to talk about my grandma, to say the things I've always thought but never had the chance to share with others, and to celebrate her. What a privilege.

I'm not going to get too sentimental on here, but I loved my grandma for her strength of character, her sense of humour, her quick wit and her forthright character. She wasn't always easy but she was never, ever dull. I was proud of her. And I'm thankful to have known her for so long.

This is possibly my favourite photo of her, taken almost exactly a year ago just a couple of days after her last Christmas. As you can see, she never lost her sense of fun.

And my final reason to be thankful this month: my brilliant team at work. In the end, what with Nepal, the funeral and my jetlag on return, I was effectively out of the picture for three weeks (though I did what I could while I was in the UK). Two weeks after my planned return date from Nepal we were due to launch our report on the recognition of prior learning (the research phase of which I blogged about in July). A week later, we were due to submit a separate research project to the ILO. Not surprisingly, when I got back to the office there was no time to gather my thoughts.

Nevertheless, apart from a couple of minor hiccups, things have gone brilliantly since I came back. The launch event went off successfully, the report is great, and all the wheels have stayed on the wagon. I can't describe the sense of satisfaction derived from the fact that not only did our project complete successfully, but that it was carried through in the final stages not by me but by the team I put together. A project that I hope will really have an impact - however small - on improving livelihoods in this country.

I'd been worried, when it came to recruitment, that it would be hard to find good staff who could take the initiative and assume responsibility, but I've yet again been shown that I needn't have worried. They are hard working, talented, dedicated and a joy to work with. I hope they realised how grateful I am to them.

There are just five days until I take a break for Christmas - it feels rather decadent coming so soon after my Nepal trip. This year has been a very mixed one. There have been great highs and testing lows. I have seen some extraordinary places and yet sometimes felt stuck in a rut. I've felt loved and lonely by turns. Work has been more central to my life than ever before, but I feel I'm doing something genuinely worthwhile. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the experiences I'm having in India, sometimes I feel guilty that I'm not making more of it or that I'm not coping with it as well as I could. I find myself simultaneously being more encouraging and supportive of my team, but more prone to irritation and temper in other contexts. Less jealous, but more prideful. More relaxed about my future, but more concerned about the future in general.

It seems this is a good moment for re-evaluating a few things in life. The simplicity of that week in Nepal was healthy - the lack of distractions and the peace may have opened a bit of a door. I don't know where it leads to, and I don't know where I'll be this time next year or what I'll be doing. But I feel like starting from a position of thankfulness is a good thing to do.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

An Indian education

Last week I was in Bangalore for a week's training. I'm a policy wonk by background, and that's very much my focus in my job here, but I am also a member of the management board of the UK-Indian joint venture company I work for. Which means, horror of horrors, that I have to show some kind of insight into business matters as well as making earnest statements about evidence-based approaches and public goods.

Most of the time this isn't a problem. I actually quite enjoy switching from policy to business mode, thinking strategically about business issues and spotting where the new opportunities are (clue: in the skills business in India, they are everywhere, but finding the ones that will actually allow you to break even is trickier). Besides, in my line of work the line between business and policy is very blurred: education businesses have to keep public benefits at the heart of what they do or they quickly lose the faith of their customers; conversely, they have to be businesslike or the market will simply eat them alive. So policy affects business, and business affects policy. That's even more the case in India, where training is just taking off and the gold rush is just beginning.

Anyway, I digress. My point was that I was mostly fine tackling business issues, except for one rather important point: numbers.

I don't mean I can't do maths. My maths is actually pretty OK, although algebra beyond x=2y can still sometimes induce mild hysteria if I don't take some deep breaths first. What I struggle with is finance. As soon as those enormous spreadsheets appear on the power point, with lots of months and decimal points and terms like EBIDTA, something tends to switch off in my brain. I know I should follow it. I know the numbers aren't that difficult. But the spreadsheets are just so big. And there are so many columns. And can't we just talk about how policy fails to incentivise enough employers to offer apprenticeships? Please?

So to cut a long story short I decided I needed to find a course on finance for people who will never - god forbid - actually work in the field, but who need to be able to go to a board meeting and talk intelligently about performance against AOP and so on, without being reduced to a quivering pile of jelly. And so it was that I spent last week putting in 11 hour study  days at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore.

If you want to see how serious India is about business, go to IIMB. I went to a pretty good university and I have some very, very clever friends, but this was some of the best teaching by some of the smartest people I've ever come across. It was intense, it was exhausting, it left me feeling like my eyes were propped open with sandpaper - but god, it was good. And to my enormous astonishment, it also managed to be really, really interesting. I can't say I can now confidently reel off all the principles of financial management, but I am fairly sure that the next time I'm in the board room it'll be with my head a lot higher than before.

Let me just say this again: these people made me find finance interesting. That's rather like managing to convince Ann Coulter that actually, Barack Obama isn't such a bad old stick.

Sitting in classrooms like those at IIMB it's hard to imagine that India isn't following a manifest destiny to become the most successful and largest economy in the world. But the fact is that, on current trends, it isn't. The pockets of superb quality education like IIMB exist in a sea of educational underachievement; the brilliance of the faculty (and some of my fellow students) has to be set against a system where vast numbers complete their education without sufficient capabilities to be employable. India excels at excellence, but it currently fails at adequacy.

In my last post I commented that some of the social patterns in India remind me of some of the damaging trends seen in my own country and in the USA, trends that are associated with high levels of inequality. This strikes me as another one: in all three countries there are pockets of academic brilliance, with truly world class people and incredible results, but swathes of the population are left behind completely. And the problem is that academic brilliance alone isn't enough. Sooner or later all those people will need people who are brilliant in other ways. The people who probably won't ever lecture a room full of businessmen about macroecnomics or create innovations in nanotechnology, but who will make sure the people that do those things live in a world that works - and will do so by achieving high level skills that may lack glamour, but that are sorely needed.

All three countries are committed to developing skills at all levels and to offering opportunities to all. But sometimes I wonder if that's enough. In a world that idolises a privileged minority of celebrities and business leaders, and emphasises material gain as the way to happiness, who'd want to become a hotelier or a plumber? Who'd want to settle for just being an ordinary, successful person? And who, when they realise they'll never earn a seven figure salary or appear in Hello!, wouldn't be tempted to just throw in the towel altogether? Policy commitment to diversity of skills and opportunity may not be enough in the face of a modern culture that sometimes seems geared in entirely the opposite direction.

The more unequal we get, the more aspiration is narrowly defined, the more the middle is hollowed out, and the less liveable our societies become. And that's a challenge India has in common with a lot of places that, superficially at least, it looks nothing like.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Wheels and class

There are many visible indicators of class and wealth in India. You can see it in the way people move, their body language towards each other, the clothes they wear (not just the quality or costliness, but the aesthetics), and in their faces (a browse through the faces on, a brilliant site that facilitates micro loans to needy people in India, will show many people for whom the daily toil of life for millions of Indians adds decades to their appearance). And you can also see it in how they get about.

Transportation may not seem a particularly important marker of class or power, particularly in a country where millions identify themselves as poor by proffering a begging bowl. But as any country's economy develops, the need to move about - and the desire to do so in comfort - grows inexorably, and this puts massive stress on infrastructure and inhabitants. In Delhi, with its crowded roads and might-is-right traffic rules, traffic and transportation are becoming one of the most visible battle lines of class conflict. As the city grows, so does its inequality, and this battle looks set to go for a good while yet.

Take this story, for instance. Gaurav Jain, a 26 year old journalist, researching the lives of cycle rickshaw pullers by doing the job himself, was assaulted by a police officer for 'blocking the road'. Before I say anything else I want to say: kudos to Mr. Jain. Most of the time, Delhi seems to consist of a million or so "important" people and countless millions of others who get ignored. The cycle rickshaw pullers, the street hawkers, the hijras tapping on your car window at the traffic lights. Your average car-driving Delhiwalla barely seems aware of the existence of these people, never mind having such an interest in how they live that they'd be willing to take on a tough and - let's face it - demeaning job in order to understand it.

I don't say this to be critical. Anyone who has lived in a big city will understand that urban survival depends on an ability to act as if you're the only person walking down the street, standing on the train, driving to work. There are just too many people. We can't acknowledge them all. And the ones we do acknowledge tend to be those most like us, the ones to whom we can relate. So in Delhi it's no surprise that the aspiring middle classes pay scant attention to the poor guys slogging their guts out dragging a family of five on the back of their bike for 15 rupees. It's the way things are, and after living here a while you find your blinkers tend to come on pretty quick.

Anyway, back to Mr. Jain's story. Following the attack he went to the local police station to make a complaint, but was ignored. "It's strange how much a person's professional standing or profile can affect the way the law treats him", he said. Quite. Somehow I don't think his rickshaw puller colleagues would find it all that strange.

That the rich and privileged can expect better legal redress than the poor and excluded is no surprise. What was interesting to me was the reason for the attack: "blocking the road". Read: getting in the way of the car drivers, who are far more important than you.

This reminded me of another story that came out a few weeks ago, about the ongoing saga of Delhi's bus lanes and the objections from car users that they are causing delays. The quoted comments in the article lay bare the stark class divide here, and the assumptions made by the privileged about the millions of dispossessed Indians (on whom they depend for everything from domestic cleaning to shoe shining). "People" are being delayed by traffic jams because of the bus lanes, argue campaigners. "How does it matter if a peon reaches his office five minutes before time?" asks one. The apparently radical idea that "people" should also include those who use public transport has to be specifically pointed out by a professor from the Indian Institute of Technology.

It should be obvious that when only 10% of a city's inhabitants drive, yet the streets are already clogged to all hell, public transport has to be at least a part of the solution. But the fact that the bus lanes are fighting for their survival is testament to the disproportionate power held by those 10%. Of course, while they appear to be fighting for their own benefit, if they get what they want it will simply ensure a miserable future for everyone: a city even more gridlocked, fume-choked and cacophonous than it is already.

And this is what worries me most about the emerging battles around Delhi's transportation system. It seems to encapsulate a situation where growing inequality leads to class-based battles that belittle ordinary people and lead to the privileged taking decisions in their narrow benefit, rather than recognising the need for development to work for all, not just the "wealth creators".

The result, it seems to me, is usually a set of outcomes that are worse for everyone.  There are parallels to be made here with the increasingly unequal societies in the UK and the US (among others), which in the past 30 years or so have become massively richer, massively less equitable, and arguably a good deal less happy, healthy and secure. Repeating those patterns in a city the size of the Netherlands - let alone a country of 1.3 billion - is a scary prospect.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

On surprises, elephants and counting oneself lucky

My last post was a bit gloomy, so I'm putting up a quick one to reassure everyone that I don't hate Delhi, honestly. In fact I'm feeling quite well-disposed towards it just now, largely because it's finally, finally starting to cool down a bit. In fact today we had an unexpected afternoon rainstorm and when I walked outside my office it was actually lovely - cool, crisp, with that post-rain tang in the air...just perfect. I stood there breathing deeply for a good three or four minutes (breathing in goodness knows how much particulate matter, but let's skate over that), no doubt making the security guards think I am completely barmy.

Well, actually they already think I am completely barmy, due to the ongoing saga of The Foreigner Who Can't Make Up His Mind When He Wants His Lunch, but I'll save that for another day. Anyway, the point is, beautiful, cool, refreshing evening ensued. It's been a very long time since I've been able to say that. So that was a nice surprise.

Delhi does spring nice surprises on you every now and then. Like this one, which was outside my front door when I left the house a couple of weeks ago:

In case any of you are thinking that elephants are an everyday sight in Delhi, they're not. As evidenced by the fact that the cluster of locals on the right of the photo were every bit as fascinated as I was (which made me feel a bit less like a gawking foreigner). I think this was perhaps the third one I've seen in the city. They're still used as beasts of burden, but it's not surprising that these days the alternatives seem rather more practical. Still, no JCB was ever as photogenic as this.

If elephants are a rare sight in the city, its animal life is still quite extraordinary for someone like me (for whom "urban wildlife" consists of mangy pigeons, the odd fox and the dead rat I had to scrape off my patio a couple of summers back). In Delhi you're as likely to see parrots as pigeons, and while I'm sure there are rats aplenty they get less attention than the frankly vicious monkeys that inhabit the trees and rooftops. I count myself lucky not to have seen any snakes, and the worst thing I've had in my flat (apart from the notorious termites) have been a few medium-sized cockroaches. Alas, my resident population of geckos have vanished (I hope they moved out, but I suspect the pest control methods used to get rid of the termites may have been somewhat apocalyptic in nature).

And if none of those beasties appeals, there are always Delhi's stray dogs, who seem almost as numerous as the people. I was a bit intimidated by them at first, but they are in general surprisingly docile. The worst thing is the fact that so many of them are missing a limb - the consequence, I presume, of their rather foolish habit of going to sleep at full stretch by the side of roads down which Delhi drivers hurtle on a regular basis. One of them has been adopted by the security guards at our office and regularly plonks himself down at the bottom of the steps at the entrance; I've got used to taking a big stride when leaving the building to avoid treading on him. Indeed it seems like most of the city's injured canines are adopted by someone or other - it's hard to imagine they would last long against the competition if they weren't - which is a rather endearing feature of city life.

It's easy, when you are busy with your working day and regular routine, to focus on those aspects of the city that frustrate and irritate, and to overlook the things that make you smile. But no doubt when I come to leave here, I'll look back on the time when I found an elephant outside my front door and reflect that it's not a circumstance I'm ever likely to experience again. It may seem a silly thing, but it does remind me how lucky I am to have the chance to experience a place so completely different from my home, even with all its challenges.

Anyway, autumn is here, the days are warm, and the streets of Defence Colony have acquired a sun-dappled hush (in between the honks). It's a good time to be in Delhi.