Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Dark and Dry

If you're reading this outside India, you've probably already heard that we've been having some power problems of late. On Sunday night, somewhere around 2 a.m., I was awoken by the unmistakable sound of my AC unit clunking off with a finality that can only mean "power cut". Believe me, it's not a sound you want to hear on a Delhi summer night.

To be fair, Sunday night was only slightly sauna-like, positively mild by Delhi standards, and anyway I was too dog-tired to have much difficulty getting back to sleep. To my surprise, though, the power was still off when my alarm went off five and a half hours later, and hadn't returned an hour after that when Anil came to pick me up.

Turned out, as I'm sure you're all aware, that I wasn't the only one having problems. In fact, everyone in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh had apparently also lost their juice. The whole northern-central part of the country - millions and millions of people - had been affected by the Great Northern Grid Failure.

Only we can't call it that, because it happened again today, this time in the afternoon. Or at least that's what I'm told, because our office generators did sterling work and we didn't even notice (a colleague spotted it on the BBC news). But it's all quite worrying. India has creaky power infrastructure and supply shortages, but a failure on this scale hasn't been seen for about a decade. So I'm thinking two in one week is not a good indicator of things to come.

As if that wasn't bad enough, it's looking like the future is going to be increasingly dry and hot as well as dark. Delhi is parched right now. Last year, when I got caught in a downpour at Humayun's Tomb, it was the start of a couple of months when it rained almost every day - not constantly, but reliably there was a pretty hefty dumping of water every afternoon during the monsoon. This year, there have been three serious bouts of rainfall that I can think of. Days and days go by during India's famous rainy season without a drop. I'm told the last few monsoons have been late and capricious. This year, the monsoon just hasn't bothered at all.

The rains fail every now and then and it's unpleasant for the city's residents, worse for the farmers who depend on the monsoon for their livelihoods. But there is now serious talk of a permanent change in the monsoon patterns. That's a truly terrifying prospect. One drought can be weathered without significant social change; take away the monsoon, and you lose a key part of what makes this much life possible in such a relatively small amount of space. The majority of India's population is still rural, and the majority of them still farm. And all of them, of course, need to eat.

This week feels like a rather alarming foretaste of things to come, if India's stressed climate does not get some relief. A hotter, drier, hungrier Delhi with paralysing power shortages and ever-more people moving in from the parched fields? It's a scary vision indeed. 

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Lady in Red (and blue)

The main Olympic story in the UK at the moment may be the opening ceremony (which I didn't see, being ensconced in bed trying to get over my recent bug) and Mark Cavendish's ongoing Olympic woes, but over here the focus has been on a hitherto unknown individual. Here's a picture of her with the Indian delegation, marching into the stadium on Friday night. Can you spot her?

If you're thinking that someone forgot to tell an Indian athlete what the dress code was, you're being over-generous. Turns out that no-one had any clue who the lady in red top and blue trousers, looking rather, ahem, distinctive against the yellow-and-navy tones of the delegation, actually was, and still less clue what she's doing there. She's since been named in the Indian press, but no further details about what she's doing walking next to Sushil Kumar seem to have come out.

The Indian acting chef-de-mission in the UK has unsurprisingly demanded an explanation from the organisers, saying that the incident had 'embarrassed us in front of the world'. Fair enough, but I think the only people who should be embarrassed by this are woman herself and the security team at the opening ceremony.

I can't imagine what was going through her head when she decided it would be a good idea to tag along with her country's sporting elite on one of the biggest nights in global sport, at which they had earned their attendance through years of dedication and hard work. I can only assume that she is not someone who thinks things through very much.

The security question, though, is different, and there are some serious questions that need answering. As many have pointed out in online comments, we are lucky that this person appears to have been nothing worse than a vain and thoughtless individual with rather poor dress sense.

The Indian 'online community' is predictably up in arms. Most of the ire is directed, quite reasonably, at the breach of security, but the incident has opened up old wounds too. There was a lot of resentment towards the British media at the time of Delhi's 2010 Commonwealth Games, when a slew of programmes about poor preparation and the construction of the athletes' village brought attention of a rather different nature from what India wanted.

At the time, there was a good deal of feeling here that this was a deliberate attempt to sabotage India's image. At the same time, of course, Indians quite happily lambasted the Commonwealth Games organisers themselves, and the general feeling among my Indian friends is that the Games were a shambles. But, as Mitt Romney recently found out, the only people who are allowed to criticise the organisation of a major sporting event in any one country are people from that country. This seems to be a general rule of humanity.

It does seem to be an extraordinarily sensitive area. Normally, for instance, I find that Indians don't much care about the colonial history between our countries. It's accepted as a part of Indian history, and certain legacies, principally that of the English language, are widely recognised (others, such as the creaking exam-based education system, are too, but in a less positive way). But it doesn't go much beyond that, either in terms of lingering fondness or lingering resentment. India's key foreign relationships are in its neighbourhood, and with China and the USA; the UK is really just one of a dozen or so "oh-yeah-they're-vaguely-important-too" sort of places.

This story has really brought out the cranks though. Here are some of the comments on the Times of India's original reporting on the incident:

"This is a serious issue. This could be a plan by the Brits who try every possible opportunities to damage India's image."

Some people here really do seem to believe that us Brits spend every waking moment dreaming up new ways to belittle and attack India (actually, guys, we're more concerned with attracting investment, boosting trade and benefiting from the massive economy India is destined to be...you see the logic?).

"If this has happened in India on any international event for the contingent of any foreign country, each and every TV and media channel will continuously broadcast it and everyone will be demanding a CBI enquiry and resignation of minister and official concerned. Now nothing will happen to anyone in UK. Every one will hail the games a great victory and praise the successful conduct of the games by the administration, which will bring benefits to their country."

This made me chuckle,  partly because of the idea that the Indian media would consider something like this the main story around a major sporting event taking place in India, but mainly because it gets the British character so totally wrong. We don't like to hail great victories and praise our administration, or welcome great benefits to our country. We like to moan. We might have temporarily put this aside for the opening ceremony, but trust me, we'll be back to complaining about the Olympic price tag and delayed tube trains before too long.

"What is the big deal particularly as a foreign woman has gate crashed to run the country!!"

This was actually the thrust of most of the popular comments. Yup, there is no connection so tenuous that it can't be used to make a dig at Sonia Gandhi.

But I'll give the final word to a Canadian commenter, who I think makes a very sensible point:

"I want to be very honest with my beloved Indian friends. I am not Indian, but I love India dearly, as well as Indian culture and Indian history. I have grown up with Indians my entire life, but there is something I must say to the people of India. India is a strong, mature, democratic state, and as such, Indians need to stop overreacting to events like this. Much of the world views Indians as having an inferiority complex, who constantly overreact to any situation where their 'national pride' might SEEMINGLY be violated, regardless of how small and harmless it is. India is much better than this and Indians have no reason to feel slighted or insecure - you are praised and held in high regard around the world and as a mature democratic state, you need to display this confidence and not be upset over something as superficial and insignificant as this."

I may not quite agree on the insignificance point - this was a serious security breach, clearly - but the rest has a lot of substance. I recognise that, as an incredibly diverse place with a relatively short history as a unified, independent country, India's national identity is still fairly formative and fragile; I recognise, too, that its history of attacks and occupations by external forces can make Indians peculiarly sensitive on issues of national pride. So it's no surprise that there may be a tendency to overreact to things like this. But shrill conspiracy theories rarely help the people who make them.

I'd just like to hear what the lady herself has to say for herself...

Saturday, 28 July 2012

A Building Site in Bangalore

Spending all day on a building site in Bangalore may not be most people's idea of a reason to feel grateful for life's opportunities. But that's what I did on Wednesday this week and that's how it made me feel.

I was down in Bangalore supervising the pilot stage of a research project we are doing at the moment. I won't bore you with the details, but it involves evaluating an initiative undertaken by a local NGO to assess the skills of labourers working in the informal construction sector. There are a lot of people doing this kind of work in India - putting in long, hard hours - and they live a fairly precarious existence, traveling wherever the work is and with no contractual protections. They've very rarely had any kind of formal education and the skills they have have been picked up on the job, with no formal recognition at all. So the idea of the project is to recognise and certify their skills, facilitating access to work and further training, as part of India's wider efforts to train its population. As a policy specialist, most of my work is done at a computer or in meetings; it's not all that often I get to see what's happening at the ground level. This was a rare exception.

Building sites in India are, by and large, hot, dusty, noisy and relentless. There's often very little shade. The workers slog under the sun before squatting in the unfinished buildings to eat their lunch. Underfoot is pretty much a mass of rubble; strange struts of metal stick at random angles out of bare concrete staircases. Mechanisation is usually minimal; bricks are either carried up flights of stairs on people's heads, or hauled up by pulleys. This is not an easy existence.

In Bangalore, there was a girl in a red outfit with a toddler hoisted on her hip. She looked about seven or eight at most. My colleague from the local NGO asked why she wasn't in school; she ducked her head and wouldn't say a word. Her father explained that he couldn't afford to send all of his children to school. Some would get an education, some wouldn't, he said. She was needed to take care of her little brother. Like her parents, she will probably remain illiterate.

We interviewed a number of workers for the pilot. Of course I couldn't understand what was being said, but a translator was to hand. At one point, one said that "the big people" had come and asked him to take the assessment. Big people, I asked? He means the NGO folk, I was told. But we are all big people to him. We have an education.

I didn't feel like a very big person at that point in time; I just felt like a very lucky person. I wanted to ask, does that mean he sees himself as a small person? Is that just accepted? But I felt foolish. There's no way I can understand the perspective of someone whose start in life has been so utterly different from my own. And no amount of liberal hand-wringing about inequality or caste can change the fact that, for him, that's just the reality of his world.

Our research partner commented that he thought it was impressive that I was willing to come to places like this; most people wouldn't bother, he said. I tried to explain that I see it as an extraordinary privilege. In my work I've had the opportunity to meet village women in Ghana, labourers in India, policy makers and researchers from countries across the world. Every one brought fresh perspective to me and enriched my world. I know that the villagers and labourers will never have the chance to broaden their horizons in the way I have, and that their lives will likely be hard until the day they die. Meeting them, even briefly, is humbling and something for which I'm incredibly grateful.

Back home, my friends are posting about their excitement at being part of the Olympics, and I have to admit to feeling a twinge of regret at not being there to participate in the spectacle. But on the whole, I'm glad I'm here instead.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Oh it all makes work...

I have a very nice apartment. It's big (way too big for me, in point of fact); it has a roof terrace; it has three bathrooms (all of which I have tried); and it's located in a spot just far enough removed from the Delhi traffic to be something approaching peaceful. However, as with many things here, you don't have to scratch very far beneath the lovely exterior to find workmanship that, well, won't be winning awards at WorldSkills any time soon. The third of the above mentioned bathrooms features an unconventional hole in the wall above the shower head; the power sockets are installed in an entertaining variety of positions and efficacy; and a number of the balcony doors have to be bolted permanently because they don't shut on their own otherwise.

I'm not too fussed about any of this. I've yet to be electrocuted, and the other things are pretty much irrelevant to my life here. Plus, the flat is so big that I've kind of got used to just inhabiting those bits of it that are more or less functional and aesthetically pleasing.

So when, on my second day in India, the door fell off one of my kitchen cupboards, I wasn't too fussed. Again, it's a big kitchen, and I could never fill all the cupboards, so I just haven't used that cupboard. Unfortunately, since then, the same thing has happened to another three cupboards. Faced with a kitchen full of lean-to detached doors, I finally gave in and got my landlord to call in the local carpenter. Re-fixing four cupboard doors, I thought. Half hour job, tops?

24 hours later, my kitchen looks like this:

Now, I'm the last to claim I have any skills in carpentry (or indeed any practical skills whatsoever) but this strikes me as a little excessive. I've been home sick today (having endured a flight back from Bangalore last night while in the midst of a raging fever, chills and sweats) and have witnessed an inordinate amount of coming and going, involving at least four people and a quite impressive amount of dust. None of the workers speak English and my Hindi is certainly not up to "um, you know you're only supposed to be replacing the doors, right?" So I've been curled up on the sofa in my dressing gown listening to the bangs and the crashes and wondering if I haven't ordered a complete re-fit by mistake. Every now and then one of the workers comes out of the kitchen and stares at me. Which is not a nice feeling, given that I feel like I've been hit by a bus right now and am even pastier than normal.

Compare and contrast: my recent discovery (I don't know how it's taken me this long) of roadside, mobile coconut stalls that, using an ingenious set of pipes, spikes and whatnots, get you from raw fruit to glass of chilled coconut water in less than 30 seconds. Efficiency is a rather selectively applied concept in India.

Update: I am chastened. It turns out that my collapsing cupboard doors were due to termites, which I had somehow failed to notice. So now half of my kitchen is being replaced, and the whole flat treated to prevent the little buggers coming back. I take it all back!