Ugh. What a boring word. Conjures up ads for cement (they’re EVERYWHERE in India); utilitarian bridges, dams and sewer lines; industrial bits that do the unseen work in cities, keeping nasty things flowing away, and clean things in abundance. How many journalists are clamoring to write about the preponderance of underground piping or trash collection mechanisms, when there are far sexier things to reveal: starving kids, colorful eunuchs, epic graft and Bollywood!
But the recent US presidential election briefly put a spotlight on infrastructure as a moral issue. If you build it, everyone benefits. Paradoxically, I think it’s the issue of equalitywhich ensures that infrastructure remains a luxury in India, despite more than a decade of promises.
See, everyone in India doesn’t ‘need’ infrastructure. The poor and ignorant were born that way and are destined to die that way and no one should really bother, because it’s their own karma. Even if you improve their lives, ‘it won’t do them any good.’
The worthy folk (upper castes, middle classes, power-hungry politicos, old money, foreigners, etc) can just buy their own personal infrastructure. Need clean water? Install a state-of-the-art reverse osmosis filter in your kitchen. But really, why bother with a functional kitchen at all? It’s only the silly maid who’ll be using it. Drains blocked? Hire some wretch to clean your shit out by hand from under the manhole in the street.
Want to educate your kids? Pay a private school a suitcase full of cash to reform your runts. Roads? Who cares if they function, it’s only the silly driver who will negotiate the potholes, pedestrians and traffic chaos.
India’s elite have become all too accustomed to their own cheap personal infrastructure. Servants, they’re called, and they are the wretches doomed to plug the comfort gaps for their masters.
‘Oh but otherwise they wouldn’t have a job!’ say the employers, convinced of their realpolitik.
And so the merry-go-round of misery swirls on. There’s little sign of improvement, so even the poor convince themselves that a kick in the teeth and a penny or two is progress.
Yet there’s simply no escaping that this mentality keeps India in a hopeless, lose-lose situation.
If you’ve ever been to Delhi or Mumbai, I’m sure you’ve noticed how pristine BMW’s and Lexus cars drive down streets that look like film sets for civil-war Beirut. Like the photo above (taken just outside my very posh Delhi neighborhood, home to armies of powerful journalists, politicians and administrators), India is a hodge-podge of modern muck, broken streets, ill-equipped public institutions, smelly toilets, wonky buildings; all liberally peppered with idiotically expensive homes and cars. Never mind the everyday, unspeakable police brutality, the numbers of anonymous, homeless dead, nor the millions of children enslaved in beggary or sweatshops.
Still, half the time, you can just about blur out the lack of infrastructure. So it’s stupidly hot, there are no trees, and no building codes requiring insulation? Just fire up the air conditioners!
Water ran out? Ahhh, just jump start the pump and suck more out of the ground. Power failure? No worries, the Krypton-sized back-up battery pack will kick in!
Internet signal as fast and constant as a snail’s trail? Hmmm, actually, there’s not much you can do about that. Neither can you do much to prevent your kid ending up crammed in with 39 others, even in your posh private school. And worse, you can’t anticipate when one of you will come home burning with mosquito-borne dengue fever, or brain worms because the city is literally awash with raw sewage.
The ultimate karmic punch of course is when your fancy car gets smashed to pieces in lawless traffic… and even if the city has an ambulance, it will never reach you in time because of poor roads, girdlock and often, simply because people will stubbornly remain in their spots, refusing to give way. ‘Hey, everyone here’s got problems!’
I don’t believe these failings have anything to do with culture. Indian culture is filled with altruistic, progressive ideas and India is filled with lower, middle and upper class people desperately trying to improve the status quo. Take an Indian out of India, and most likely, he or she will thrive.
They do have everything to do with a total lack of law enforcement and the fact that an incredibly well entrenched group of morally bankrupt, cowardly, intellectually adolescent men and women run this country’s Parliament, legislative assemblies and administration.
Until India strips bare the fantasy that a few grand malls, a few mega-movie stars and a few rich billionaires make for a successful nation, even a world power; until people confront the stinking, ghastly mess outside the few gated communities; and until the powerful make a united moral call to invest in clinics, doctors, schools, teachers, clean water, toilets, nutrition and education, India will remain a disappointment to itself and to the world; a stunted, incapable nation where enterprise is smothered at birth.
Recently, listeners challenged the BBC World Service on its coverage of the Boston marathon bombings. Why, they asked, did the deaths of three people deserve so many hours of coverage, when scores of people die everyday in other parts of the world, unmentioned.
I can’t speak for BBC editors – indeed I’m a long way away from those decision makers. But as someone who has spent many years covering international news stories day to day, I can’t deny the fundamental fact that some countries value their citizens’ lives more than others. And to an extent, the rest of world including the news media, can only follow suit in reflecting that.
If charity begins at home, so too does respect… It’s rather obvious that if the United States is willing to invest millions of dollars in safeguarding lives… when the city of Boston can shut down and deploy every last law enforcement officer to hunt for the killers of a child, an immigrant and a woman… then the world is obviously going to take notice too.
Conversely, when you can’t be bothered to protect innocent infants from drinking shitty water; when you don’t care if people die in agony of treatable diseases; when you’re quite happy to cheat others to make sure you pocket a few extra bucks; when you think a few cell phones will reduce poverty, rather than the availability of a good solid meal, a solid home, and schools for children … well then, the world will reflect that contempt.
Yeah, infrastructure is boring, especially when you’ve got it.