Three months as a resident

As a 55-year old, I can divide my life into two neat halves. The first twenty-seven years (almost), I had never stepped out of India. In the next twenty-eight years, I lived outside of India. The total number of days I travelled into India might add up to around two years in those twenty-eight years.

Then, in my 56th year, I decided to relocate to India to take up the job of the Dean of the IFMR Graduate School of Business (Krea University). Being a resident is different from even longish stints as a visitor. The mindset shifts in a big way.

It will take a while to get used to the change both at a personal level and for the family as well. That is part of the struggle.

My remarks here are on anecdotal observations and hence, they are hardly scientific. Keep this caveat in mind as you read it because I may be over-reading into my anecdotal experiences as humans are wont to.

What I see as India’s big challenges – not that what I am saying is original – are health, sanitation and water. It is not just about the incidence of diseases but also the casual way in which treatment is sought and given. Pharmacies casually dispense antibiotics without prescriptions and even nurses recommend antibiotics for viral infections where there is no fever! Therefore, an epidemic remains a big source of risk for India.

Sanitation is a big issue. Try walking for five minutes from the Music Academy to the Narada Gana Sabha in TTK Road – a relatively posh and upper middle-class locality in Chennai.

The pavement blocks are chipped or broken or have disappeared. You could easily slip, twist your ankles, spraining them. There are dangling wires, big trees and roadside temples and parked vehicles on the pavements. Then, there are exhaust fumes from the autorickshaws as they take off. That is lethal. This FT article on how India became the most polluted nation on earth is not propaganda. I can believe it. Entrances to some of the streets where some of the big industrialists of Chennai live are dotted with garbage dumps with all the attendant health consequences.

I fully understand the suggestion by Hindol Sengupta on how a cleaner Ganga would yield benefits far beyond a clean river would do. It would be an immeasurable boost to India’s self-belief and also the mindset would shift in a big way. Casual pollution will decrease dramatically.

Next, water availability is going to be a killer. Rainwater harvesting is not pervasive. Water bodies are built over or are polluted. This piece by two young NITI Aayog researchers published in July pulls no punches and minces no words. The situation is dire. The proposal by the government to charge for ground water extraction has not come a day too soon.

Mridula Ramesh, who had dealt with climate change and its impact on and implications for India, had been writing on water management. In her fifth (and final?) instalment of the series, she says water management is the answer. She says that it is possible for India to avoid a water crisis but she is not sure if it is probable.

She cites the example of Madhya Pradesh which did all the right things on water; the farmers saw a bountiful crop but it meant lower prices and not profits! Other parts of the jigsaw puzzle have to be fixed too. She writes that a crisis (a drought) is a good occasion to begin to do sensible water management. Chennai has had a near-60% shortfall in the current NE monsoon season. It is a good time to start. May be, now is the time to clean the Coovum and the Buckingham Canal?

The important thing to note from her description of what Madhya Pradesh did is that it did not require a huge fiscal commitment. That was one of my take-aways. I hope I am not wrong. So, it is not about the budget constraint.

Remember, in the earlier instalments of the series, she wrote about how India’s sensible de-centralised water management was centralised by the British and that has made change all the more difficult and politically costly and tedious too. In the concluding part, links are available to the earlier four parts. They are worth reading. What do we do about it?

I am not going to end this blog post either on a optimistic or pessimistic note. I don’t feel compelled to resort to either sentiment simply because I do not know how the future would pan out. Martin Wolf puts a positive spin on India in his article on why the future might not belong to China:

The most interesting other economy is not Europe, which seems destined for a slow relative decline, but India, due to be the world’s most populous country in the near future. India is far poorer than China and so still has great potential for fast catch-up growth. Capital Economics forecasts 5-7 per cent annual growth until 2040. This is at least conceivable. India’s savings rates and entrepreneurial capacity are high enough to deliver such a rate. It will need much policy reform. But India’s politics are increasingly focused on economic performance. This does not guarantee success. But it does make it more likely. [Link]

As though in vindication of Wolf’s relative optimism on India, ‘India Today’, in its 43rd anniversary issue, portrayed several individuals who are making a silent or visible difference to their and others’ lives in rural India. May be, India will find an answer and may be, it will not. Remember the famous comment that whatever one says about India, the opposite is equally true.

I find the challenges formidable and their prioritisation relatively less commensurate. That is my concern.

5 thoughts on “Three months as a resident

  1. A very thought provoking article. As daily commuter to Sricity, I have been seeing so many infrastructural challenges, attitudes towards traffic that just don’t make sense, and I feel numb sometimes. But over the past 10 years, lot of awareness towards environment, cleanliness has come in. For example, Besant nagar beach is much clearer than in 2004. We have car free Sunday mornings (thanks to ITDP initiative: https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/carfree-sundays-in-chennai/article7752371.ece) and it’s a beautiful sight to see so many activities happening early morning at the beach. So, changing mindsets and education is the major challenge because most of India is still rural. But I guess it is happening.

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  2. An interesting piece. I did go through the links that you had embedded. A few thoughts came to my mind. As am not an expert I can rush where angels might fear to tread!
    Crisis is a good starting point but it does not lead to sustainable solutions. Just quick fixes. You need follow up and an entity that can look beyond the taps drying up this year. That requires a nodal body.
    If water is as important as money where is the RBI equivalent here? Water is still a state subject. There were some discussions on pushing it to concurrent but I think there would be political resistance. In a complex society like ours micro, village level experiments often don’t scale up. It requires a centralised and concerted push. The second factor we have neglected is technology. Today cost-effective technologies are available for desalination. Israel thrives on it. But here it’s not part of any mainstream discourse. I wonder why.

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    1. In general, based on empirical evidence, crises have provided a good opening for unpopular structural changes in many countries. Good point about the absence of the equivalent of RBI for water. Something to think about.

      On scale, I agree with the point in general. But, do we need scale-based solutions or local solutions for water. I am not an expert but I feel that, in this matter, local solutions will suffice. It is just an instinctive response, to be sure.

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