India — The Neverending Saga


I recently ended a two-month stay with my parents in Bhopal, India. Virtually everyone around our house is a retired senior bureaucrat; when in power they had allotted these properties to themselves for a pittance. When I arrived, the street in front of our house was a shambles, partly because that is the general state of Indian roads but made worse by the fact that the nearby highway was supposedly being renovated, so this small lane by default had turned into the “highway.” Incapable of handling all the trucks and buses, the street had become a pothole-ridden dirt road. A permanent cloud of dust settled a thick layer on everything inside our house. The food tasted crunchy and I took to constant coughing.

Living in a socialist country, one realizes very quickly that not a single thought ever occurs to the government about not externalizing costs. Not only are governments grossly incapable of doing any cost-benefit analysis, but externalization of costs massively worsens the situation. Roughly proper renovation of the road patch just in front of us would have cost no more than $500. My medical bill, which I cannot directly attribute to the dust, came to around the same amount. The physical harm to my old parents and the degradation of everything material inside the house will be much more costly. Lost lives and crippled limbs will be even costlier. Indian vehicles are in a sorry shape from the constant damage they receive. Time lost on Indian roads and the stress that creates present a massive bottleneck to the country’s economic growth.

Of course, the retired bureaucrats, who once held sway over the lives of tens of millions, were not going to take the state of the road in front of us lying down. They suddenly got a sense of what is right and wrong, mixed with a sense of hurt pride. The bureaucrats now in power once reported to these retired Babus. Alas, this is the mystery of corrupt systems. The juniors and children of the bureaucrats grow up learning corruption from their elders. The kids and juniors fail to learn that they should not be corrupt where their parents and seniors are concerned. That realization comes to these bureaucrats — if it ever comes — too late in life.

They threw a layer of dust on top and took some photographs. Bingo, the road had been repaired.

Their pleas to the ruling bureaucrats went unheard, but the retired bureaucrats still knew how to work the system. After about six months, a few trucks of unwashed gravel were dumped on the side of the road. Then, two months after that, a small brigade of road workers descended. This is when I arrived.

The brigade consisted of about five very sorry human-looking figures covered with tar, and a road-roller. During the next two days, they threw the unwashed gravel on the potholes, succeeding in covering only the middle half of the road. Then they ran the road-roller on top of it. With their bare hands, the workers then sprayed a very thin sheet of tar on top of the gravel, using a can with holes in it. They threw a layer of dust on top of this and took some photographs. Bingo, the road had been repaired.

Finally, to restrict heavy traffic from coming into the road, a metallic frame was installed at the junction, so that vehicles above a certain height could not pass. Unfortunately, however, there was no reflective paint of the metallic frame or anything to warn the incoming traffic. So a few nights later, it was crushed by a fast-moving bus or truck. We never found out whether someone had died. But if someone had, the death will never show up in the cost of road construction. No one in the government will ever be charged.

The gravel that had been laid started to come out soon enough, for there was not enough tar to hold it in place. Now there was more dust than ever. During rainy season these holes will become traps for motorbikes.

Despite the slow moving traffic, on average one person dies every day on Bhopal’s streets. Don’t ask how many get crippled or how much wealth gets wasted. You are living an illusion if you think that Indian bureaucrats will ever reflect on the fact that by trying to make some extra pennies in bribes they are killing human beings.

As expected, the highway, while blocked, is not actually being renovated. The contractor, having taken an advance from the government, can now sit on it and earn interest, delaying it as long as he can get away with it. When it is finally renovated, you can guess what it will look like. Of course if no bureaucrat has a personal stake in making a decent road, it will be worse than what my parents got.

And really the story of the Indian road is the story of virtually everything in India. Indians are today fighting for a bigger government. The irony is lost on them. Only a fool will consistently do more of what he has always done to change the predicament. Indians steeped in mysticism, hypocrisy, and dishonesty — all encouraged by decades of socialism — cannot see what a mess they have created for their own lives and for their kids. Alas, over the years, I have seen a continuous deterioration of social morals and increased corruption in my home country.

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Thank you for your story of personal experience. I think we can divide humanity into two large groups: (1) Those who want to live with too much government, and (2) those who prefer to live with too little government. I can only imagine the strange look on my lefty friends' faces when I pose this question to them. The follow up question should be, "Which situation do we currently have?"

Jayant Bhandari

I completely agree with you. Earlier I used to think that behind totalitarianism and liberty-mindedness there were differences in genes and/or culture. But in the end, I realized at the very core, differences in people can be boiled down to the way you have defined. Their thinking, conduct and worldviews are derivatives of how you have defined them.

Rodney Choate

I have enjoyed your info-essays on India over the years. I have the impression that some of your past ones were more optimistic.

Jayant Bhandari

Internet and cellular telephony has brought huge benefits to the poor people. They are now better connected to the world. They are now more aware of their rights. They watch TV and see how the rest of the world lives. They expect better governance. This is behind my optimism for the poor people. But the structure of government is worse than it was a hundred years back—it is stale, corrupt and is only getting worse by the day.

Even my optimism is very, very cautious…

People are increasingly becoming entitlement-oriented and nationalistic; and hence people are asking for a bigger government. Many more Indians now go to schools. Alas, this only means that they are becoming more nationalistic and indoctrinated to suit the ways of the government—they are becoming docile, nationalistic cogs in a broken machine. Creativity and individuality show little signs of taking roots in India. I fail to get beyond sound-bites when discussing any issues with my Indian acquaintances. Those coming out in increasing numbers from university are very, very badly trained and utterly lacking in work-ethic. But they expect a lot from life, making them crime-prone.

So, I see an improving economic future for the poor people of India. They will graduate from starvation to access to rotten food, from no-toilets to access to smelly/dirty community toilets, from no roads to basic ones. But such economic improvements (which are huge, relatively) are inherently in conflict if people don’t at the same time become less superstitious and more individualistic.

Moreover, the rigidities in the government are only getting worse. People fail to realize that the social changes taking place demand a smaller government. But, a mere 20 years after a bit of liberalization, Indians are asking for a bigger, more totalitarian government. So, expect a lot of social chaos going forward.

India desperately needs to break into smaller jurisdictions/countries. But there is absolutely no constitutional provision for it; in fact, this matter is un-discussable even with close friends. It indeed will fall into smaller bits, but after huge chaos and destruction.

I still prefer this very chaotic, slow change to no change.

Rodney Choate

It has sometimes been said that the presence of a "freer country" (like the U.S) acted as an intellectual "seed" or an example for the rest of the world's people. I think I already see how true that may have been.

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