Animals, Mendicants, and Mumbai

Earlier this week I went on a very long rant about this Dana Parsons article in the LA Times on the sex trafficking of Nepali girls. Today Dana Parsons’ column takes sensationalist trash to a whole other level. Normally I wouldn’t subject anyone to yet another lecture on primitivism, but I think this particular piece is too precious to keep to myself.

Parsons’ article concerns his attempt at something called “perspective.” He received an email recently from his cousin who is on business in Mumbai, filled with details on the horrible living conditions there. Because of this said email, Parsons now feels a sense of enlightenment and gratitude at the fact that he doesn’t have to live in the squalor that his cousin describes.

You can already guess where this is going. The column outlines the horrors of Mumbai, as narrated by Parsons’ cousin:

There are animals everywhere. Common to see dogs lying in areas by the road. I don’t know how they survive, but I’m told animals are sacred and you watch out for them. There are cows wandering through the streets.
We saw several naked people. Not always children. Several relieving themselves.
Our driver pulled over near some marshy area that I took to be rice fields. I got the camera out and was ready to shoot when we saw that the driver was relieving himself at the side of the car.

Ok, we get it — animals, nudity, and public urination, oh my! How is this substantive news by any standard, and more importantly, how can anyone find these details enlightening, as Mr. Parsons claims?

Truth be told, I’m really not surprised that there are people who view the world the way that Dana Parsons does. What I do find upsetting is that the LA Times is carrying this trash and passing it off as journalism. Then again, what else should I expect — time and time again I have been appalled at their international coverage. I will concede, however, that the LA Times is good for covering a few things, namely: state and local politics, the Hollywood industry, and most importantly, a certain college basketball team that’s going to rout Florida on Saturday. But even if the LAT has no intention of upgrading their international coverage, it’s time for them to cut Dana Parsons off from covering anything related to South Asia. He really needs to be stopped.

156 thoughts on “Animals, Mendicants, and Mumbai

  1. well, isn’t that the point of a blog? naina can be offended by something, and others can either agree or disagree with her. i personally have no problem with india shining or india not shining or whatever, because there’s truth to both. it all boils down to taking individual articles on a case by case basis. you react viscerally badly to some and have no problem with another article that essentially says the same thing but in a different way. this guy’s column wasn’t the most insightful but it wasn’t the most offensive either. however, someone posted a link to article where a Canadian woman on Fox said Pakistanis should be more worried abou their hygiene (in relation to the cricket murder). In reading the several letters in response to this article (at least at the time that i did) i didn’t see a single letter taking her to task for that particular statement. They were more worried about some past false rape charge she had made and her comments on the Duke rape case and taking digs at Fox or comparing her to Ann Coulter etc. Perhaps there are letters now addressing that particular statement, haven’t checked back. But that comment seemed to raise nary an eyebrow from letter writers.

    Now, if I went on my own personal experience here, and extrapolated that and said that Americans with a similar socioeconomic/educational background to mine should worry about their poor hygiene instead of some other newsworthy issue, and then proceeded to talk about some other topic as well, I wonder what the letter writers would respond to?

  2. Here’s the letter I sent to the author of the article:

    Mr. Parsons:

    I understand your point about perspective and it is a valid one. Every time I go back to India, I too gain a sense of gratitude for the luxuries I take for granted in America. However, as an Indian, I found the way you made this point — by describing India as a land of shocking filth and squalor — to be patently offensive. The same point could be made by noting how India’s rural dwellers, comprising 70% of the population, lead lives of happy contentment without any of the benefits we take for granted like electricity or plumbing.

  3. Preston, if New Orleans was a French and then a Spanish colony, is it now an American colony?

  4. Amrita, I’m really not sure what we are disagreeing about or even if we are disagreeing at all. The citizens of both Mumbai and New Orleans deserve better treatment from their governments. I get all the historical stuff about India. I just don’t think it’s the primary force in consigning a poor resident of Mumbai to poverty.

  5. Okay, let me explain… if New Orleans were returned to the Apache-Choctaw et al in its pozt-Katrina condition, would it be all fixed up in sixty years?

  6. Sorry Naina: just finished chatting with another SM’er and didn’t realize what has been happening in comments for the past several months while I stopped commenting. I am genuinely sorry about my last remark. It must have come out very mean spirited to you or the SM intern, and I soooo didn’t mean it that way. Where are animated emoticons when you need them?

    Cheers.

  7. Parsons or not. India is close to putting man in space. Yet Mumbai has more fashion designers than public toilets.

    Anyone, anyone, how are the McD facilities in Bombay?

  8. Okay, let me explain… if New Orleans were returned to the Apache-Choctaw et al in its pozt-Katrina condition, would it be all fixed up in sixty years?

    Let me add another way.

    Katrina happened for few hours in a densely populated center in USA in August 2005. It is far from recovery 2 years later – with local (New Orleans), state (Louisiana), and Federal Government (yes, Federal too besides FEMA) all failing, and still continue to fail. This is in the most powerful nation, and one of the wealthiest, and with most robust infrastructure, and planning (Please MD note, I am complimenting Amrika).

    A million Katrinas happened in India for nearly 24/ 7, 365 days for 200 years – slow neglect and starvation – one expects them to bounce back just like that.

    A few days ago, in Palestine, some people died to sewer PVC burst, and that caused flooding. Do you think, sewer and PVC is top priority in Gaza and West Bank right now, Preston when they are bigger demons to fight. It is question of priority, and limited resources. Till now, India too had (still has) bigger demons to fight than clean public toilets. In fact, China was known for horrible public toilets, and are only now doing major, major overhaul, since they have the cash now.

    No bucks, No working flush. It really comes to that.

    Sure, I am not giving corrupt politicians a free pass in India.

  9. You are complimenting Amrika and also complementing Amrita. Alas, fashion designers and spaceships cost less than a big city’s worth of clean, working public toilets, even with PVC piping.

  10. Yes red snapper, a sense of shame might motivate the “bourgeois” (what are you, a communist?) to help their countrymen.

    One article might not make a difference, but if they feel the general opinion of conditions in their country is negative, they may realize there will be 1) fewer tourists 2) fewer business travelers 3) less investment.

    Gazsi

  11. Has anyone walked around the non-political side of the DC area recently? Ask me who HASN’T pissed on the side of a car.

    I gotta admit I’ve pissed on a few dumpsters in DC alleys in my time. One time in particular I was relieving myself when I saw a giant rat scamper by, then witnessed a hooker getting into a gleaming white SUV at the end of the alley. Then some guy walked up behind me, saw what I was doing, then told me he “just wanted to watch.” Ah, the pleasures of the first world.

  12. (what are you, a communist?)

    No, not a commie. What are you?

    Yes red snapper, a sense of shame might motivate the “bourgeois” to help their countrymen.

    Do you think so? I tend to think that using the concept of shame as a negative impulse to motivate anybody to do anything is retrogressive and doesnt really address the root reasons for inaction or the speed at which efforts at alleviating poverty and the causes of it, which are manifold, deep rooted, and complex in origin can be changed.

  13. Why not just say the right, why be derogatory?

    Sorry for being derogatory about right wing people or thinking.

    And the last time I checked, it’s the left that goes in for safari chic, not the right.

    OK

    It’s the left that goes in for all this, look how bad I feel about the world, I must be a good person. Why drag the right into it?

    I’m sorry for persecuting the Right into it.

  14. Kush Tandon, I understand all that, but it’s hard to get my mind around this:

    Till now, India too had (still has) bigger demons to fight than clean public toilets.

    This goes directly to the heart of Mumbai’s demons. It’s a public health concern, it’s a quality of life concern, it’s a human dignity concern. If Mumbai can have swanky designer boutiques, western fast food franchises, luxury car dealerships, and the costliest commercial real estate in the world, then surely the city’s economic base is firm enough to warrant some spending on public works, or on some hybrid public/private initiative, or some other solution.

    But the problem is never the money. New York city was bankrupt and crumbling in the 1970 and 80s, and it had all the luxury you would expect. But it had rife government corruption, inefficiency, and the lack of political will to solve even the most basic of public problems.

    I just don’t think contemporary Mumbai has any excuse for the squalor that a huge percentage of its citizens is forced to accept as normal. The colonial legacy is still there (I never said it wasn’t)–but what demons are bigger than the health of the children of workers who are driving the city’s economy? If the government can’t deliver even the most basic of services after 60 years of self-rule, what’s the point?

  15. There’s really no way to be from the First World and not be assaulted viscerally by India’s cities.

    Nothing Parson’s cousin wrote couldn’t be found in Mehta’a Maximum City. Except Mehta got beyond that because he had some human stories to tell. Parson’s observations were hardly the Orientalist nightmare some people are making it out to be. Little less than half of Bombayites live on the footpath. Good management alone won’t cure Mumbai’s problem. Poor villagers come from UP, Bihar, Gujarat, Karnatakka by the thousands daily, to stake their claim and overburden an overburdened city. Just like my people did Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta are magnets not just for investment you read about in The Economist but also for the country’s poor. My family’s been in Mumbai for generations. On visits I always think how much better living condiitons are in my family ‘s ancestral villages for the middle and lower classes than the city by the Arabian Sea.

  16. Miles of flyovers were built in Bombay in the 90s. Don’t tell me the priority couldn’t have been more basic public facilities.

  17. “It’s a public health concern, it’s a quality of life concern, it’s a human dignity concern. If Mumbai can have swanky designer boutiques, western fast food franchises, luxury car dealerships, and the costliest commercial real estate in the world, then surely the city’s economic base is firm enough to warrant some spending on public works, or on some hybrid public/private initiative, or some other solution.

    I just don’t think contemporary Mumbai has any excuse for the squalor that a huge percentage of its citizens is forced to accept as normal. The colonial legacy is still there (I never said it wasn’t)–but what demons are bigger than the health of the children of workers who are driving the city’s economy? If the government can’t deliver even the most basic of services after 60 years of self-rule, what’s the point?”

    Well said Preston. Your’s are the clearest and most rational posts here. Too many others, Kush, Amrita et al, are playing the blame game or the finger-pointing game that indians have become masters at. Enough excuses already.

    Other nations were colonized as well. Yet people coming from places like Vietnam, Phillipines etc are also shocked by the squalor and wretchedness of India.

  18. Large cities are prisms that concentrate and refract the multiple realities of the regions or countries in which they are situated. The broad, immaculately scrubbed, tree-lined thoroughfares of Munich or Hamburg speak volumes about Germany and the Germans, as do the rambling but equally pristine back-streets and alleyways. The lush exuberance of baroque architectural masterpieces loudly proclaim the Latin love of art and beauty in places like Rome, Mexico City, and Madrid. But the vast expanses of grey, cinderblock housing-projects on the peripheries of these cities also describe societies sharply divided by class.

    Indian cities are intransigently sui generis, a case apart. They speak of a country and a people precariously balanced atop the quadruple pillars of crass ambition and abject despair, haughty pride and grotesque decrepitude.

  19. Red Snapper,

    The entire system of checks and balances in enlightenment descended countries depend on a properly functioning independent media to verify claims and unearth wrongdoing and transmit any findings to the mass public. In human social networks reputation is perhaps the most important resource to be had. It is the collective opinion of the masses that cause things to get done. It may be true that the inhabitants of India don’t feel a sense of shame when exposed to the daily stimuli of poverty filth and deprivation because they have become acclimated, and a foreign perspective on their situation might be what they need.

    Addressing root causes. Well who is going to address these causes? Government? NGOs? Again it’s the mass action of the people that gets things done. Germany and Japan were both bombed to the point of not having any functioning cities or infrastructure. Within a generation they were back up and running. Contrast west and east Germany. The cultural, scientific and moral capital of the masses are more important than any steel, gems, or oil.

    Gazsi

  20. For the nth time (since no-one is remotely getting what Kush and Amrita are pointing out): They are pointing to a universal tendency, viz., that poorer people generally get the short end of the stick, be it in India or the U.S; the difference is in magnitudes. Governments are far more responsive to the bourgeoisie (and its silly to question and impute motives and ideologies to those who use the term,since it is merely descriptive). Until recently, bourgeois participation in local Mumbai politics was minimal, hence nothing much got done in terms of improvements in the living conditions of those living in the slums (Suketu Mehta makes a similar point in Max. City). When the local bourgeoisie start getting interested, you will see a change; in fact it is already beginning to happen: there are plans afoot to “transform” dharavi (stay turned for an old fashioned ‘class war’).

    Other nations were colonized as well. Yet people coming from places like Vietnam, Phillipines etc are also shocked by the squalor and wretchedness of India.

    By the way, Manila has one of the largest slums in the world. And what will may happen in Mumbai has already happened in Manila, the poor have already been gradually pushed to the periphery of the city.

  21. Gazsi: Not having the experience to rule oneself, or having forgotten the feeling of being in control, is part of the reason here. Colonialism, by the Mughals and then the British for 300 years, means not just a loss in material wealth, it affects the mentality of the colonised in far-reaching ways that take time to heal. The concept of responsibility for one’s own society and country is lost. I will say that it’s gradually building up, because democracy has that effect. So I’d keep my fingers crossed.

    Germany and Japan have always been in control of their own countries and destinies, except for the World War aftermath years, so comparing them with what India has achieved post-Independence or the state of India today is not valid.

    I agree that its Indians’ responsibility to clean up our own country, and there’s no two things about it. But Rome wasn’t built in a day. A society recovering from hundreds of years of colonialism, a society that is highly class-based (you won’t see upper classes urinating in public), but still a society that is deeply democratic (for the most part anyway) and committed to democracy will take time recovering and learning to govern itself. Till then, its in poor taste for Westerners to taunt Indians about their failings. They may do it if they like, but it shows them in very poor light. I was the first commenter to this post, btw, and as you can see, I don’t completely disagree with you. But I’m saying it’s a matter of time. The United States was also a fairly filthy place to live in in the 1800s, I believe.

  22. Regarding toilets, and public urinations, for most part, they are hardly clean public toilets in India – the key word is clean, and therefore, people prefer open spaces.

    Shall we blame the british for this inability to even keep the few toilets clean?

    Or for this:

    On an average about 15 people die daily in the Bombay suburban tracks.

    After all the railway system is a british legacy. The brits have been gone for a long time. Its ridiculous to continue to blame them for India’s inability to provide even the basic services like sanitation, water, food to its citizens. Like Preston wrote:

    This doesn’t seem to be a holdover from the Raj but more obviously the fault of corrupt and useless government at all levels………India has had over a half-century of self-rule. At some point, India’s problems are just India’s problems
  23. and a foreign perspective on their situation might be what they need.

    I doubt a foreign journalistic perspective will throw greater light on atavistic social inequality, oppressive structures, and the exploitation that contributes to the poverty endemic in India any more than the insights and fruit of the free press, activists, politicians, writers of India themselves. As a source of ‘shaming’ society to change — well, ‘shame’ is probably one of the manifold issues that prevent transparency and honesty in many Indian social constructs in the first place.

    Things like improving infrastructure and the environment to make the atmospherics and quality of life of Indian cities (and the poor) more attractive to foreign investors is motored by the prospect of money — the great eye opener and truth teller in the global market place. The gears grind slowly.

    Well who is going to address these causes? Government? NGOs? Again it’s the mass action of the people that gets things done.

    Well yeah, that’s obvious.

  24. http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/IC31Df01.html

    “A combination of incompetence and corruption produces staggeringly poor governance across South Asia, resulting all too often in political upheaval that produces cosmetic rather than comprehensive reforms. While the morass is almost entirely political, it does extend into other areas, including sports and even the performing arts, giving rise to the notion of a broader cultural malaise.”

    “Clues of what really ails the body politic across South Asia can be found away from the arena, namely in the areas of sports and popular culture. South Asian films are notoriously awful to watch, at once unoriginal, insipid and predictable.”

    “The region has recorded no progress in the world of sport since the mid-1980s, mainly because of bureaucratic lethargy and a culture of indifference.”

    “Much of the blame can be laid at the feet of the people of South Asia, whose tolerance of mediocrity knows no bounds. The cultural reverence for seniority all too often extends to the world of sports and films, and has been well captured by politicians for their own benefit. In other words, someone is appointed a minister or captain because of his age rather than any particular performance credentials.

    This is why politicians indicted for corruption claw their way back to the mainstream in record time, feats that are impossible in any other part of the world. They have the company of poorly performing sportsmen and actors, who are backed by millions of the faithful even if results are virtually absent for years at a stretch. Any attempts to reform this status quo are met with resistance from vested interests, who use the threat of external factors to keep their jobs. In any event, respect for seniority makes meaningful reforms a difficult task.”

    “A lack of choice is a wonderful thing, be it in politics, films, music or sports, for it helps to maintain the status quo admirably for otherwise hopeless individuals. South Asia cannot hope to crack through the barrier of growth dividing it from China unless this comfortable equilibrium is shattered. An indicator of how soon this will happen can be found by tracking the progress of these countries in the sports arena, whether one counts soccer, field hockey, athletics or even the more elitist disciplines of cricket, golf and tennis. Using that metric, China has nothing to worry about for a while.”

  25. I think Mumbai will probably always be the way it is now. In all likelihood, things will only get worse. By 2050, India’s population will be approaching 2 billion according to the Census Bureau.

  26. The who with the what now? China in the 1960s was not exactly trying to present a “polished” image to the West, what with the Cultural Revolution, Great Leap Forward, and the rest. India, meanwhile, was trying to build a socialist economy and doing pretty badly at it. India’s current progress came when it renounced its Nehruvian economc policies, not because of them. Speedy

    I don’t think I implied India’s current progress is because of Nehruvian economic policies. Or, at least that’s not what I meant to imply. Where did you get that idea from?

    My only point is that from the very beginning our approach was such that we perpetually pinned the label of “poor, third-world country” on ourselves, even though other countries in Asia aren’t much different.

  27. Amrita, Kush, sigh! — I do get your points. Really. I just don’t believe that the inquiry should stop there. Of course the colonial legacy will last (and that legacy itself doesn’t exist in a vacuum — there are various types of colonialism, with different methods of excluding or including local populations. Amrita, your attempted comparison to giving back New Orleans to the Apache-Choctaw is not really analogous, maybe if they were included in certain governance roles, incorporated into an Apache-Choctaw civil service, etc. It would be interesting to see the results.) There’s no magic number in terms of how long it takes to triumph over the legacy of colonialism, but Preston and others have a point: it shouldn’t be an excuse for governance failure of the kind you see in too many Indian cities, particularly given the level of opulence and “progress” you find there simultaneously. Fine, I can accept the premise that when the bourgeoisie get interested you’ll see change, but why is it that as I mentioned earlier, it’s the bourgeoisie that’s often urinating on the walls? These questions aren’t taunts, I think they need to be asked directly and honestly, and answered without resorting to apology.

  28. it’s the bourgeoisie that’s often urinating on the walls? These questions aren’t taunts, I think they need to be asked directly and honestly, and answered without resorting to apology.

    (a)the bourgeoisie urinate on the walls because its not their wall; they don’t have to live with the stench; they are safely and comfortably ensconced in their respective homes at the end of the day; its like asking, why do rich kids sometimes vandalize? No one is here crediting the bourgeoisie with better civic sense than the rest. That is a different matter altogether. (b) there is a difference between apologetics and explanation. No one should (or is, I think) apologizing for poverty and deprivation in India, especially since India has either the second-most or the most number of billionaires in Asia (again the role of the business class becomes important; why don’t these people do something, you may ask). The point is that merely complaining about the government does not comprise explanation, one must try to understand why the government appears relatively efficient when it comes to some issues and appears to do nothing about others. These things also have to do with the resources (chiefly financial) that the government–at all levels– can command. Some questions, and believe me the answers to them are connected: what percentage of city governments in India float municipal bonds? why is this (answer to the first question) the case? How is money for city improvement raised? Again, why is this the case? and finally a pop-quiz, what percentage of Indians pay taxes (hint: its the same percentage that paid taxes in the U.S. in the 1920s) and why is this the case?

  29. oh and one final thing. The point of naina’s entry/posting was to point out that the writer of the aforementioned column was not really seeking to gain any understanding of the issues we have been discussing here; he couldn’t be buggered. His motivation comes through loud and clear as many posters have observed. Now there are serious journalists who actually try to understand; we just don’t see a lot of them since they do not generally conform to the prejudices of many targeted/intended readers, and as such do not make great copy.

  30. Hungry Wolf,Preston and Sathya. that was some vigorous prose up there! You have hit upon a realization I couldn’t have hoped for, i.e., colonizers are less than mindful of the dignity of the indigenous people whose lands they colonize. Sobering up now, say 6 million people, out of more than that number now living on the streets of Mumbai, use the loo no more than four times a day– that’s 24 million flushes — and not enough water to drink! Yet housing and toilets for all Mumbaikers may well be accomplished, maybe even in our lifetimes, unless global warming washes Mumbai right away first!

    Food ! Water! Shelter! These are the some of the priorities that come before public toilets. Lest we forget, Harappa had water-borne sewage removal systems for the entire cityvery long before those proud cities cited above, Munich and Hamburg, had even arisen, let alone developed their slop bucket system. Can you imagine what six million people look like? Consider, if you will, that eight million people live in all five boroughs of New York City! So –sea water for Mumbai’s public toilets? steel toilets? sewage in sea? If you know how, don’t be shy- make a plan and send it to the city fathers! But remember you;re up against the wise guys at McKinsey and what they have to say about how Mumbai should be developed. Not your ideas at all!

    Then, please take a look at the facilities Benjamin Franklin arranged at his own house.

    Briunna, try getting everyone of European descent back in Europe for one weekend and see what happens to the sewage systems.

  31. Well, I have to hand it to the author of the article (Dana Parsons). He got back to me very promptly (see my letter to him, comment #103). This is what Mr. Parsons had to say:

    That’s an interesting point, because in an earlier column I did on a California professor who went to Nepal to help with child slavery, he made the same point. I guess, for my local readership, the point was to contrast from our perspective how different life is… regards dana parsons
  32. Newspapers, in general, are very poor these days. Why such poor writing, and complete dullness? Thoughts from Siddhartha and Saheli if they happen to be reading?

    I wasn’t, but I’m catching up. And I’m avoiding this thread as well as several others where the conversation isn’t very productive. HOWEVER your question, MD, stands on its own merits. Assuming we are talking about print dailies in the United States market, basically, as far as I can see one problem is that they aren’t investing. That’s because they’re not making enough money. No one has figured out yet how to make money sustainably in mainstream print media under the current commercial and technological conditions. Clearly more and more of the people who would pay for quality news are getting their news online, which moves the question to how do you make money in online media. That one hasn’t been solved either.

    I think the basic problem is dispersal: I get my news from a ton of different sources and I find it to be perfectly good quality: there are writers I trust, critics who interest me, etc. But they are scattered across many papers in many parts of the country or for that matter the world. Online tools and habits make it easy — indeed by this point second nature — to collate all this stuff every morning as I read various sites over my cup of coffee. But if any one of these sources became inaccessible to me due to a fee barrier, I really wouldn’t miss it. There are too many alternatives. That’s why the NYT’s TimesSelect thing won’t work. No one really needs that content all that badly given the alternatives available.

    What’s unfortunate about this is that unless you have a major brand you can still trade on to soem degree (NYT, Washington Post), and/or unless you get some kind of unexpected windfall like the McDonalds widow gave to NPR, you can’t invest because advertising revenue is declining and you haven’t figured out a new way to make money. Reporters and editors work under tough conditions at your average paper. Editors in particular are swamped and under-resourced in equipment, writers, etc. Pay for staff writers and freelancers is low. The whole supply chain is under stress. Quality is bound to decline.

    Alternatives? One way is to go niche — specialized content for a specific market that “needs-to-know” what you deliver and therefore will pay for it. Otherwise, the usual: more automation, more consolidation, outsourcing of as many services as possible, cross-platform integration with other media, and integration into larger multi-industry conglomerates where the paper can operate at a lower revenue target, etc. None of this is particularly satisfying nor breeds much confidence about the industry’s future. Ultimately the whole news, information and knowledge industry is undergoing a massive structural transformation and no one knows what will result.

  33. India should host the olympics..Then all the sanitary problems will be fixed like in China- more toilets, no spitting in public, and an education campaign. Olympics are the answer to everything.

  34. I think Mumbai will probably always be the way it is now. In all likelihood, things will only get worse. By 2050, India’s population will be approaching 2 billion according to the Census Bureau.

    Briunna, I don’t know where you got the 2 billion number from, but population is just one factor. The major factor is money. Japan, for instance, is one of the most densely populated countries (some 300 million people in a state the size of California, is it?), but no one would in general complain of filth and public urination when visiting.

  35. The responses to any mention of India’s failures run the gamut:

    1. Denial and Delusion: “They only see what they want to see. Mumbai is awesome. India is shining”

    2. Fragile egoism: “Why do they have to print negative articles about India? It gives me an inferiority complex. What will my friends and co-workers think about me now? We should sue anyone who writes bad stuff about India.”

    3. Finger pointing: “So what? Every country has the same problems. I saw a guy peeing in LA just the other day. And what about Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans? Huh?”

    4. Blame colonialism: “Them lousy brits robbed us blind for centuries. It will take centuries to recover.”

    Come on guys, lets get real. Other nations have endured worse trauma and recovered rapidly. Vietnam was not only colonized, it also suffered massive devastation in wars against the French colonials and America. It is still poor but visitors aren’t shocked and shaken by its poverty. Heck even visits to India’s equally poor neighbours Sri Lanka, Nepal and Pakistan do not elicit the horror that a visit to India does. There is absolutely no excuse for the degrading conditions 100s of millions of Indians are forced to live in.

  36. OK I have to really wonder whether an experience of colonization is necessarily a recipe for poverty and third world status.

    Hong Kong is a good counterexample. So is Singapore.

    Whether or not India benefited from colonization is debatable but it can’t be used as the sole reason for the current situation. The inertia of the entire history of the subcontinent must be taken into account.

  37. While condemning sensationalism and primitivizing, I would say that the situation in Mumbai and in India in general due to LACK OF POLITICAL WILL. Indian democracy discourages leaders to be visionaries and promotes short term populist thinking. Democractically elected leaders have no obligation to be visionaries and take a tough stance on anything, instead it is in their interest not to do so.

  38. I think its the tone of how this is noticed and said. If its said with a sad kind of resignated tone of inevitability and ineffability (of said national character) that is one thing. I am struck by how much of what turns out in the end to be totally transient is thought at one time to be absolutely essential to a given national character. Maybe 150 years ago, the Irish national character might have been presumed to be unalterablyy negative, for instance in the English mind. And now, we have the Celtic Tiger fast and rightfully changing that image. And also genetic data suggesting there are few if any differences at all in Ireland versus England, apart from social-structural-economic-historic. And similiarlt for China.

    What is bothersome of this article is not the observation, but what is done with the observation. Anyone can observe what is right in front of one’s face in many Indian cities. But what it means about “them” and “us” is the key indication. I would agree that this article is quite problematic

    On the Raj and the responsibility it played in the current condition in India and the Commonwealth as a whole, I think this question is a serious one and requires serious investigation. For one thing, the kind of uber-corruption in many of the Commonwealth countries itself may be in part of result of the raj. In part. No one with agency, as India today has agency, should harken back to a time when there was no agency for all the appropriation of blame. Clearly, the problems in India are now in the hands of Indians, and have been for long enough time. This does not discount that the raj itself was a large distortion in the indian national trajectory. Distoration does not imply neccessarily in what way, just that the “curve” of where “India” was going was in changed by that time period

  39. Also, as has been pointed out, its probably useful to keep in mind the cholera epidemics that racked London until it was discovered the source was contiminated drinking water from the more poor areas of London, where people lived a communal life more similiar to what pertains in parts of Mumbai today than pertains to the upper crust areas of modern London (from memory not for sure). And, I think its safe to say large American cities in the 1800′s including New York were pretty dirty places. There are reasons for that, and reasons it changed. And I don’t think any of those reasons have to do with the supposed national character of any nation

  40. Colonialism per se cannot be blamed for India and most other Commonwealth nations backwardness, because of the fact that South Korea and Taiwan were once japanese colonies and are now prosperous industrialized powerhouses; and because world class Singapore and Hong Kong were british colonies for a long time. What’s different about these places is an east asian citizenry. Malaysia, another former british colony, with its 30% chinese minority is also doing quite well, though not as much so as the others mentioned. It seems that east asians have a leg up on south asians when it comes to modernizing. Whether its cultural (confucian values etc) or racial is debatable.

  41. In the singularly perverse context of Indian politics today, those who are most clear-sighted and intelligent, and in this sense are the most capable of making a definitive break with the past, are consigned to the status of perennial outsiders. They are allowed to tinker on the edges of the vast morass which is Indian society, through organizing innovative NGOs and by participating in civil society in various ways. But they cannot effectively re-fashion and rejuvenate the polity from the ground up. Nothing less than this will be able to avert the inevitable social, political, and environmental cataclysm which awaits India unless a definitive break is made with the failed policies of the bast. The public sanitation scandal is only one aspect of this. Sadly, the intelligentsia, both indigenous and non-resident, will be forced to watch the catastrophe unfold, impotent in the face of a shockingly myopic and indolent political establishment.

  42. The responses to any mention of India’s failures run the gamut: 1. Denial and Delusion: “They only see what they want to see. Mumbai is awesome. India is shining” 2. Fragile egoism: “Why do they have to print negative articles about India? It gives me an inferiority complex. What will my friends and co-workers think about me now? We should sue anyone who writes bad stuff about India.” 3. Finger pointing: “So what? Every country has the same problems. I saw a guy peeing in LA just the other day. And what about Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans? Huh?” 4. Blame colonialism: “Them lousy brits robbed us blind for centuries. It will take centuries to recover.”

    Hey Sathya, nothing personal, but your tone is kind of condescending. From what I’ve read, the majority of people on here are not denying India’s failures and hence don’t need to “wake up.” All your above “summary” did was reduce comments to their simplest, most rudimentary form.

    -Most people on here are not saying that Mumbai is a flawless, shining example of modern urbanity.

    -The point of this very post was not to whine about “negative portrayals” that hurt our supposedly fragile egos – it was an analysis of how the America media creates broad generalizations about India which are then regurgitated by the masses. It’s not about us feeling ashamed at work about India. Heck, the Christian Science Monitor, Harper’s, etc. have done great pieces on deleterious aspects of Indian society (female infanticide, etc.) that were well-written and not sensationalistic. My ego was not hurt; litigation was not commenced.

    -What you call “finger pointing” is what I call gaining perspective. By pointing out the shit in our backyard, it makes people less apt to think that all the miseries of the world are happening on the other side of the globe. It’s not denying either. It’s about being cognizant of both. Embracing the global shit.

    -Wouldn’t our arguments be misplaced if we didn’t acknowledge colonialism’s effects? But yeah, you’re right to some extent – I don’t know where this whole discussion is really going. I mean, really, colonialism v. corruption – could the terms of discussion be any more delimited? I mean, hey, who am I to steer a conversation on SM one way or another, as I’ve gone off on tangents myself. But it’s not an either/or, and we have to acknowledge the effects of both “big Cs” in order to truly have an informed discussion about India’s development.

    But yeah. My point was that, hey, Sathya, I think we’re all somewhat on the same page here re: India’s problems. There may be some ad hominem deniers here and there, but I don’t think anyone else is in fantasy land.

  43. We need to take a look at the article with an average American “perspective” which in general tends to be condescending and rides on partial truths propagated by such lop-sided views of the world. While it took Mr Parson to get such a view from a cousin’s email, he would have done equally well to look at New Orleans post Katrina and he would have got the exact same picture…. lot of animals, people without homes, lots if nudity, people relieving in public, and a bit more, fornicating in stadiums, people dying without any services. While one may argue that this was post Hurricane calamity, it also would not take much to view India in terms of 300 years of “Katrina” like events. But that may be too much to ask from people whose daily bread is dependant to propagating pseudo-truths. While poverty and lack of basic ameneties is a huge issue, these need to be solved rather than to be merely commented upon. I wonder what Mr Parson did on that front apart from painting this beautiful picture of a desi koondi dumping in public. I wonder what Mr Parson woould have to say if America is depicted around the world as racially divided, pornographically oriented, child molesting, ultra right leaning nation. This offcourse is as far from the truth as Britney’s past claims to virginity.

  44. 136, Arjun said,

    Briunna, I don’t know where you got the 2 billion number from, but population is just one factor. The major factor is money. Japan, for instance, is one of the most densely populated countries (some 300 million people in a state the size of California, is it?), but no one would in general complain of filth and public urination when visiting.

    So it is. I think people automatically start to develop some kind of civic sense once a system is put in place. Say for example, even about 7-8 years back traffic in Delhi was one of the worst in the world. However, in recent years, with the spur on highway construction and broader construction, there has been a marked change.

    Also, for people who point at Southeast Asian countries and compare it with India, I’d say look at their populations. Singapore is a country with a size and a population that is less than Delhi. Same goes with Hong Kong and Taiwan. The set of problems that India faces is of a much more enormous scale than any of these countries. I do not mean to say that we have been doing a great job so far. But to compare India with Sri Lanka, or Phillipines does not make sense. Ratings do not make sense just by themselves. Its like judging musicians based on MTV rankings.

    I’s also like to bring to everyone’s attention the fact that India is quite possibly the most free country as compared to most of the other countries that Sathya and others point out. In China, for example, it is easy for a dictator to order a new highway built, or have all the poor people thrown into the countryside. Think of how free a country Singapore is. India, on the other hand, has maintained a democratic system despite all the problems that accompany it – the biggest of which is getting things done instantly.

  45. The excuses/reactions to india’s sorry performance since independence continue:

    1. “We have a huge population. Thats holding us back”

    2. “We are too crowded. That’s the problem”

    3. “We are a democracy. It’s much harder to get things done”

    Sorry guys, these excuses dont fly either. Democracy hasn’t held back the development of numerous nations. Neither has population density (think of Japan and the Netherlands which are far more crowded than India). And there is no correlation between size and success. The sole superpower is a large democracy. China is 30% larger than India and far ahead in the Human Development Index.

    If you think democracy is to blame, why cling to a failed system? If India is too big to govern, why spend blood and money to keep it big and backward? At least for the sake of the millions of starving children and the millions of little ones in bonded labor, shouldn’t India look for alternatives? I think it was Einstein (not sure though) who said: insanity is doing something that doesn’t work over and over again.