Development and Governance

I suppose I owe my readers (all three of them) an apology for not posting to this blog. But all that is going to change, as of this very moment. Once you know what I am up to, you will understand the reason for my uncharacteristic lack of communications. I have been wandering around the country.

I should start at the start of my present journey. Left the SF Bay area on Tuesday afternoon, on board an Airbus A380. I had never been in what is called the “Superjumbo” and was really excited about the flight from SFO to Frankfurt. Good plane but unfortunately Lufthansa is one of the worst airlines in the developed world.

I have had better service in the cattle class of Asian airlines than what Lufthansa provides in their business class. It’s a shame. But what’s a real crying shame is that they have put lousy 20-year old design seats in one of the world’s most modern planes.

Anyway, here’s what I wrote in my “A Letter from California — 5” of this week, for the record.

This is the fifth in the series “A letter from California.” Strictly speaking though, this is not a letter from California since I am in India. I arrived at the Chattrapati Shivaji International Airport in the early hours of Thursday the 13th of October. So this is a letter from Mumbai. Indeed, the next few letters will be perforce from India, and not from California.

It is good to be back in the old country. There’s always a primal connection with the land of one’s birth, the home of one’s ancestors. India will always be home – or at least as much as any place can be called home for an essentially homeless person like me. Since I roam around the world a lot, any place I unpack my suitcase is home. Not exactly home sweet home but home nonetheless.

I must have arrived at the Mumbai international airport around 35 times, and I have grown accustomed to the routine. The final minute of the flight before it lands is over a huge expanse of slums, reminding you that you are arriving at a major city of a Third World country. Among the many descriptions of Mumbai there’s one which describes it as “an overgrown slum.” Unfortunately it is too true.

As soon as one gets off the plane and enters the jetway, the first thing that hits you is the heat and the humidity. The second thing is the smell: a mix of disinfectant (I think it is phenyl) and the smell of urine. Why this is so, I have never been able to figure out. The third thing you notice is that the lighting is an unattractive florescent and dim. The journey from the US to India takes you across time and space: 10,000 miles and around 100 years. The journey also crosses an ideological divide: from capitalism to socialism.

The first point of contact that an arriving passenger has with an Indian official is at immigration control. They are a surly bunch. Not the least hint of a welcome on their faces, not a hello escapes their lips. I start with a “Namaste” as I hand in my passport. They silently take it and do their thing. After a bit, silently they return the passport, duly stamped on some random page. Perhaps it is the lateness of the hour that explains the unfriendly attitude. But perhaps it has something to do with India being a socialist country.

I cannot help comparing this to what I have experienced when I enter the US, an evil capitalist country. The man or the woman at the immigration counter generally starts off with a smile and a “How are you, sir ?” This is then followed with some small talk, and a few questions such as “How long have you been away ?” and “What do you do ?” I usually answer, “I am at UC Berkeley.” That gets a response like, “Great school. You are lucky.” And the short encounter ends with a “Welcome home, sir.”

All this can be dismissed as superficial and unimportant. But I believe that common courtesy does make a difference. Official India is not interested in being nice because they don’t have to be nice. Official India is not there to serve you, but rather to rule over you. That’s the socialist way and in any socialist paradise, there’s no need to ease things with a smile since things are perfect anyway.

The French are notorious for their rudeness. But I think Official India beats them handsomely. And talking of the French, I have to tell you that the worst service you get on an airline has to be Air France. “Air Chance” is another name for it. I once had a long conversation with a flight attendant on an Air France flight. She said that it was shameful how the cabin crew behave on most Asian airlines: they are forever at the beck and call of the passengers. On Air France, the cabin crew had better things to do than to take care of passengers.

Official rudeness is a symptom of a deeper problem. It is like a bad smell that tells you that something within is rotten. Just the other day, I was reminded of this by a very astute leader. He said that good governance is revealed in the way the conductor in a government bus treats you. How that government employee behaves with the passengers on his bus tells you a lot more about the quality of the government than the state of the bus station.

Good governance is about how government employees — from the minister on down to the clerk at the post office — consider to be their primary objective and function: to serve the citizens. Good governance is distinct from development. Development is about the infrastructure. Good governance precedes development, and is the more important bit.

Think about it.

14 thoughts on “Development and Governance

  1. Read on twitter, feel like sharing: “in a well-governed country, poverty is a source of shame; in a badly governed country, wealth is a source of shame”… also worth pondering.

    And yes, welcome back home…

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  2. A: were you living under a rock the last 20 years? Zamana badal gaya bhaiya! No matter how the wealth was obtained, no one is ashamed to be rich in India today.

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  3. If you were Amartya Sen (or a follower, like I am) you’d say that good governance is constitutive of development. And you’d never say that development is about infrastructure (alone). You would know better than that.

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  4. If you are coming to US for a visit, then the immigration officials there can be pretty boorish too. Not saying that in India they are polite but the Americans (in the airport) are not that welcoming either.

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  5. I agree that official rudeness is a symptom of a deeper problem. However I do not think that it has more to do with our culture than just socialism. I live in Gurgaon and I find the attitude of those providing service through the private sector(say telephone or cable TV or broadband) only a shade better than their government counterparts. In fact sometimes I may get better service at BSNL than Reliance.

    I understand that yours is a right of the center blog and most of your readers will jump with their guns at any suggestion that this attitude may have something to do with the Hinduism where every man is an island in himself working for his personal salvation considering this world as mithya. Combine this with rigidly hierarchical thinking of Hinduism and you start getting a picture of why everyone in this country who at the moment might be having even a hairbreadth advantage of power over you starts behaving like a little tyrant.

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    1. Vikram writes,

      I understand that yours is a right of the center blog and most of your readers will jump with their guns at any suggestion that this attitude may have something to do with the Hinduism where every man is an island in himself working for his personal salvation considering this world as mithya. Combine this with rigidly hierarchical thinking of Hinduism and you start getting a picture of why everyone in this country who at the moment might be having even a hairbreadth advantage of power over you starts behaving like a little tyrant.

      I would quarrel with your characterization of this blog as “right of the center” because I don’t think that that is a well-defined category. It is true, however, that I am viscerally against pseudo-secularism. By pseudo-secularism, I mean an attitude that is quick to paint everything wrong in India as a direct consequence of Hinduism or primarily due to the unreasonableness of Hindus.

      Another pseudo-secular trait that I find especially objectionable is the misrepresenting of Hindu concepts to show them as retarded and unreasonable. Take your “rigidly hierarchical thinking of Hinduism” and “considering this world as mithya.” Ignorance and misunderstanding of what the concept of “maya” or “mithya” actually means makes that claim worthless.

      The concept of maya is not that the world is an illusion. The concept recognizes that there is a difference between what the reality is and what our perception of that reality is. What’s being stressed is that we are limited beings with bounded rationality and limited cognitive capacities, and therefore what we believe to be real is not necessarily so. It is not that the world out there is not real, but rather that the world out there is real but our apprehension of that reality is necessarily incomplete. “Neti, neti.” “Not that, not that.”

      Moving on. I do believe that culture has a lot to do with the attitude that people have. Further, I do believe that official India is rude. But socialism provides the fertile ground on which the cultural traits are manifested. Given different institutional environment, Indians are not incapable of good behavior.

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  6. Atanu, you know that the plural of anecdote is anecdotes, not data. I wonder sometimes if you just making stuff up. My experience at Immigration an Indian airport recently when I was leading a troop of family and friends was one of the most pleasant I’ve had. There were about 10 of us, with a mix of foreign and Indian passports – some with multiple Indian PPs, some with OCI Indian PPs. Seeing us together and lining up at different counters, two officers called us over, rearranged the lines divided our group into two and started to process each one of us with enviable efficiency. A third officer quickly went around the lines assuring everyone that their turn wouldn’t take long. One thing that continues to amaze me about India and Indians is our ability to multitask and the ability to look beyond hardware and workaround it. In contrast US immigration can be unpredictable and can get very confusing if you pre-empt questions or hand in too many documents together. While as a rule US government (state or federal) employs the best trained service personnel (corporate America employs dolts) the inability to multitask is annoying. The same at Indian banks, airlines etc., which perform with superhuman efficiency compared to their US counterparts. I think this Indian genius for multitasking has to do with the Hindu tradition of avoiding extremes, thinking for yourself – autonomy – and the free flowing nature of the tradition, that abhors tyrants. All in all, my recent visit to India re-inforced my confidence in the outstanding abilities of India’s service culture. Similarly at Indian consulates in the US, I have found the service is outstanding.

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  7. I dont agree fully. My worst exp in US is with private entities like AT&T and best experience with social security office. And i have seen US border agents and consulate officers behaving worse than third world countries with many H1-B holders.

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  8. Just like the original meaning of “gay” has been entirely lost, there is no such thing as “secularism” any more; there is only “pseudo secularism”. Sort of like that comic where the kid is watching a statue of Shivaji asking his father “what was he called before they renamed him to Shivaji?”

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  9. Thanks for that quick exposition of maya, Atanu. Clear and powerful. But coming back to the government in the USA, I’ve dealt with it at all levels, federal, state, local and have found the government approachable, courteous, v.knowledgable, and v.well trained. The private sector, unless you are dealing with a mom and pop or a professional firm is awful. Larger and better known the corporation the worse the service. Big banks, insurance are particularly bad.

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  10. Pingback: Weekend Reading
  11. I’ve had similar or worse experiences at US airports, train stations and pretty much much all over the place. How this may or may not reflect bad governance is open to debate. The surly officers I’ve faced at LAX when 5 flights land together, is no better than anything I’ve encountered in India. Most government related employees I’ve encountered in the US are anything but a cheery bunch. I saw one woman employee at Caltrain SFO nearly biting the head off a poor unfortunate student.

    What’s different is the level of accountability by said employees, across these countries.

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  12. Welcome back Atanu…… I just discovered your friend Rajesh Jain’s blog Emergic.com……I think it is an amazing blog, as good as yours….

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