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LEFT OUT IN THE RAIN

- One mark of a failed state is its inability to provide public services

It rained on Tuesday morning. Even after it had stopped, anyone unfortunate enough to be walking along Lower Circular Road towards Chowringhee was likely to be drenched in cascading water from the flyover above. Jets squirted out of every rusty joint in the vertical pipes that connected the drains along the flyover with horizontal pipes stretching across its width underneath. The slope of these horizontal pipes must be all wrong, for instead of being carried away to some distant outlet, the water also gushed out in fierce torrents from either end.

It seems ridiculous to brand a country a failed state because of leaking pipes. The proud custodians of the world’s biggest democracy would rise in indignant protest. Failed state describes tottering Pakistan whose venal politicians can’t control the scheming military which pampers terrorists. But let us not forget the third of the four conditions that the Fund for Peace stipulates for a failed state is “an inability to provide public services”. (The others are loss of territory or the right to use legitimate force, erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions, and inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community.) It’s in the sustained provision of public services for all that the Indian State falls flat on its face despite taking giant strides in science and technology.

Almost all the mundane services of the past — postal, railways, policing, water, electricity, sanitation, drainage, roads — are in grave disrepair. Urban transport alone is belatedly struggling to keep up with demand. Renewed pride in boson or in being Britain’s third biggest foreign investor deserves the backing of more domestic investment in manufacturing, quality control and maintenance if the Keynesian “animal spirits” Manmohan Singh invokes are to restore public trust. Welfare schemes that bribe rural opinion-makers instead of equipping the countryside with schools, medical facilities and decent housing will not.

Everyday hazards reveal more about the state of the nation than the adverse reports of global rating agencies like Standard and Poor or Fitch. Scams, inflation, slow growth, stalled structural reforms and limited progress on fiscal consolidation may account for ebbing confidence in India as an investment destination. So may the inevitable political stalemate when coalition partners squabble over national objectives. No doubt both will dominate this afternoon’s panel discussion on “Agenda for Change and Coalition Governance” organized by the Association of Corporate Advisers and Executives. But while the big picture can’t be ignored, it’s the local that speaks most eloquently of the disdain for the multitude that has always been a feature of governance.

Manmohan Singh’s administration can’t be singled out in this respect. But because the Congress and the Trinamul Congress disagree on welcoming Wal-Mart doesn’t mean they can’t agree on mending leaks. They are not bothered because it is highly unlikely that people like Yashwant Sinha, Kaushik Basu or Nalin Surie, a former ambassador to China — all today’s ACAE panelists — will ever have occasion to walk down Lower Circular Road and be drenched to the skin because of shoddy plumbing and absent maintenance. Similar failure extends across the gamut of installations and institutions. The railways with deteriorating service, a rising accident rate and huge losses on account of ticketless travel may be in the most advanced state of decomposition with posts and telegraphs, originally an equally stupendous achievement, a close second. Though reinvented as the snappy new India Post with bright eye-catching signboards, post offices are as grubby as ever inside. It seems unbelievable that Singapore’s sparkling POSBANK chain is rooted in the same British colonial scheme to help the small man husband his savings.

The post office’s decline seems part of the general decay of everything that serves ordinary folk. It has often been said that good government is no substitute for self-government, but without detracting from self-government, good government would probably have averted the upsurge in 180 districts of the so-called Red Corridor. Conflict between the two was a feature of foreign rule. Independent India should not only have matched self-government with strengthened maintenance of the services the British left behind but added to them in the light of current developments and demands. Instead, government means apathy, inertia and neglect unless people of consequence — political or financial — are concerned in an India that is said to have replaced self-reliance with Reliance.

People who matter no longer travel by train just as they don’t post letters. So, postboxes are sinking into ruin, at least in supposedly egalitarian Calcutta. One near the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass has lost its cover. The rain, fallen leaves and neighbourhood rubbish fill it to the brim though a locked padlock dangles pretentiously from the hasp below. Another, just off Swinhoe Street, looked secure until a corner of the envelope I had slipped in peeped out from the rusty tin below. I pulled it out easily enough and went in search of a sturdy pillar box remembered from childhood at the corner of Ekdalia Road. There wasn’t a sign of it. The hawkers and pedlars whose forest of stalls dominated the patch assured me the box had been removed. They directed me to another letterbox dangling from a tree across Gariahat Road. Quite by chance, late one night when the hawkers had closed shop and gone home, I discovered that the old letterbox still stands. I don’t know whether it’s ever cleared but it isn’t accessible — or even visible — most of the time.

Courier companies are flourishing as a result. Human enterprise must be admired. There is no denying that the simple device of a battery-fed inverter with a fan rendered signal service to a society sweltering in the dark for hours on end: the gadget’s booming sales indicated public gratitude for the little relief offered. There is virtue, too, in planned privatization. But there is a surfeit of the cant and hypocrisy that provoked Indira Gandhi’s wry comment that vociferous champions of the free market also demand protection “just as bootleggers are said to favour prohibition”. The floundering State offers rich pickings to buccaneering entrepreneurs. Franchise production often guarantees only a high price, not quality, while the recent scandal in Delhi over adulterated milk in packets and repeated alarums about bottled drinking water warn of jackals waiting at the gate to gorge on the carcass of the collapsed State. While outsourcing every service the State is supposed to provide benefits ingenious operators and the relatively few who can afford the price, it leaves the multitude with no service at all.

Nothing is more calculated to widen and deepen the gulf between haves and have-nots that was the burden of Joseph Stiglitz’s recent article in Vanity Fair. Claiming that the upper one per cent of Americans monopolize nearly a quarter of the annual income, and control 40 per cent of the national wealth, he concluded on an ominously apocalyptic note: “The top one per cent have the best houses, the best educations, the best doctors, and the best lifestyles, but there is one thing that money doesn’t seem to have bought: an understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99 per cent live. Throughout history, this is something that the top one per cent eventually do learn. Too late.”

With only 1.97 per cent of Indians reading English-language papers such as this (according to Media Watch), we are saddled with a much more grotesque imbalance. The first headmaster of Britain’s elite Atlantic College told me he had two Indian students but didn’t need more since one was called Gandhi and the other Nehru. That was many years ago and it was a joke even then. There can be no animal spirits to revive confidence in governance today unless the millions who must trudge under those flyover pipes are assured they won’t be soaked.