Connecting rural India then and now

As the train shuffled into Hyderabad station an hour or so late, my Indian host informed me how relieved he felt that it was “on time”.

So it was that I learned the art of itinerary planning for a sequence of visits to South India through the 1990s. Anticipate intimate acquaintance with railway stations.

I hasten to add that I would happily exchange a one hour wait at any airport in the world for ten hours amongst the chai-wallahs and tiffin-carriers.

One of my amusements involved peering closely at the steel pillars and girders propping up antiquated station buildings. In brain-numbing heat somewhere in the middle of the subcontinent, I indulged in childhood memories of maps splashed with red.

Such was the power in those embossed names that stood up proudly through a century of rust and paintwork: Vickers Sheffield, Dorman Long Middlesbrough.

On Friday the famous blast furnace at Redcar that forged chunks of empire was extinguished. Earlier in the week the announcement of the closure on Teesside was buried in a single sentence of a long press release of corporate financial results. The poignant address stared out from the top of page one, underlined in suitably heavy black font:

Mumbai

In his fine book, Imagining India, Nandan Nilekani tells the story of the reaction of Sir Frederick Upcott, British chief commissioner of Indian Railways, to news that the Tata Iron and Steel Company, floated in 1907, was attempting to forge steel. Upcott declared that he would “eat every pound of steel rail” if Tata met British specifications.

Well, the British steel industry got eaten by Tata in 2007 with the takeover of Corus. Now it’s being spat out in pieces as each becomes surplus to Mr.Tata’s requirements.

It was certainly an appropriate week to be updating our India briefings. But I confess to moments of despair in striving to produce concise but robust summaries of key development issues when it comes to India.

I suspect that Nilekani experienced similar frustration. Imagining India has the characteristics of much Indian writing and discourse.

Having marshalled comprehensive research material, the author cannot restrain himself from writing it all down. In consequence his prescriptions for India to achieve its economic potential lack the impact they merit.

The comparison is unkind but I couldn’t help noticing how Thomas Friedman captures the dilemma of modern India in a single paragraph of observant metaphor on the first page of the book’s introduction.

The crux of the debate about poverty is the failure of India’s rural economy. Nilekani cannot resist a swipe at the British. He reckons that the railway infrastructure was designed to serve empire and that “much of rural India as a result stayed unconnected throughout the colonial years.”

Personal memories combined with the statistic that over 40,000 miles of track were built before 1947 leave me a little unconvinced. But I would seize on his choice of words as perfect to describe the modern era, substituting the electricity grid as the medium.

The government’s State of Environment Report 2009 concedes that “600 million Indians have no access to electricity.” That number strikes me as coincidentally close to estimates for the number of Indians living below the poverty line, itself a controversial subject which our poverty briefing attempts to unravel.

I’m becoming increasingly interested in electricity connection as an indicator of poverty. Nilekani does me a favour with his reflection:

Without electricity and better fuel sources, it becomes near impossible for these people to start a business, access information, or feed and educate their children well

The book enthuses about decentralised models of renewable energy for rural India. Indeed decentralisation might be a paradigm to address many other problems blocked up in India’s elephantine administration – as indeed it is further afield.

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this article was first published by OneWorld UK

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