A story about India’s booming auto industry leads today’s New York Times business section. “Ask a billion people, and 99 percent of them are going to say they want a car,” explains Jagdish Khattar, managing director of Maruti Suzuki India, the country’s largest car manufacturer. “The problem,” he continues, “is: How many can afford it?”
And so Maruti Suzuki, and the other Indian automakers are cranking out inexpensive cars by the lakhs. Car sales within India will reach nearly two million units this year, and are estimated to climb to nearly four million by 2013.
Most tout this kind of industrial muscle and burgeoning consumer acquisitiveness as signs of a brilliantly expansive, vital economy. I see it as further evidence – as if more was needed – that India is a second-rate country with first-rate promise, limited by third-rate imagination and fourth-rate fidelity to the values and traditions of its proud past.
Put another way: India is squandering its Twenty First Century economic opportunity with its mid-Twentieth Century mindset.
It is crushingly depressing to watch India approach its economic expansion with the same myopia and perversion of traditional values with which America charged into its post-war growth. You’d have thought we’d learned something in the intervening fifty-or-so years.
Let’s get back to the idiocy of Maruti Suzuki’s Mr. Khattar, whose attitudes represents pretty-much every Indian business-person I’ve ever met. He sees the problem of automobiles as how to price them so every India family can have one. It makes one seriously ponder whether Mr. Khadder — who lives and works in Delhi — has ever been to India. Gridlock in Delhi has become almost unbearable, despite the fact that heavy trucks are no longer permitted anywhere within the city limits during the daytime. It’s even worse in Mumbai. In Bangalore, where IT sector growth is responsible for more than 1,000 new cars hitting the roads every day, the roadways of both the city and its ever-sprawling suburban development are packed to the point of paralysis.
And aside from traffic congestion, nearly 60 percent of India’s cities already have air pollution levels considered critical, according to Anumita Roychowdhury, associate director of the Center for Science and Environment in Delhi.
I well-understand the significance of personal transportation to quality-of-life. But is the path to an improved standard of living really to put more cars on the road?
In a recent interview with the BBC, Ratan Tata, chairman of one of India’s largest industrial conglomerates (and automakers), Tata Group, described the way in which India’s new car-culture is dominating public expenditure and resource management: “The demand for road use is driving infrastructure.”
This is ass-backwards.
Look at Ireland, another economy currently benefiting from high-performing technology sector. It approached the new century in essentially the same position as India with respect to infrastructure: it had very little that would support international competitiveness. Ireland used the opportunity to create an up-to-the-minute, forward looking, flexible infrastructure and has parlayed those resources into economic success as well as high standards of living. India has created… what? The metros experiencing the lion’s share of rapid economic growth are rapidly ruining themselves, and the rural areas of the country have seen none of the benefits of the expanding economy. Can you name a single person with the temerity to suggest that the quality of life in Bangalore or Pune has improved since the technology boom? Or that Delhi’s shiny new business sattelites, Guragaon and Noida, are anything but mediocre, soulless, instantly dysfunctional non-communities?
Today’s Indians are making the same mistake Americans made in the 1950s: we mistook the tool (the car) for the process goals (easier, less expensive, more efficient transportation). Instead of planning our infrastructure development around our broader objectives of getting from here-to-there, we configured our environment to accommodate driving. In the process, we limited our ability to grow and to adapt to changing economic and ecological conditions. We created a lifestyle monoculture in the ubiquity of suburban mediocrity. America fucked up. With 20/20 hindsight, we can say we should have done differently. But why would a country like India, which has the benefit of a half-century of perspective, make the same mistakes?
The answer lies in two things essential to the character of modern India, but to which few Indians will readily admit. First the upper-echelons of Indian business lack true ingenuity. Second, India’s vaunted spiritual traditions live-on more as comforting superstitions and narrow-minded bigotries than as relevant normative systems for modern, urban India.
Business is booming in India, particularly in the technology sector, in business process outsourcing, and those, like the automakers, who sate the material dreams of the burgeoning affluent and middle class. Who is driving this economic expansion? Legions of high academic-achieving Indians, focusing their studies in practical, commercially valuable fields. India’s astonishing collective diligence and corresponding technical accomplishment are certainly praiseworthy. Indian big business is hard-driving, and has proven to be more-than-competitive in the global economy. Still, a candid appraisal would be that Indian industry reflects vast discipline and extremely limited creativity. (And, of course, there will always be exceptions which prove the rule.)
This is not to say that there are not smart, ingenious people working at all levels of India’s key industrial sectors. My claim is that their innovations are carefully contained within the parameters of generating high performance within existing technologies and business models. Despite training more scientists and roughly five times the engineers than the United States, for example, does anyone really believe that the next paradigm-shifting technology will come from India? Of course not.
I have a theory about the social factors constraining high-level Indian enterprise; but the reason for the lack of daring and innovation is not important for this discussion. The fact that Indian industry operates almost exclusively within tried-and-true models reflects a narrowness of thinking which guarantees that India will not take full-advantage of this rare opportunity to completely reinvent itself. Indeed, rather than re-imagining itself, as Japan has done each time it has opened it doors to new technologies and cultural imports, India is simply copying the American experience of fifty years ago. And in so doing, it is both constraining its potential and making the same awful mistakes.
The problem is: when businesses are making profits and the rich are getting richer, no one in a position of authority wants to disturb the cycle, even if its long-term evils are easily comprehended.
Acquisitive materialism – selfishness, not to put too fine a point on it – is at the heart of this dynamic. In the urban context, in the higher strata of Indian society, me-first is the ethic of the age. Sure, I hear people talk a good game about the application of Vedic, Islamic, Jain, and other ancient Indian religious traditions to timeless issues like the environment and social harmony. I hear even more about Indian ideals of lack-of-attachment and egolessness. But I certainly can’t see any of these principles exercised to any meaningful extent as the country defines and develops itself.
Even the aesthetic sensibility of contemporary India has been lost to the new materialism. Think of all the building that has occurred in India within the last decade – or since Independence, for that matter. How many good designs have been built? I have only experienced one truly great, intellectually ambitious (if also deeply flawed) piece of contemporary architecture in India; are there more? How many world-class painters or plastic artists does India boast these days? Only in literature, music, and perhaps film does India propagate voices that speak in even remote proportion to its share of the world population.
India will persist in creating prosperity for the corrupt, the already-wealthy, and the urban classes poised for upward mobility. In the process, it will continue to cash-in its rich natural and cultural heritage for easy money and the material trappings of affluence. It will defile its landscape while replicating America’s unsustainable consumer society.
What an appalling waste of opportunity!