Notes from the East

I went on my first visit to Singapore, Hong Kong and a bit of China as a trip from work to study their rail based transport systems. While the trip was on transport and technical in nature it was not very difficult for me to make numerous small and big observations about how those societies conduct themselves, which in turn has a bearing on everything they manage from their transport to their sewage and their children and elderly and infirm. The views contained here are strictly in personal capacity. I will mostly comment on Singapore and Hong Kong.

One of the conclusions which I shared with my close friend and transport aficionado, Abhijit in the first two days at Singapore was that Mumbai or most Indian cities will never ever come anywhere close to being able to have such an excellent integrated transport policy in the next two decades. These next two decades are the ones about, in which India is supposed to have become fifty percent urbanised.

Abhijit and me have a long standing argument, where I have a deep dislike of fundamental Indian ways of being and culture and social values and hold it primarily responsible for the mess in governance that we constantly find ourselves. Abhijit on the other hand chides me and reminds me that people are the same all over the world and it is not that Londoners or NY-ers or Singaporeans are any different. I could see the same argument brew up within me in the two cities.

Another strong remark I found myself making was that we are a nation of obedient sons and daughters and 33 crore gods – all of them basically incapable of showing the spine and principles and values necessary to participate in causing any change.

I couldn’t help drawing parallels between Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore and Bal Thackeray in Mumbai. In both cases there was a great case made for ascending to power to make the condition of a particular community or geography better and in both cases the  strong individual or a group of individuals did come to power to make a difference to the cause they espoused. Bal Thackeray and what he achieved in Mumbai or Maharashtra is a story seen in almost every direction of India, from a Chennai to a Kolkata to Bangalore and Gurgaon. There maybe a lot of parochial jingoism but when it comes to bullshit the so called country of India is clearly very united.

In 1995 Bal Thackeray came to power on the great cause of making a difference to the Marathi manoos and delivering Mumbai and Maharashtra from the corrupt Congress. Shiv Sena came in power in the State and the city. By 2000, when the first term of Shiv Sena came to an end for the first time in its history the Municipal Corporation of Mumbai went into the red up to Rs. 300 crores. There was a scam after scam after scam, not the least infamous of which was the slum housing scam which created a carte blanche for developers close to the Thackeray family to go on a loot of Mumbai’s land resources in the name of doing good for the poor.

Most developers were not even Marathi manoos, ironically being from the Gujarati community against which traditionally a lot of hate has been generated. The Marathi manoos found itself being given some lousy zhunka bhakar stalls and soon enough a change in the clause of one of the development control regulations which threw out and continues to throw out Marathi manoos from the mill land belt.

The first term of the Shiv Sena in Mumbai was also a reign of the kind of terror and hatred that the multi-cultural and plural city had never ever seen in its history till then. The legendary boys of Shiv Sena controlled every street and corner, almost creating an autocratic state which had its men ready at every stage to pounce on anyone who went against their thinking or objectives. Had the objectives been good it would have still been justified. Most of these boys were available for as less as a crate of beer to cause trouble for whoever the sponsor chose to trouble.

The bosses of the boys of course got their hands into every conceivable trade mostly through force and extortion. The city then took a cultural blow it still has clearly not recovered from and the first decade of the 21st century saw a rise of dozen new urban centres, which effectively means that fate of Mumbai in many ways may already have been sealed from that regression into backwardness.

It was to counter the threat of Muslim radicalism (the legacy of Indian National Congress to ‘independent’ India) in the early nineties that the Shiv Sena and L K Advani and Vishwa Hindu Parishad rose to power. One would have thought that the Hindus would have been beneficiaries and especially so the lower socio-economic brackets of the Maharashtrian community. None of this happened. Bal Thackeray likes to be addressed as Hindu hriday samrat or the most beloved for the Hindus. Ask the number of Hindus he and his boys have terrorised. With half a dozen gods devoted to bravery and courage and especially for the Marathi community which is particularly well seeped in Hindu rituals and ceremonies, neither Marathi’s or any other Hindu could rise to counter the loot and pillage of Bal Thackeray. And to ask any of the frontline or backline 33 crore gods to intervene would be to ask too much of them. They are used to sitting back and being anointed.

Mumbai during that reign saw a devastating new encouragement to slums coming up, it saw a perverse housing policy which further strangulated the supply of affordable housing and the rise of venal developers, it saw corruption and mal governance in every arena of urban management during that era. Subsequently with the State government going out of their hands the reign of terror got subsided a bit but clearly the city had entered a new paradigm of being mis governed.

When I spent my first two days in Singapore I could but not enjoy the pleasures of today without wanting to read more and more about the people who make it happen today and the people who first set the base for all this to happen. My good friend Sudipt Sen has been a very long standing admirer of Lee Kuan Yew and has at many occasions over the past decade asked me to visit Singapore or read further about it.

On acquiring power Yew spent huge amount of effort in uplifting the education and social upliftment of the people. Large amount of affordable housing stock was created and people living in slums moved into good apartments with toilets and good sanitation. The transport infrastructure was improved by an order of magnitude and an incredible atmosphere was provided for business to flourish creating much needed jobs and income for the people and revenue for the government.

Two days spent in Singapore sent me into a depression about the state of Mumbai and from what I hear from Sudipt and other friends likewise has been the case with them in their first visit. Sudipt first visited Singapore in 1998 and then itself the city was world class, which means that starting from independence in 1965, within a decade Lee Kuan Yew was able to set Singapore into the right orbit for it to be world class in less than 3 decades.

Where Singapore prides itself at being multi-cultural, Thackeray’s boys were attacking people who did not display Marathi signage on their shops, or anybody who did the mistake of addressing the city as Bombay or even so much as hinted displeasure with the Thackeray clan. All significant infrastructure was named after Shivaji or some Thackeray clan member. Business started relocating from the city and people felt they could lead better lives in the other emerging cities.

Yes, there are allegations and maybe material evidence of excesses by Lee Kuan Yew and his family members or a close coterie. Maybe they own important businesses and infrastructure utilities. But even a blind person could just by smelling the air make out a difference between the service delivery.  Similar was the advantage and scope available to the Thackeray clan and they clearly have amassed very large amounts of wealth from establishing their fiefdom over Mumbai. But what has their contribution been to the community or the city? Go look at the state of education in the municipal schooling system.

I find myself questioning and faulting the core principles and values of Hindus and Hinduism (or the notions we have of the same) and find them responsible for the state of affairs we see in India. The complete axis between Singapore and Tokyo finds itself in the heavy influence of Buddhist and Confucian values and maybe some where those values have something more superior to offer to their people in how to conduct than those provided in Hinduism.

Look at the level of detail and commitment in concern for human life and comfort that you find in Singapore and in Hong Kong. Look a the incredible commitment to natural resources. Singapore is incredible in its commitment to conserving water, from the taps and WC in the hotel where I was staying to public toilets and other places, conserving water in every use, being reminded of its preciousness and being made a partner in its conservation were an integral part. A culture where people offer water to the sun in the mornings and to the shivling a million times and do kumbh melas and sprinkle ganga jal at every ritual, one would have thought Hindus would be the best people for water conservation? Clearly there is a difference in how some of us look at values and how these very devout Kedarnath and Tirupati thronging Hindus see them as.

Look at the quality of water in their seas and rivers. Look at Hong Kong, which has preserved two thirds of its natural resources for recreation.  Look at the difficult terrain and limited land mass in which they are built. One would think that people who invented the zero and because of whom NASA missions don’t land up in the oceans could do a better job of their cities?

In Mumbai, the deluge of 2005, instead of becoming an inflection point in the life of Mithi River become just another means for a contractor driven lobby of politicians and bureaucrats to make the most of the situation. The river till today runs its polluted course. Where is the Ganga worship and the values?

Look at the sincerity and integrity that is visible in day to day dealings in these cities, at the way the government and agencies understand their relationship to their constituents – the citizens. Service level benchmarks are set for each constituent of urban existence and there is an attempt to improve them continuously. Thus a resident of those cities and cultures see multiple improvements to their lifestyles in a lifetime, whereas in India a person feels good if he sees just one good change in his entire life time.

And these are beef and pork eaters. How could they possibly be humble and quiet and disciplined and have so much empathy?  Holy Hindus and other constituents from this landmass who don’t even kill bacteria coming out from their breath can at most times be vicious and a rage. Violence to the mind and soul are a norm. While the beef and pork eaters ensure that even if casualties take place on their mass transit systems they are always in single digits, the vegetarians see the slaughter of almost 4000 commuters every year in Mumbai on the suburban railways system and are unperturbed.

Double standards and hypocrisy are institutionalised in the land of Hindus and Hinduism. The family is the only good institution which exists in India and that too is a vehicle only for producing obedient sons and daughters who will study as per family diktat, pick up careers as per family diktat, as far as possible migrate to a land mass governed by white man and certainly not get married outside the family choice and so on and so forth. This clearly has meant that we have citizens who have lost all interest or initiative in having an independent voice or action in matters of common good. Let the family or the patriarch decide what should be done – why bother. The same mindset at the family level is visible at the governance level. Any average patriarch in India (including my deceased father) and Bal Thackeray or any other leaders around the country would show strikingly similar behaviour and expectations.

And this is why I was the earliest and one of the strongest critics of the form and shape of the anti-corruption movement carried out in India last year. Corruption was made as the biggest hurdle to India’s growth. No corruption is not the biggest issue for India. It is the most visible malaise, the cause is far different and no body wants to address the root cause. This is a land where even the gods are seeing a decline in values and are prone to corruption.

All through my trip I couldn’t help think that Gautam Buddha almost 2500 years back had got fed up of Hinduism and the people who were running it and so many years down the line the situation seems almost same.

What really is wrong with Hindus? Where really are the principles and values and the Vedas and Upanishads and Geeta? And how are they able to get away with so many bogus claims they make to themselves and to the world about themselves? And then to mask it all with Incredible India campaigns does make me feel very very sick.

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