July 29, 2005

Image of a nutcase

Inexplicably, I remember a tiny bit of news from January 1 1997: somewhere in this city, a woman pushed her two daughters to their deaths off the terrace of their block of flats, and then jumped herself. Days later, her family and the police were still baffled by this tragedy; then we all moved on to other things. Over eight years on, I remember only the incident. Not the names, the place, nothing more.

No, something more. The residents of the building were, naturally, very upset about what happened. But by what, specifically? The fate of the one remaining daughter, suddenly mother- and sister-less at 11? Or of the woman's distraught husband? Or wondering what problem might have driven her to take this ghastly step?

None of the above. No, they told the press that they were worried that the incident had "ruined the reputation" of the building.

In other words, "what will people think?"

I'll tell you what I think, anyway, and forgive me for being blunt: I think you in that building are callous nutcases. So tell me about your building's reputation.

Remember the 1994 "plague" in Surat? What about it caused the most hand-wringing, brought out the most anguish, at least as expressed by our politicians? The deaths of dozens of people? The filthy state of that city? The hoarding and shortage of drugs? The crowded conditions in which millions of citizens live, which makes an outbreak of plague in a slum horrifying to contemplate?

All vital problems. But something else altogether was on the minds of the men who lead us: the country's prestige.

Our international image has suffered, they told us. You see, they told us, the world had begun to see us as one more of those Asian tigers. Suddenly, a disease that brought back memories of the Dark Ages reared its black head, crushing that glossy image. All over again, they told us, foreigners will see us as a poor and overcrowded, dirty and unhealthy nation.

I wanted to say, and forgive me again for being blunt: I couldn't care less what foreigners think. But I think you guys who obsess about the image of the country in the wake of a deadly disease are more callous nutcases. So what image are we talking about?

But this is familiar territory. Horrible violence in Gujarat, 2002, and what worries too many people? The beating our "image" will take abroad. The continuing lack of justice for the victims of the 1984 (!) Bhopal gas leak, and what's one response to the calls for such justice? That the protesters will "scare away" foreign investors. Grotesque police attacks on Honda workers in Gurgaon a few days ago, and what are two major sources of fretting? The "damage to the economy" and that we will lose our attraction as an investment destination. Rain like we've never seen it in Bombay, leaving hundreds dead, and what does one TV channel make a noise about? "The Dream of Shanghai is Broken".

Image, prestige, dreams: when did these ephemeral things come to matter more to so many than human suffering? Is this, as P Sainath writes, the "new India"? A country where the image matters more than Indians themselves?

Surat, fortunately, found a Municipal Commissioner after the plague who was less obsessed with prestige than with simply identifying the city's problems and doing his job to solve them. That's why, less than three years after the plague, Surat was recognized as the cleanest city in India.

Now there's an image. Not a nutcase.


Anirudh said...

Excellent post.

Nikhil said...

The points are relevant. But except for the Surat case, is there a will to change things for the better? After a couple of days all of Bombays woes everything will be forgotten. The political class will do nothing except go back to playing politics.
Regarding the Honda motor case, everything about the case is not yet public. The police may have been brutal. But then why did things deteriorate so much that the Police were there in the first place. Having seen Japanese factories and offices at close quarters,I can say that they may have their problems, but definitely they are not hellholes like the firecracker factories of Sivakasi or carpet factories in UP. Even here rather than finding solutions to the problems, the left parties have called for a bandh. If we politicise the issue and create trouble, Honda would simply pack up and go to China or other destinations. The workers would lose their livelihood.
The Honda motor case is significant because Japanese companies are looking positively at India after the fiasco in China recently. I work for a Japanes company and even senior management here are considering India as an investment destination. There is a chance that these companies will invest in India, create employment and many people have a chance to better their lives. Do we want to lose even that?
Ultimately whenever India loses, China or some other country gains.

Rabin said...

This post had me nodding my head vigourously (which is a silly thing to be doing especially when there is no one in front).

Nikhil, I respect your view. But let me tell you this, India is an investment destination for a lot of companies because its probably one of the fastest growing economies in the world today, not because of any benevolence of investor. One of the reasons that we are where we are is also because of the workers in factories like the honda factory. They have been the ones who have instrumental in our growth. I think their problem should be sorted out first before we can do an image makeover in that region. I'm not a leftist or a rightist or whateverist fyi.

charu said...

Dilip, as usual thought provoking. this image obsession begins at home though - the daughter of the house marries an "outsider" (different caste/community)and the family is concerned about their image, not about the girl's future or present situation- except of course, often it is not called image but "honour" - at any level - family / community / country...

Anand said...

Excellent post, Dilip. That "image" has been captured so evocatively.

Nikhil -- Have you had a chance to look at Sainath's piece that Dilip has linked to?

Eswaran B said...


I think you are missing Nikhil's point. There are many companies which are interested in investing in India for exports, not just for selling in India. This is ultimately beneficial for the people of India, so there is nothing wrong with creating a good investment climate.

Also, it is extremely insensitive to worry about image when the immediate suffering is so apparent. But if this worry leads to better things, I would be happy. If the politicians worry about Bombay's image and decide to overhaul all the roads and drainage systems, isn't that a good thing?

Sriram said...

Excellent post. Couldn't agree more.

Rabin said...

Easwaran, Being a banker I couldn't agree with you more that a healthy climate for investment is the best for our country. But at what cost? Are we going to sweep in all anomales that exist under the carpet, so that things look great? Thats the China model. There some provinces look very modernised &'investment friendly' and other provinces simply reel under poverty and lack of attention. Is that what we want?

When I mentioned that India was one of the fastest growing economies thats with full cognisance of its export potential. Actually in this debate, exports or domestic sales hardly is an issue. The issue is of not being carried away with the poster image that we'd like to portray but to face ground realities that exist.

Eswaran B said...


I see what you mean. If there's a problem that can affect India's image, there are two ways to fix it. We can either deny that there is a problem or we can actually fix the problem. I am just saying that it's okay if people are worried about image, as long as they follow the second option.

Nikhil said...

You are right in the latter case. Sadly this image problem never affects the political/civic class who only make noises but never do anytihng concrete - with the exception of the Surat case. As Dilip has pointed out, this man is the model for development. I have personally seen how he transformed Thane from a crumbling township to one that is liveable.
R-You are right that the workers plight also needs to be looked into. I still say that all facts are not known in this case. Is it possible that the workers- instigated by irresponsible union leaders were themselves threatening to unleash mob violence? This is not to justify the brutality of the Haryana police. But can we also say that this is more of a case of our police being unable to handle such cases better? We do have unions and union bodies but these are simply ineffective. What is more suspicious is how quickly the politicians have jumped into the ring- calling for a bandh etc etc.
Following the China model is not possible in India. We are a more open society. Our workplace hell-holes and poverty are more visible. If something like the above incident happened in China, the workers could have even been lined up and shot and the entire incident hushed up.
Incidentally P Sainaths piece has appeared in The Hindu. Now isnt a certain Mr N Ram also associated with The Hindu? Mr N Ram is a great admirer of China. So what P Sainath writes equally applies to China.

Nikhil said...

Further to my earlier comment, I just wanted to highlight. There are far worse hellholes in India as the fireworks factories at Sivakasi or the carpet factories in UP that use child labor. Have any of the worthies who are now jumping into the fray to politicise the Honda motor incident ever bothered about these hellholes?

Dilip D'Souza said...

Nikhil, while you say some interesting things otherwise, I am baffled by your Sainath/Ram/Hindu/China chain of logic. Totally. Would you explain?

Also, of course it is true that if India loses something, some other country gains. So? I don’t know enough about what happened in Gurgaon, but I would say this much: workers must be heard, their grievances addressed. If they are instead beaten brutally (even if some of them retaliated), their company is not one I particularly care about keeping in India. To my mind, this is part of creating a good investment climate. (for you too, Eswaran).

My feeling is that changes made (roads, drains etc) for the sake of an improved image are never substantial. Roads and drains should be improved not because they present Bombay in a poor light, but because that simply makes lives of people who live here a little easier.

Nikhil said...

Here is the clarification regards the Sainath/Ram/Hindu/China chain of logic.

Mr N Ram who is the editor/propreiter of The Hindu is an unabashed admirer of China and its policies including its policy on Tibet.

Mr Sainath in the article contrasted the new Gurgaon its malls etc with the old Gurgaon - that of the workers being bashed up and asked if this is the new India we wanted.
What I wanted to highlight is that beneath China's glittering Shanghai there are hellholes in other provinces and there are even rules that people cannot move into Shanghai. This is obviously to prevent shanties from coming up there. There are more such horror stories like these. Forget about rights to protest which the Gurgaon workers at least had. So why is the same newspaper lauding China which has done the same thing and condemning India? This is not saying that India must do the same as China - as I and R have stated earlier. but only that The Hindu should not adopt Double standards and have different standards of judgement - one for India and the other for China.

The one thing we have in India that is lacking in China is a dynamic and energetic entrepreneurial culture. Govt policies should not stifle it as it had done in the past.
Regards improving roads and drains for benefiting people rather than for improved image, sadly it never happens even for the latter.