Thursday, January 24, 2008

Do we need one car each? ( and so on...)

A monologue with the Government, or those in power...

There's good news. And I have already started taking my driving lessons. (It was highly incidental, but what a coincidence!) The newspaper reports say (and so gulp them with a pinch of salt) that the 'Nano'- the cheapest car in the world, will be priced around INR One lakh...

So while I was thinking to save up my money and go for a second hand dabba car within one lakh range sometime in six months, I now might as well wait another few months and add another few thousand and get a brand new Nano. Makes perfect economic sense, nai? So it will, for many others like me... And so in a year from now, we all will be happily hopping to TATA showrooms like we now hop to Big Bazaar and get ourselves a car each for a change instead of a t-shirt or a jeans or steel vessel. I am thrilled, I am swooning in disbelief...

Utopia rings bells of alarms, doesn't it? What's wrong here? What's the catch? Let's rack our brains and think a bit.

Kudos to the Tatas to make a car within the reach of the 'common man'. Kudos to the very communist government for putting a step forward to usher in 'development' and 'industrialization'.

Okay, hold on. I am going to explain the quote-unquote thing.

Common man. Whom are you talking about? Surely not he, who spends most of his time traveling in a bus or a metro, not he, who gets fascinated and starry eyes on being offered a credit card. Surely not he, who sweats each day on his way to office, sweats back all his way, and then haggles over the price of tomatoes somewhere in between. Surely not he, who is still in doubts whether he can afford the maintenance and petrol costs if he buys a scooter.

Development. What are you talking about? I have been walking fairly enough in the city and hopping on many a crowded buses. I am yet to come across a decent bus stand, which has seats where people can sit and wait, and which tells which buses go from that route and where. I have moved around in nearby 'remote places' merely hundred kilometers from Calcutta proper, where the most popular of transport is still the three-tyred cycle rickshaw, where there are far more saree shops than proper medicine shops, where basic medical aid seems non-existent. Take snake-bite for example. Many deaths in the villages occur due to snake bites. And naturally so, Bengal is a haven for most snakes poisonous, including the King Cobra. Can't you make that damned snake anti-venom available at medical stores? No. It cannot be retailed and you need to get it only from big government hospitals, provided the doctors are available. Perhaps such things require legislation and consultation. Development is something that happens spontaneously, isn't it?

Industrialization? What are you talking about? O, do you mean industrialization as that situation wherein you confiscate a piece of fertile land and gift it to any XYZ company. The company will grow, so will the smoke, so will the population density in that area, and so will sprout a few measly tea stalls and bun stalls in a futile attempt. And when the roadside stalls sprout and when a few youths are employed as peons and a few young women are degraded to being sweepers and cleaners from being free-willed maidens who picked up green peas in their fields before the SEZ nightmare happened, of course, you will point your fingers wisely and say: "See, we told you, SEZs generate employment..."

Stop kidding me. I know who will get the icing on the SEZ cake. You want to know? KFC, McDonald's, Burger King and Sify Broadband cafes. Sorry to the bun maska and the kerosene stove tea. Saab log don't eat at down market places and nor do such stalls suit the chic and plush corporate glamour. So please, shove off, you villagers, make way. So what if we now stand on what was once your land...

All the development that is happening is happening to you and me, who have the luxury to type away idle thoughts on the brand new keyboard and who are discussing which next laptop to buy. Development, the real one, out of sarcastic quotes, should ideally happen to those who are sweating day in and day out to and back from bus and trains and who haggle the price of tomatoes. Development should happen to those dark and dusty village children who walk miles to the lone primary school years in vain hope till truth dawns upon them and they give up. Education is still a joke in majority of remote India and development should happen to that sad and different species of human race altogether who live and die each day in an ignored existence. The talks of 'development' and 'industrialization' are mere candy floss.

When I see flocks of villagers marching kilometers, the red flag swinging behind them to come to the city and attend this or that political meeting with religious reverence, I feel extremely sad and pained. Here is one state, and here is one people, who have unquestionable faith in their leaders, or let's say, the communist ideology. Here is a people who believe that their government is indeed for the sickle and the labourer. They might be right. But they might be wrong too...

It seems to me that the communism today, or for that matter any political ideology, is nothing but degenerated and misinterpreted set of basically skewed up ideals. Today, communism seems simply standing up for the poor while keeping them as poor as they are, while enveloping their scope of vision with so many like them that they feel they are happy and satisfied and one of the lot.

Was the communist ideal always like this? Wasn't it always an excellent piece of theory which can never ever be implemented in practice. Like the Heisenberg's principle of uncertainty- it is a fascinating truth, but it cannot be proved experimentally. Isn't communism that perfect synonym of utopia? For when have we, in the course of history from Marx to this date, witnessed the successful evolution of a classless society, where all evolved together and ultimately all were equals?

Why cant there be a sensible development? Why can't there be more public means of transport, more realistic prices of goods and lesser loans and credits? Professor Pinto once thundered in the class in his trademark style: "All this is lobbying. There's this dreadful nexus of car manufacturers and banks and builders and so on. Why don't they increase the number of municipal buses? They won't do that, for then, how will cars and scooters sell by hundreds each day?"

Though the quote may not be verbatim, I hope this is the essence he wanted to convey. For after that lecture, I brooded on and on, and could never shake of this logic.

Think of it. A bus can easily hold 50 people at a time. Why don't you increase the number of buses? Why don't you clean the buses more often and spend some on the interiors of the buses? Why don't you make the mode of transport popular and start brand image advertisements to clean up that snobbish 'O , so down market thingy to travel in a sweaty bus' attitude. Why don't you make the public transport system so chic and so plush, that everyone feels a relief using it and prefers it to driving down the chaos of jam and pollution each day? If you plan it well enough, a state transport system is a winning formula which satiates all the wants- economy, convenience and environment.

Case in point, the famous Neeta Volvo versus the Maharashtra State Buses that ply between Pune and Mumbai. Neeta Volvo (and Konduskar and such alike) reek of monopoly and cheating- the way they hike their tickets on weekends and the way sometimes dump passengers on the worst seats possible in spite of advance bookings. State buses offer the same facilities but at a far cheaper rate. But the State Bus ticket counters are dilapidated, easily ignored, tin-roof structures nearby a urinal and Neeta operates from a plush office. Only a lot of asking will ever, if at all, tell you which are the stops all over the city (Mumbai and Pune) where the State buses stop enroute to pick up the tourists.

As we are talking about the government downplaying their facilities, let me provide you with another example:

The postal letter drop box. I still write a lot of inland letters and postcards, and so I know how difficult it is to convince yourself before dropping that letter thru the flap of the box that this mode of communication is still not defunct. The letter drop box always seems to stand so unceremoniously at some busy corner, with so much of dust sleeping on it, and with so many cobwebs swinging by, I always ask three different strangers to ascertain if this is 'still in use' or is past its expiry date. When you do deliver the postcards and the inland letters in good time, why don't you just make an effort to make the service well known? Why don't you tell the public you offer cheap services and direct them to the letter boxes? Why don't you just colour that damn thing bright red once a year at the least??? Might as well go to some ad agency, get them make some hip direction banners and post them prominently on top of all the letter drop boxes?

So the thing is, all this talk of development and industrialization is sheer humour. You are game for development? Then start sacking teachers from municipality schools this second on. Start some serious re-thinking of what kind of teachers you want to teach at pre-school and primary levels all over the villages of the country. Get some management graduates tell you what product marketing is so that the state transport and postal services and all that stuff you let rot away in oblivion is used by the common man. And for God's sake, hire some dumb advertising agency make some yellow and black billboards to signal the bus pick up points, and the letter boxes.

We want to grow richer and drive that Nano, but we don't want to do so kicking the stomach of someone thin and lean and who sleeps hungry. We want to grow, but we also want those strangers who sweat each day to see a better tomorrow than their disappointing today. We also don't need one car each and we need you to know what development really is.

-Gauri Gharpure