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India India Cannot Help But Be Complex

Jan 6, 2005
Metro-Vancouver, B.C., Canada
India cannot help but be complex

October 02, 2010
Haroon Siddiqui - THE TORONTO STAR

Photo: Schoolgirls ride along a beach road in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. India is reaping a “demographic dividend,” with half its 1.2 billion
people under 25.

Michael Melford/National Geographic Society

Arriving in Canada in 1967, I was swept up by the Centennial, especially Expo, but was soon distressed to discover that there was no yogurt, only something called sour cream, a blob that bloated your tummy. There were few fresh green vegetables and no mangoes. No basmati rice. No coriander, cloves or cardamom. Nor saffron, which few had heard of and said it could be procured, perhaps, around Easter for the seasonal bread.

Informed of this state of affairs, mom in India said: “In that case, son, you had better come back home.”

I am glad I stayed.

At the time, Canadians thought of India as the land of starving people and emaciated holy cows. Now the two countries can't get enough of each other, Canada needing India more than India needing Canada. Which is why the Star is exploring India in every section of the paper today.

India, an emerging economic and geopolitical giant, might overtake China economically within two decades. Wooed by the world, it does need Canadian natural resources as well as capital and expertise for infrastructure.

Canada — besides recruiting skilled Indians as immigrants and using India for outsourced call centres — is keen to tap into India's booming $1.3 trillion economy (about the same as Canada's).

Canadian politicians and corporate leaders, who never used to return a phone call from India, now go on pilgrimages there and attend Indo-Canadian events to troll for votes and business.

Yet India can still unnerve Canadians, as during two current crises — the Commonwealth Games, where accommodation for athletes in New Delhi was deemed unfit for human habitation; and the scary spectre of Hindu-Muslim bloodletting over a 16th century mosque following a court decision Thursday in the decades-long dispute.

But to me, all this sounds normal. India is forever in a crisis — and is not.

Whatever is true of India, the exact opposite is almost always also true:

Efficiency and chaos. Secularism and sectarianism. Wealth and poverty. Hope and despondency. Gandhian non-violence and murderous frenzy. Humanity and cruelty. Exploitation and generosity. Piety and prostitution. Dedicated indigenous NGOs and corrupt politics.
That's India.

In fact, India is many Indias, where the good far outweighs the bad.

India cannot but be complex — an ancient civilization leapfrogging from British colonized penury to new economic heights, and slowly shedding centuries-old caste-based hierarchy for a culture of Bollywood, cricket and corporate celebrity.

India is relevant to Canada.

Our manufacturing base is denuded, especially in Ontario. The American economy, on which we've been overly dependant, will likely be in doldrums for years.

Canada can no longer postpone finding new markets — in Europe and, increasingly, China and particularly India.

Go East, young man, says Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of Canada, noting the shift in the centre of gravity from the West back to the East.

Until the early 19th century, China and India controlled half the world's economy, even if that fact has been obliterated from Western conscience. Today, China and India are simply going back to the future.

China, with a 2009 GDP of almost $5 trillion, recently passed Japan as the world's second largest economy on a quarterly basis. India's is projected to overtake China's in the foreseeable future.

Whereas China's economic growth comes mostly from exports, India's emanates from domestic consumption. That's why it weathered the world economic meltdown. This year, its economy is growing at thrice the rate of Canada's.

India has been doubling per capita income every 10 years — something Canada used to do but doesn't any longer. Our children face the prospect of earning less than us.

India is reaping a “demographic dividend.” Half its 1.2 billion people are under 25. In the next 10 years, it will produce between 80 million and 110 million new workers. China's population, like Canada's, is aging. India's population will overtake China's.

India is democratic. Its entrepreneurial drive comes from the private sector, not the state or state-owned enterprises.

While Canada's trade with the U.S. is suffering, India's with America, albeit comparatively small, is growing, to $60 billion a year. So is India's trade with China, approaching $50 billion.

But Canada's trade with India is just $5 billion. We have our work cut out for us.

Not all is hunky-dory in India.

It has the world's largest number of poor. About 600 million survive on less than $2 a day. About 65 million live in slums. About 1.75 million children die before reaching their first birthday. Nearly 45 per cent of children are malnourished. About 160 million kids are not in school.

A quarter of women marry before 18. About 4,000 are killed a year for not bringing sufficient dowry or in “honour killings” for marrying outside their Hindu gotra (clan) or across caste or religion.

Discrimination against the dalits, the untouchables, continues, despite being outlawed.

About 200,000 debt-ridden farmers have committed suicide.

Corruption is endemic. Dynastic politics is rampant. Rahul Gandhi, 40, is prime minister presumptive. His mother, Sonia Gandhi, is president of the ruling Congress Party. His father, Rajiv, was prime minister. So was his grandmother, Indira. So was his great grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first leader of post-independent India.

Environmental degradation is shocking — deforestation, dried riverbeds and depleting water tables.

Only 60 per cent of municipal waste is collected. Road fatalities number 120,000 a year, the highest in the world, ahead of China's 75,000, mostly because only a tiny percentage of India's roads are highways and people are regularly darting in and out of traffic.

India is also dragged down by two domestic wars — a decades-long insurgency in Kashmir, India's only Muslim-majority state, which wants greater autonomy; and a Maoist rebellion, called the Naxalite movement, in a wide swath of the south and northeast, championing the poor, especially those displaced from their land because of dams, highways, airports and big manufacturing plants.
As staggering as all this is, the galloping economy offers a historic moment of transformation.

As India embarks on a $500 billion infrastructure program, Canada has unlimited opportunities to make a difference — supplying nuclear and clean energy technologies, building roads, railways and subways, selling products and services to a middle class of more than 300 million.

There are also strategic reasons to engage nuclear India.

Despite all its internal challenges, India is a stable democracy — the world's largest. Weathering a million challenges, India has become resilient.

It took the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai in stride and moved on. It did not wallow in self pity and, ignoring some initial nationalistic jingoism, it did not wage war on Pakistan from where the terrorists had come.

India has the world's fourth- largest army. Its navy controls vast swaths of the Indian Ocean. It is a player in the G20. It has signed free trade deals with Singapore, South Korea and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and strengthened its relations with Vietnam, Japan and Australia.

It has offered $5 billion credit to Africa; $800 million to post-civil-war Sri Lanka; and $1 billion worth of projects in Afghanistan, the same as Canada. We should be co-operating with India on civilian projects in Afghanistan.

At an individual level, young and retired Canadians should be going to India to volunteer for the thousands of indigenous Indian NGOs that are working for justice for the poor, the landless, Muslims and other minorities, women, dalits, tribal people and other vulnerable Indians.

The contribution of these idealistic grassroots organizations are, in many ways, nobler and more effective than those of governments and corporations.

Every time I see them in action, I am uplifted — and hope that they would have some Canadian content.

Haroon Siddiqui, the Star's editorial page editor emeritus, usually writes Thursdays and Saturdays.



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