The God of Small Things

This is not a piece about Modi. Before all those ardent fans and fanatics jump at me, I would like to say I’m myself getting quite tired of writing about him. But I should thank him for providing me the subject for today’s blog piece. Whilst I was sifting through various materials and wondering what I shall write about today, I came across this video from the ever helpful Modi.

The video is curiously titled as ‘Modi’s solution to defeat China in the “Next Super Power” Race’. I’m not sure if China itself was in that race at all. However the video presents three key points for overtaking China as Steel, Scale and Speed. Explained, they go like this:

  1. Acquire supremacy in steel production
  2. Build a statue of Sardar Patel, called Statue of Unity; twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty
  3. Build bullet train service between Ahmedabad to Mumbai

These are basically to be done as showcase piece, to show the world that we have the ‘power’. China keeps showing off its might, but it only shows off Shanghai, not the entire China, does it, asks Modi rhetorically. (Therefore we will showcase our steel, statue and the station where the bullet train stops. The mantra he spouts is this ‘Think big, make huge plans, not small measures; 1% or 2% improvement will not do.’

We hope that this was said only to titillate the audience, and not really meant by someone who is widely expected to become the next prime minister.

True that China can’t afford to show off its entire country and its undercurrents. But then if we follow China, our story  would also be quite similar. We will only have our bullet train link to showcase and nothing else. In their latest book An Uncertain Glory, authors Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze tear apart India’s growth story with social indicators. Yes, we have impressive GDP, and we have great IT industry, and some of the richest people in the world are Indians. However, on education, healthcare, female literary, sanitation and nutrition, India fares only marginally better than sub-Saharan Africa. How these things will improve if we beat Statue of Liberty, we’re not sure.

Shockingly, Sen and Drèze demonstrate that even Bangladesh has better social indicators.

Indicators India Bangladesh
Life expectancy 65 69
Household toilets 50% 90%
Infant mortality 47/1000 37/1000
Fertility rate 2.6 2.2

If you think it’s because Bangladesh is a smaller country, consider this: the GDP per capita of Bangladesh is about half that of India’s, which means a country with far less money per head is doing better.

On healthcare front, India spends $39 per person, China spends $203 and Brazil spends $483. Even Sri Lanka spends $66 per person.

What we need are not bullet trains or huge statues. We also don’t need steel factories. Already, our hungry for steel is throwing millions of tribals from their forests and hills and making them easy prey to Maoists. If we proclaim steel as our national strategy towards beating China, it’s like writing a quick obituary. Within a decade we will have wiped out our entire  tribal community who make up 8.6% of population. As such many of them are abused, ill-treated and displaced. Our steel slogan will trigger a holocaust.

The answer is, then, not to think big. We don’t need large, mighty projects. We can’t link all the rivers in our country, unless we want to invite a major ecological catastrophe. We can’t have bullet trains, unless we plan on displacing even more people and acquiring even more agricultural lands.

What we need is actually in direct opposite of what Modi claims. We need small measures, small progress. We need tiny tank-bunds, reservoirs and check-dams. We need to increase our passenger trains and make them a lot cheaper. We need pucca roads connecting our remotest villages. We need more elementary schools. We need more primary school teachers. We need more mandis. We need more primary healthcare services and tiny clinics. We need less mines and more tribal welfare programmes. We need more localisation.

We will not be able to ‘showcase’ any of these things. They will not tower over the Statue of Liberty, but in the near future, they would make us marginally better than Bangladesh and even China. The days are not very far when the world ceases to talk about China’s GDP and starts talking about its human rights abuse, its lack of freedom, its authoritarian government, and the human cost of its ‘development’. We wouldn’t want to be part of that discourse.

In one of his lectures, historian and sociologist Ramachandra Guha argues that India cannot become a superpower. He lists the following reasons:

  1. Left wing extremism in India (Maoists)
  2. Right Wing Hindu fundamentalism
  3. The political parties turning into family firms
  4. Corruption and corrosion of public institutions
  5. The growing gap between the rich and the poor
  6. The rapid pace of environmental degradation
  7. The apathy of the media
  8. The political fragmentation and policy incoherence
  9. The disturbances in the north east and north west viz. Kashmir, Manipur and Nagaland
  10. Unstable neighbourhood

So far there hasn’t been any visible initiative towards improvement in any of these factors. Even those initiatives will not be in spectacular turnarounds. They should be and will be in small, measured steps. Almost baby steps, and these steps will be quite painful and slow. We will not achieve in big things in the short duration, and we shouldn’t either. We will only score in small things. When it comes to health care and infant mortality, actually even 1% growth will do.

Alas, these numbers cannot be part of chest-beating exercise on the stage. And obviously, the front-benchers will be bored.



  • The title of this piece: with apologies to Arundhati Roy 
  • I have only read the excerpts from An Uncertain Glory, I will be reading the book and intend to review it in this blog