Thursday, November 13, 2008

Paper tiger?

I was disappointed when The White Tiger won, over a book I much preferred. Adiga has an idea, he has a scathing bluntness, but he is not half the storyteller that Amitav Ghosh is. Even if one penalises Sea of Poppies for the irksome dialects (especially the endless Anglo-Indian cant), it’s infinitely more informative, has far more empathy and several times the imagination, and is generally a far far better book. I’m not even going into the issue of better writing, because that’s a matter of taste (especially since Paddy Doyle). And what was the relevance of letters to a Chinese politician?

I’m slightly better disposed towards Aravind Adiga after reading this

"Do you feel that the world ignores India's poor? Carol Davies, Cambridge

The truth is, India doesn't need the world's help in fixing its poverty. The money is present right here, the social workers are right here. The basic steps needed to lift the 400 million Indians who live in extreme poverty are known to everyone – a massive increase in government investment in primary schools, hospitals, and farming (most of the poor live in villages). What is lacking in India is the political will to make these investments – and to fight the pervasive corruption that erodes the effectiveness of the meager anti-poverty programmes currently in place."

Perhaps simple to the point of being trite, it’s just that I entirely agree with his prioritisation. I’d add one more point (which I have mentioned on this blog earlier) – the need to make all citizens stakeholders by making them taxpayers.


Falstaff said...

It's not just trite it's actively silly. It's like saying all we need to do to achieve World Peace is to reduce nuclear stockpiles, strengthen diplomatic ties between nations and forget our historic enmities once and for all. True enough, but if we could do that we wouldn't have a problem in the first place would we?

Besides, Adiga's statement isn't even true. The problem with the system isn't just corruption, it's also incompetence and inefficiency. To do this via the government you need a lot more than the political will to make investments, you need the political will to embrace innovation, foster entrepreneurship, challenge existing power heirarchies, and ruthlessly cut back on all the inefficiencies that are a natural product of a complacent monopoly. We don't just need capital, we need ideas. Without that, making these investments is just throwing good money after bad. So much for basic steps.

And do we really have the capital and personnel to do this? How, exactly, does Adiga plan to fund these investments of his? And where are the staff for all these schools, hospitals, etc. coming from? 400 million Indians living in extreme poverty, he says. Say 150-200 million children of primary school age. At 40 students to a classroom (and with anything greater than that you may as well not bother) we're talking 4 to 5 million well-trained, competent primary school teachers willing to live in villages. Is there a secret stockpile of high quality teaching androids out there that I don't know about?

Frankly, the first step towards solving India's problems is to discuss them with someone other than second-rate novelists. Learning about India's socio-economic problems from Adiga is like learning about World War II from Commando comics ("All we need to do is kill all the Germans with our sten guns and make the world safe for democracy"). I never thought the day would come when I would say this, but I actually miss Sir Vidia. Compared to Adiga, the man is a gold mine of relevant insight. Plus, he can actually write.

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Hey, a RANT. Nice.

F, I said I agree with his prioritisation. Funding? There's more than enough funding already if only it were applied correctly. I agree with you there.

And your last para is very nice, except that I think Sir Vidia is a pompous old fart who can't write very well either.


Falstaff said...

JAP: Sir Vidia IS a pompous old fart (though I would argue he can write; or at least could). Which is why being even more annoying than him is a new low.

km said...

What? No one wants to fault that interviewer for asking such an unimaginably trite and stupid question? What does it even mean - ignoring India's poor? Are the poor in Somalia or Chile better off simply because they receive attention?

Falstaff said...

km: True. That much at least is to Adiga's credit - he doesn't answer the question at all.

Australopithecus said...

"the need to make all citizens stakeholders by making them taxpayers."

I agree with that.

Sucharita Sarkar said...

Pardon my ignorance, but aren't all citizens already paying tax 9sales tax, VAT, etc) even if they are not paying income-tax?

amit varma said...

JAPda -- sigh. The priorities might be right -- education, healthcare etc -- but the solution couldn't be more wrong. More government investment in these areas is just throwing good money after bad -- enough has been spent already, with nothing to show for it. The reason is that government in our country is dysfunctional down to its DNA, and we need to fix that first. Government spending = government wastage, and more spending simply means more wastage.

Lest you say I offer no solutions of my own, here's an old piece of mine on the subject ... though there are no panaceas, of course.

As for your statement about "the need to make all citizens stakeholders by making them taxpayers", I find that an outrageous thought. You guys provide no bang for the buck to begin with, and then you want more of our buck! Shame on you!

(Not you personally, you're a darling and I want your body. I mean gorment.)

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Strangely enough, the question is probably from Cambridge, UK and not Cambridge, MA. Strange, because it seems to be a Bush-era axiom that attention / intervention / busybodying by the US is a panacea.

Just sticking my oar in because you guys are now making me feel guilty for approving of his priorities. His priorities, not the methods advocated. I mean, despite the writings of Sen & Druze and a hundred others, there aren't too many Indian politicians who get up and say that health and education are priorities.


J. Alfred Prufrock said...

OK, now Falsie and KM, you guys go play outside for a while.

SS, I KNEW somebody would raise the issue of indirect taxes. Now, in Public Affairs 101 as taught by JAP, only direct taxes have the psychological empowerment factor. They just do. Indirect taxes don't cut it that way. Take it from me.

Oz, you and me, podner.

Amit, dude, read the comments too. I agreed with Falsie (and you too? Will wonders never cease?) that more funding is not required.
Re: taxes, you KNOW what I mean is that MORE people should pay taxes. If you don't pay for it, you're getting it for free and you place no value on it.
As for my body, the same logic applies. Start your bidding.


amit varma said...

Start bidding? You're commercializing your body now? Evil capitalist pig!

As Sucharita pointed, everyone in this country already pays tax in some way or the other. I don't see what "psychological empowerment" has to do in this context? Do direct taxpayers like me feel empowered in any way? So sir, we don't -- we know our government is beyond accountability, and we feel disempowered and robbed. More direct taxes, therefore, simply means more feeling of disempowerment and being robbed.

This is made worse by civil servants such as your sensual self refusing to share sexual favours. Is this why we pay taxes?

Anonymous said...

Ghosh's novel has great scope, but he is an inept writer.

Gee said...

Ok...the comments section is way more interesting than the post.

Anonymous said...

I agree.

Shan said...

Stupid question, answered stupidly. Even funnier is Falstaff's rant against Adiga, a writer, for not being able to provide a practical solution to poverty in one sentence... :)

ahona said...

Adiga is stupid, Amitav Ghosh is clever but has no sense of fiction, I want Rushdie in form!Waaah!

ahona said...

And Naipaul is brilliant, can write when he wants, but is in every way, a wheezy, irritating, pompous, and didactic bloke.But then these old men of letters! It gets to them.

Sanjana said...

One of the biggest problems in India is the lack of civic sense / duty of the educated middle and upper classes. It's so easy for them to go about their daily routine and get their work done with minimal intervention from the government, that they've allowed the political system to decline for the past 61 years.

Political will is very strong in India - the difference is that politicians have a strong will to make money, gain power and status. They don't have the will to govern.

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