Luddite approach to faster connectivity

| | in Usual Suspects

When looking at contemporary controversies, it helps also to examine the past and, where possible, jog our own memories.

Kolkata was the first Indian city to be blessed with a metro rail. A proposal was originally given by West Bengal’s most visionary Chief Minister, Dr BC Roy, way back in the eary-sixties. The project was finally cleared, perhaps as an aspect of the larger battle against Left extremism and the incessant charge that the State was being discriminated against by the Centre, sometime in the mid-1970s. The work proceeded at a snail’s pace for more than a decade. During that time, large parts of the main thoroughfares of the city resembled bombed-out areas. Places such as Chittaranjan Avenue and Bhowanipore became a nightmare for both pedestrians and commuters. An entire generation grew up cursing this dream project that further crippled an already crippled city. The Left, in particular, was extremely critical of this vanity project and the more populist among them argued that the money should have been used for slum development.

The metro — or at least a modest stretch — was finally inaugurated with much fanfare sometime before the 1984 general election. It was projected as a personal achievement of ABA Ghani Khan Chowdhury, a pugnacious Congress leader, who used his tenure as Railways Minister to gratify his home district of Malda.

The hype worked. Although not too many commuters benefited from the small stretch, the people of Calcutta suddenly felt a pride in this achievement. Abruptly, all the jokes and the snide comments ceased and the Metro Rail indicated possibilities and offered a much-needed hope.

Mega projects that have a potential of transforming lives invariably invite bitter criticism. Rajiv Gandhi was among the first political leaders who understood the potential of computers. He was mercilessly mocked by both the opposition and many ordinary people for this obsession. The Left in particular, with its influence in the organised working class, even set up agitations against computerisation — not that there was too much of it on the ground. It was presented as a rich kid’s toy.

It was only much later that computers became an object of defication — recall Murli Manohar Joshi’s juxtaposition of the ‘good’ computer chips and the undersirable potato chips.

This phenomenon was repeated when mobile phones were first introduced in India. Understandably, in the early days calls were frightfully expensive and only the extremely affluent could afford it. I recall how the late Pramod Mahajan was cruelly mocked for carrying mobile phones and for his suggestion that this new form of communications would revolutionise India, just as the STD booths had done in earlier years. His remarks turned out to be quite prophetic. Today, it is impossible to conceive of life without mobile telephony.

Earlier this year when the longest bridge across the River Brahmaputra became operational, there were many articles in the media shedding tears for boatmen who had lost their livelihood as a result of this enhanced connectivity. In years to come, there may be articles of how the bridge has upgraded the economy of the region.

There is a part of India that is instinctively Luddite in its mental orientation. Mahatma Gandhi loathed technology. He initially thought that the railways were a curse since mobility broke up communities. He extended his dislike of modernity to modern medicine too. That wariness has encroached into political life because netas are always likely to draw nods of approval when they contrast the pristine purity of Bharat with decadence of a glitzy West.

It is only in recent times that a change has been detected. Arguably, Narendra Modi was the first politician who made us consciously aware of the shift in Indian attitudes. Modernity is no longer shunned; it has become a point of aspiration. Indians are no longer content to see themselves as a struggling Third World country. The youth in particular, now exposed to all the global cross-currents, are energetically anxious to be beneficiaries of all that technology and modern lifestyles have to offer. They have even conferred modernity with a distinctly Indian flavour. The mobile phone culture in India is very distinct, although the technology may be universal.

It is in this context that the proposed Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train that Modi inaugurated with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe acquires importance. There are understandable concerns over existing rail safety and the economics of Indian Railways. These need prompt managerial solutions within the policy framework of providing affordable mobility to those with low incomes. However, it does not detract from the need to facilitate faster human and goods connectivity. I am certain that, once operational, the bullet train will revolutionise the economy of western India. It will also set up competitive demands from other regions for similar facilities.

However, for the moment, the country will experience a lot of chatter about misplaced priorities and elitism. The interim always belongs to those who are on the wrong side of history. But Modi must not lose his single-minded focus on making life better for India. That must be his priority.

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