Monday, July 02, 2007

Why are we poor?

Last year, Tim Harford wrote a lovely article called "Why Poor Countries Are Poor". I just came across it today, (the magic of the Internet) and found it a gripping read. It talks about the crushing poverty in Cameroon, Africa, and tries to go behind the scenes to get to the cause of the poverty. It is a lovely read.
Even if you might dispute his analysis of what causes poverty, I was shocked at how so many of the situations were similar to ones that I had seen in India. I have grown up in many parts of India, and the setup in Cameroon sounds sadly familiar.

  1. Terrible roads. I remember the awful roads in Dehradun, or more recently, the absolutely terrible roads in Gorakhpur and Lucknow. The typical government response is to either patch the roads with low quality tar that wears off after the first rains, or to claim lack of funds as a reason for not doing anything. While Bangalore might have decent road quality, the overall road network is shoddy.
  2. Thugs exacting money. In Bombay, street vendors used to pay a hafta: a weekly dole to ensure that the local thug (partnering with the local police and politician) did not destroy his shack, or break his legs. An acquaintance of mine in Delhi was recently threatened by the local thug into parting with a plot of land, adjacent to his house!
  3. Libraries. Anyone in India seen a functioning local library?
I admit that a lot of these have changed for the better. Dehradun roads had improved since I left them, and some roads were being worked on before we left. After the civic council in Bombay passed some sorts of hawking regulation, hawkers and street vendors have some limited legal status.

Yet, we need to acknowledge that we do have these problems. We need to admit that no city in India has a functioning public library. People in UP need to ask where are the schools and roads. People in Bihar need to ask why the local economy is so broken that nearly all their labor goes elsewhere, to work as taxi drivers, or dhobis.

The sadder fact is that complaining about this stuff is not seen as the right thing to do. We are told that India is a poor country, and cannot have all the facilities available in richer countries. Or that "This is how it is in India". I have heard that phrase so often, I've lost count.

We look at the West so often, we forget to look at parts of India that look almost exactly like Douala.