From Bihar, a New Approach to Flood Control

•September 3, 2012 • Leave a Comment

From Bihar, a New Approach to Flood Control

The year was 2008, and I had just walked out of a meeting on flood management with the chief minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar. Mr. Kumar, fully aware of the challenges of annual floods in Bihar, had asked for assistance in building new flood defenses.

Unfortunately, this call for help came a little too late. Hours later, the eastern embankment of the Kosi barrage, a major flood protection infrastructure in Nepal, collapsed on its left side, resulting in one of the most devastating floods in the history of the state. In Bihar alone, over three million people were affected, with official sources reporting over 500 deaths and close to 3,500 missing.

However, this flood did not occur as a result of too much rain. In fact, the water levels in the river were much lower than expected. What caused the flooding was too little maintenance. Official reports state that much-needed repairs on the embankments had been delayed for a number of years, severely weakening the effectiveness of the infrastructure. Eventually, the day came when the barriers of the embankment could not withstand the pressure of the river.

The business of flood management in India — the ability to predict, prepare, respond and recover from flood-related disasters — is the responsibility of state governments. Though non-state actors and the people affected can play a part in flood management, the lion’s share of the formal responsibility generally lies with state-run irrigation or water resources departments. Other agencies, like state disaster management and local governments, also play a key role.

Though research is limited on this topic, it is clear that there is a significant gap in the quality, performance and ability of these institutions to manage the complexity of floods.

As one of India’s most flood-prone states, Bihar faces enormous challenges. Bihar’s river systems and its 16 river basins are some of the most complex in the world, with a heterogeneous set of rivers flowing into the state from the Himalayas. Excessive rainfall, bursting rivers and breaching embankments are a recurring phenomenon that tend to wreak havoc on the lives of millions, with the poor usually the worst affected.

The 2008 Kosi floods were a wake-up call for the government of Bihar. Its water resources department is now trying to make sure the disaster of 2008 doesn’t happen again. I am leading a team of experts to study how the department institutionally manages floods. Our research, which is sponsored by the International Growth Center (I.G.C.) India-Bihar country program, a global research and policy center headquartered in Britain, has attempted to investigate the institutional factors that may be contributing to increased risks from floods to Bihar’s 103 million people.

Our team conducted household surveys of affected communities and staff interviews of water resources department engineers, from junior officers to the leadership in the state capital of Patna.

The findings were eye-opening. The water resources department is in charge of both irrigation and the management of floods, but in most cases the supply of staff in the department does not match the demand of the dual responsibilities of irrigation provision and flood management. Staff shortages tend to lead to an overemphasis on the construction of new flood protection infrastructure and little time and manpower for ensuring the quality of what already exists.

Some staff members stressed the need for further training in modern-day flood management techniques, particularly the junior members who generally bear the responsibility of being the first to protect infrastructure and communities in the event of a flood. The staff also did not have sufficient hardware and software to adequately perform their duties. Tools like vehicles and computers, as well as flood-related technology, are in short supply. Inefficient systems monitor the performance of staff and the quality of the maintenance of flood infrastructure.

Engagement with communities, actively involving them in essential flood-fighting activities, seems to be ad hoc and underdeveloped, while coordination with other agencies at the local and state levels needs to be severely strengthened. Essentially, the problem boils down to too much to do in too little time, with too few resources.

Bihar is not alone in grappling with these challenges. In June, an embankment breach on the island of Majuli in Assam on the Brahmaputra River affected more than 200 villages and is being called one of the worst floods in the state in the last 14 years. Reports from the flood indicate that much of the early work of flood preparedness and embankment maintenance was largely nonexistent. This recent flood may have been less severe had the local irrigation department conducted high-quality maintenance work on the embankments.

It is not purely a coincidence that total flood damage in India, in terms of population affected and crops and assets destroyed, has risen from approximately 520 million rupees in 1953 to over 88 billion rupees in 2000. India, therefore, desperately needs to transform its water management agencies to address these concerns rather than pour money into more concrete.

Bihar is one of the few states in India to begin transforming its flood management practices. Data from firsthand experiences has convinced policy makers that reforms are necessary. This means hiring thousands of new staff, setting up world-class training institutes, improving the knowledge of field staff in state-of-the-art techniques of flood management and creating new quality procedures and inspection systems that can track how well an embankment is performing. It also means actively involving communities in disseminating warnings and sharing the burden of flood protection alongside its engineers.

In Bihar’s 2011-12 budget, the government estimated it would spend close to 77 billion rupees ($1.4 billion) on irrigation, flood control and energy. This is significantly higher than the amount budgeted in 2010-11, which was close to 56 billion rupees. The increase in funds will be critical to implement crucial changes.

What India has now is more like underpaid, poorly trained firefighters fighting blazes with leaky hoses and battered trucks, and this status quo cannot adequately protect the millions of lives at stake. Reform must happen even though these are not easy changes to make. They cannot happen overnight, but they will make a difference in the way state institutions plan, manage and respond to the inevitable flood. The changes under way in Bihar may soon lead the way for the rest of country.



Glimpses of Ganga

•September 9, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Lucknow, Varanasi, Kolkata

The Ganga river, unlike a Thames or a Rhine, is the essence of India’s holiness, or so I am told. I didn’t believe it at first. So I began a journey to see this mother of all Indian rivers for myself, a journey to visit her past, her power, and her poisons. 

The first stop was in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. We landed in Lucknow late and the cold winter fog had started early, as dense patches of mist obscured our long drive down Lucknow’s sweeping roads and imposing pink stone squares. Shrimati Mayawati, the Chief Minister of UP, known officially as the “Iron Lady” was present everywhere I looked, in life-size marble statues and larger-than-life movie poster banners showcasing her round triumphant face staring beadily at her subjects below.  Standing proudly with unblinking, granite eyes looking upon her people from a high dais of marble surrounded by Kremlinesque walls; I felt a momentary sense of disorientation as the squares were reminiscent more of St. Petersburg’s finest rather than anything I had ever seen in India.  In UP, our final destination was India’s oldest and holiest city: Varanasi. 

In Varanasi, I found myself floating down the Ganga watching a boat man next to me. His dark brown arms were thin yet muscular and as he bent low over the boat’s edge, the thin sinews in his forearms pulsed forwards and backwards in rhythm with the rocking boat making time with the motion of his arms.  He scooped the water of the Ganga into his cupped palms. He raised his hands to his closed eyelids and then poured the liquid over his head in a solemn act of prayer, allowing the muddy brown water to run in little rivulets down his bare face, chest and arms. His skin glistened in patches in the morning sun, distinguishing parts of his chest touched by the Ganga from the parts left dusty and grimy. The serenity of the moment passed as quickly as the water evaporated from his skin. Suddenly without blinking an eye, he blew his nose loudly with his index finger and thumb pressed firmly forcing a powerful discharge of liquid from his nose. And with a rapid thrust of his hand, the by-products of his nose, landed directly into the river.  The sun was strong in the distance illuminating the snot that bubbled on the surface for a moment before disappearing into the depths of the river.  To the left of the boat man, at the steps of a crumbling crematorium, stood a horde of men laying flowers one by one over a dead body floating at the banks of the river on a bamboo raft meant to hold the body aloft and erect as the final rites were said over her wasted, decaying figure.  The feet of the body were visible, toes bloated graying and bluish underneath a thin cotton cloth already wet with the lapping of the river’s waters on the bobbing raft. The feet had the distinct feminine features of a woman yet the broad shouldered body resembled that of a man. It was clear that deep into death the human body’s distinguishing characteristics quickly begin to dissipate.

As I watched the men rapidly placing flowers, I could not distinguish who was family and who was merely performing a task for his daily wage.  All wore somber faces and shabby dhotis and kurtas.  All were men.  I learned later that women were not allowed to enter the crematoriums of Varanasi.  Only Punjabi women could come as far as the entrance but had to remain outside as only their men could perform the last parting rites for their dead.  To cremate your dead in Varanasi, to the whims of Mother Ganga, is considered a sacred rite in Hinduism.  That morning, we had all gathered along the river together: the boat man and his morning rituals, the corpse waiting to be released from the land of the living, and I struggling to understand the connections between the sacred and the profane.  I left UP later that day for West Bengal, the state from which the Ganga flowed out of India into Bangladesh. 

Three days later, I sat on the tired steps of the Bharo Mandir ghat in Kolkata, on the banks of the river Hooghly, one of the many tributaries of the Ganga. The river ran muddy brown and green before me.  The swirling, sandy waters flowed swiftly through several pairs of dark brown legs, barely noticing the eager bathers performing the motions of their morning routine.  Bright blue bars of soap were rubbed vigorously making white concentric circles on the skeletal frames of the bathers.  Wet empty bags of rice floated by the bathers, unnoticed and unclaimed, as if they were part of the river’s flora.  The day sweltered, the humidity causing beads of sweat to form at the edge of my nose and drip relentlessly onto my unsuspecting T-shirt.  The air was thick and moist, shimmering in points where the sun touched the water.

The steps leading to the river were blue or had been several years ago, now the dusty paint peeled in chunks exposing the not-so flattering concrete underneath.  Behind me were several intricate large terra-cotta structures with decorated plinths, and arched doorways that housed the Hindu Gods of this mandir. The morning pooja had not yet begun and the priests with their crisply starched white dhotis, smelling of sandalwood were busy muttering mantras while preparing for the daily prayers.  Several pairs of feet crisscrossed the stairs, moving swiftly up and down around me.  Some were eager to get into the water and cleanse, others breathing the heavy air through their wet nostrils had just emerged from their bath.  The mood was congenial with laughter, daily news reports, local gossip and knowing glances at neighbors that had been bathing alongside each other for generations. The river was their place to gather, a place for sharing little moments of togetherness, alongside the mundane rituals of daily bathing.  When the commotion began, many conversations of so-and-so’s husband or that one’s daughter’s wedding hardly skipped an intonating hand gesture and even the constant scrubbing of the bathers indulging in the waters supposed cleansing qualities barely slowed.  The old man’s frail body did injustice to the power of his vocal cords as his voice rose above the din of surrounding Kolkata’s irate honks and aggressive shouts.  He, built like a boxer, was short and stocky, his skin the darkest of browns, his muscles were sinewy and his buttocks concealed with a drab gingham red and white cloth loosely wrapped around his waist.  I had turned my head in surprise at the sounds that came from his diaphragm. 

Fists clenched, teeth bared, he shouted “ Ma Ganga, Ma Ganga” at the top of his lungs. The object of his anger was a tall, gangly, fisherwoman who stood facing him.  Her thin arms, covered in multi-colored bracelets, were folded at her waist as she stared him down with a smirk.  As his shouting increased in tempo, her smile grew in width.  I watched them both from above as if from the box seats at the Opera.  His fury had been aroused when his intentions were questioned.  She chided him for the way he had stooped to collect the swirling muddy water of the Hooghly into large two liter Pepsi and Sprite bottles.  His intentions, it seemed, was to sell the liquid captured in the bottles to tourists as holy relics. The water served as the equivalent of the cheap, plastic, miniature likenesses of divine deities that are often sold on the path to famous temples all over India.  Only this was Ganga Jal, the holiest of tourist trinkets. The man began pacing back and forth on the edge of the ghat in short but assertive strides.  As he waved his arms in giant sweeping arcs around his body, he continued shouting allegiance to the river long after the fisherwoman had turned away from him.  As I turned my back on the river to walk back to our waiting car I heard him break out into song. His voice, deep and raspy, resonated through the cool chambers of the mandir.  The song was a Bengali lament for Ganga who, according to the song, was dying from the sins of humanity. 

After three weeks of traveling, upstream to downstream, North to South, from azure blue to muddy brown, I was no closer to a conclusion about this river.  Everything remained unclear except one thing. That from Gangotri to Ganga Sagar the contradictions of India are reflected on the river. The Ganga, a river used as a latrine and cemetery upstream, serves as a bathtub and temple downstream.    The freedom to defecate at this sacred site is a measure of a man’s poverty and the freedom to drink from this water a measure of his faith. And so, the Ganga becomes both: a symbol of India’s spirituality and her poverty in equal measure.

Teacups in Patna

•September 9, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Patna, India

 “Passengers for Patna only, Patna only” shrieked the woman in a glaring orange sari to a bleary eyed crowd of passengers waiting to board the IC 409 flight from Delhi to Patna. It was 6 am on a muggy day in August. This was my trip home to Bihar.

Arriving at the familiar Jai Prakash Narayan airport in Patna, I thought of the different versions of me this airport had witnessed.  As a petrified child with little fists clenched onto the trailing cotton ends of my grandmother’s sari boarding my first international flight. Years later, returned as an “I’m way too cool for this” teenager from NY looking down my nose at the chaotic mess of India’s backwaters. And now, with an English boss at my side, a young, ambitious development professional determined to make a difference in a place where differences divide rather than unite. 

I walked into the baggage claim section; it was dimly lit with flickering fluorescent light bulbs and large photographs of the Buddha welcoming tourists to Bihar. My head swiveled as if by habit or memory to look around in anticipation for my grandfather’s dark wrinkled face peering excitedly at me from behind his round spectacles. Where my grandfather would have waited the familiar face of a stranger, a small brown man in a white hat with an eager to please smile and reluctantly white uniform stood waiting.  Where my ears would have picked up the sounds of my grandfather calling my name, my eyes only found a placard displaying my name on it.

We drove away from the airport seated in white Innova mini-vans, sent to us courtesy of the Hotel Maurya.  As we drove on new roads, evidence of Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar’s, policy to strengthen Bihar’s sagging road networks, I listened attentively to the “just arrived” observations of Patna by my colleagues. It was strange to experience a place so familiar through the eyes of strangers; it was akin to the sensation of running into an estranged lover after several years. I noticed, just as they did, the remnants of this city’s colonial past in the buildings that lined the streets. Frozen bits of history jumped out at us in the timeless majesty of the Patna Women’s College, an ancient gothic style building built by a famous French architect in 1940.  I saw that parts of the city were flooded, road ways water logged after the monsoon rains of July, and thought that this was evidence of how much work we had to do.  I gazed at the trees we passed, gnarled and sweeping Banyans, some with holy red thread tied around their trunks.  Recognizing their age, I wondered what events they had witnessed and the men and women that had come and gone under the shade of these mighty relics.  The city reminded me of my own insignificance as I compared my birth to the antiquity of the civilizations that had risen and fallen in this place, generation after generation. 

Several days and several cups of Government chai later, I stood outside on the front steps of the Secretariat for Urban Development, an ancient Bihar Sarkar establishment. I was on the phone, grappling with travel agents attempting to coordinate a team of fifteen and our movements from one state to another.  While I shot short punchy statements in my pretend Hindi accent hoping the specific instructions would be understood from the static on the other line, my team and those leading them were rushed into an unknown meeting room faster than my distracted mind could keep up.  I looked up from the phone call to find myself in a large open foyer with a set of stairs to my left and government peons milling in a dilapidated corridor rising long and forlorn before me.  Having lost sight of my colleagues, suddenly I was all alone in what seemed to be the heart of Bihar’s bureaucratic jungle.  I had no map in front of me and no way of seeing which corridor of countless unmarked rooms was the right one.  My head moved left and then right, my eyes traveling down dark, unwelcoming hallways hoping to glimpse the back of a familiar shirt or hand bag, anything that would link me back to the comfort of the reality I had come from.  I was lost within seconds of being escorted into a place in which I clearly did not belong. As I began taking tentative steps down the hall, I examined the tall, heavy front doors of the offices; they all had name plates in oxidized bronze declaring the names of the bureaucratic bosses within.  

The smell of urine punctured my nose as I walked the dark, dimly lit corridor with peeling walls peppered and splotched with red spit stains from betel juice: the mouthwash of the Indian bureaucrat.  I passed a tall, wooden shelf filled with dirty white, porcelain toilets piled high outside a stinking muddy bathroom.   The floor was wet and muddy in certain places outside bathrooms or where water coolers leaked their contents out onto never swept floors.  I pulled up my trousers treading gingerly from islands of puddle to dust and back again.  The furniture looked as dejected as the elderly employees shuffling from room to room.  One woman with thick, gray, acetate frames in a faded sari, wilted shawl and greasy gray hair sat in one of Bihar’s iconic chairs, it was oddly square shaped, dark and wooden, with white mesh serving as the seat covering.  She stared at my unfamiliar figure staring quizzically back at her. We both wondered silently what the other was doing in that place at that moment. To her I must have been as out of place as a white rabbit with a waistcoat and a stop watch.  I passed her wordlessly and she too soon lost interest for a more entertaining view of a mouse that had scuttled beneath her chair.  I, too overwhelmed by the odor of disorder, couldn’t open my mouth and ask if she knew where my colleagues could have gone. 

Someone else picked up on my sense of bewilderment. I was directed wordlessly by a stranger, the man pointed towards another flight of stairs.  Somehow I knew that he knew who I was looking for and trusted the direction of his index finger.  I climbed the wide, broad, wooden staircase leading me to a floor identical in disarray but different in signage.  My rudimentary Hindi reading of the signs told me I had arrived on the floor of some sort of science department.  There were marked photographs of centipedes and other many legged creatures with detailed descriptions of their body parts on the wall facing me as I stepped onto the floor.  I swallowed the urge to run when I saw another long corridor equal in decorative splashes of betel juice and multiple unopened doors of unknown offices.  Differently dressed desk clerks, peons, elderly women in sagging saris again did their slow, voiceless, shuffle.  Eyes were glazed and finger nails filled with dirt.  The tube lighting that hung over my head gave the place a shade of violent blue, making the feeling of stagnation electric. 

I didn’t know what else to do except to keep walking, as the man with the index finger had long abandoned me. Through the dimness I could make out subtle differences of the décor on this floor.  I passed tall stacks of moldy paper falling lazily out of thin, cracked folders piled high on wide wooden desks.  I saw a room full of cubicles with hunched heads bent low placing red tape with care on more and more stacks of files and folders.  Then I spotted it, something that stood out from the shades of decrepit brown, sewage green, and dull orange. It was a cardboard box full of neat rows of shiny, bright white, porcelain teacups with tiny pink flowers on their bosoms placed on a table outside a closed door.  The room within was being served tea in the finest white china cups.  This must be my room, I thought. 

A short diminutive gray haired head popped out of the room and said, “Oh madam, this way, this way. Hurry!”  I had to forcefully suppress the urge to embrace him for his timeliness and his urgency.  Instead I gave him a toothy grin far too familiar for his taste, I realized, as my gesture was greeted with wide-eyed confusion.  I was escorted inside, where several dark heads turned to stare as I was ushered into a plush red velvet room bearing the large face of Gandhi.  I saw my colleagues, seated in an oval row. Some shot me quizzical glances in between their attentive audience to the Principal Secretary of Urban Development, the top dog of the filth and decay I had just witnessed outside.  As I seated myself in one of the empty chairs, the Secretary spoke with that familiar sing song lilt so natural to Biharis.

“We are ready to put in place the changes necessary to turn Bihar into a world class state”.   He spoke with exaggerated confidence as several aides behind him moved their heads left and right in unison. “The problem in Bihar is not lack of know how or talent, in fact, we already have  everything it takes to implement large-scale investments within months.  We just need the money”.

As he spoke he leaned forward, looked directly into the eyes of my English boss with eyebrows raised. His pudgy bejeweled finger probed the table forcefully at every word. “We have given you the list of priority investments that need to be funded immediately and we suggest you treat this with the utmost urgency.  Time, my good friend, is of the essence”.  Bihar’s glory had lasted for hundreds of years and in the span of twenty it had become a stellar case study in failed states under the twin rule of corruption and extortion.  The meeting ended with smiles, firm hand shakes, papers exchanged and promises to deliver reinforced.  Everybody knew that there was no deal. 

Later that night, in a cramped hotel room, we met in private. As I watched a tiny cockroach struggle to climb the wall, I listened to my colleagues barely contain their derision of the spectacle we had witnessed.  “They weren’t even prepared with the data we had requested” they complained. Others spoke at length of lack of political commitment and poor capacity of the technical agencies that would be flooded with large sums of money to rebuild Bihar’s water logged roads, broken bridges, and faulty irrigation canals.  In a moment of awkward silence, a colleague turned to me and asked, “So does it feel good to be back?” as he patted my shoulder in what could have been pity.  I listened solemnly, nodding my head in agreement outwardly and feeling the sting of shame within.  In principle I agreed but to hear their criticisms, their lack of faith in my birthplace forced my defenses to rise in revolt.  I squirmed at their dismissal that Bihar would never change and felt the resentment of the thousands of Biharis who were tired of defending their state against her naysayers and critics. 

I sat back and let the discussions drone on. I was acutely aware of the passage of time, of time within me.  Time had brought me back to a place I had left when I was an infant. Patna and myself – the years in between had somehow conspired to ensure that our paths would again cross, the journey slow, progress stilted but assuredly moving ahead – like navigating through the old city’s choking streets.

Fog of Growth

•March 30, 2010 • Leave a Comment

New Delhi, India

This year India’s 60th Republic Day celebration, unlike most years, was different. The capital city, New Delhi, lay shrouded in a dense blanket of fog, leaving a muted somberness in its wake. White, misty cloudlike formations hung low and thick, muffling grand speeches, dimming the brightness of the parade, and softening the sharpness of tight-lipped military salutes. Onlookers were forced to use more imagination than sense to celebrate India at sixty.

Sixty years into her birth, India can confidently boast her status as a growing world power. The mantra of growth and India, particularly of its economic might, has been championed by prominent political pundits, leading party members, and thought leaders around the globe. Turbaned heads held high have declared the end of once laggard India’s infamous “Hindu rate of growth” and the start of a new era: India shining. Camera spot lights glisten off the chrome on tall towers, Bollywood blockbusters pick up the sounds of blaring honks on sprawling national highways, and well groomed lips pay service to seductive stories of growth. India, it seems, is bulldozing its way to success despite the plague of pollution and poverty.

I, too, seduced by these tales of growth, returned to India to become a part of her development. My years here have produced a collection of experiences: some beautiful, some shocking, a few exhausting. I learned that India is not incredible for its glamorous moments alone, but for those moments that frustrate, sadden, and anger. And it is in those moments, the truth of what actually grows and what remains stagnant becomes evident. From moment to moment, these experiences have become a collection of eye witness testimonies of the reality of growth that is happening in India today. The truth is that while India grows in balance sheets and bank accounts there is limited growth within – within the mindsets of the citizens of this country. While towers rise vertically and roads grow horizontally, responsibility remains suspended; responsibility to each other, to goods publicly owned, to land, to water, from the in to the out caste, and from the very touchable to the untouchable. As growth in India creates opportunities economically, materially, and technologically the psyche of India’s people seems frozen. Ambition and motivation are still shackled by the roles of caste and the inevitability of fate; piles of trash still go unseen; young feet, barefoot, still run to beg; the poor vote yet their voices remain mute when promises go unfulfilled, rivers flow filthy and public spaces remain ignored. I have retold some of my own stories; as evidence that illustrates both the elements of change and the elements of stagnation in India today.

Several months ago I was late for a meeting. I jumped into the first auto rickshaw that stopped at the raise of my arm. I asked him the fare and by his response knew that he was overcharging. I was running so behind schedule, even for Indian Standard Time that I decided to haggle en route. I asked him, as I sat in his rumbling green and yellow three-wheeler with the torn plastic red seat and the rusty railings, why he was charging ten rupees more than he should. I expected him to argue with the usual complaints about traffic and the length of the distance. What I heard was the resignation in his voice, instead of the malice of swindling I expected. He told me his auto cost him four lakhs and he had to pay bills. I thought for a moment and then informed him that cars were now available for only one lakh. His response, lacking in curiosity, was, “What is a car to me, madam? What would a poor, uneducated man like me do with a car, madam?” How about a better job I countered. With confidence, he said, “No! No! Meri kismet mai yeh sabh nahin hai”. Convinced that cars, opportunities, new wealth, were not circumstances in his fate; he quietly deposited me at my destination. I paid him the extra ten and walked away.

Last winter, my students told me stories that left me with a permanent chill. I started volunteering to teach English to young children of families who reside in labor camps around Delhi. Soon these young, bright minds became as close as family. One day they came to class with eyes downcast and their usually unstoppable laughter subdued. They sat in a circle on the dusty floor of our classroom, surrounding me with their somber voices, retelling the story of the breaking of their homes. I learned that years ago labor camps had come up throughout the city around construction sites. When the work dried up, the camps continued, families thrived and generations grew. Over thirty years these camps housed hundreds of families under bridges, between flyovers, and behind markets where the naked eyes of the rich do not wander. Water, though illegal, flowed from leaky taps. Electricity was bought, ration cards doled out, and voter identification cards assigned. Then the Government of Delhi, with ambitions to make the capital into a world class city ready to host world class games, became hungry for land. The camps, previously unnoticed by the city’s municipal corporations, except during bill collection time fell victim to the need for world class parking spaces. Overnight, orders materialized in the shape of white, square notices nailed to large poles. The residents, my students and their parents, illegal squatters with no land rights, unskilled and unrepresented, had no claims to the land under Indian rule of law. My kids, along with their neighbors, were suddenly homeless in a matter of days. A lucky few were relocated by choice to a sprawling new slum jungle forty kilometers outside Delhi into plots thirty six square yards in size. The rest of the families scattered and moved on looking for new homes in new neighborhoods that would take them in. The children recounted their tales in broken English, which was not nearly as heartbreaking as the breaking of their unfulfilled dreams. For weeks I combed the newspapers, hoping to find someone who questioned such acts, instead I found stories that chided Delhi for not completing the works for the Commonwealth games in time.

This spring as I sat in a spacious and plush hall listening to a conference on water sustainability in India. The speakers, all Indian, all adorned in various shades of crisp white, were masters in their fields of public policy, business, investment, and social science. One of them, a man bearded and spectacled, rose from his seat as the microphone was passed to his eager fingers. “In India”, he paused, “mass defecation remains a matter of national pride”. The audience sniggered in response as he continued to rail against the government’s inability to provide reliable, clean and consistent supply of drinking water to its masses. Throughout the conference the government was chastised for inaction on several fronts. Recommendations for more institutions and better policies were called upon inside the gleaming walls of the Taj hotel, while outside the rivers Yamuna and Ganga continued flowing bearing the sins of both leaky sewage pipes and mass defecators. The Ganga is India’s holiest river. Nobody questions the river’s spirituality but neither do the defecators question their acts. Legal measures are available, to prevent such acts, like cheap purses, no one takes them seriously. Community toilets and awareness campaigns sprout up throughout the country yet make no lasting changes in behavior. When communities do not know the consequences of their daily rituals, who is to blame? The lawmakers and the politicians or the people themselves? Scientists say that the fecal coliform in the Ganga continues to multiply from the hazardous to the absurd yet little boys in slums learn from a young age that the only place they can release the pain in their bellies is in the storm water drains outside their homes. He has watched his father and mother do the same for years. The stench alone of the sewage that seeps daily into the Ganga’s sacred waters is enough to prohibit human bathing and make consumption of vegetables irrigated by these waters unthinkable. Yet we, unthinking, consume the fruits of these labors every day. And those without an alternative option, without the confidence to demand better, continue to use the same water to both defecate and to pray.

For each story I have told, there are hundreds of stories throughout India that lend hope; hope of a change that is more than numeric and deeper than cosmetic. The top CEOs of major Banks throughout India are all female and have gained prominence not because of who their fathers were or who their husband is. Farmers in India are convincing their daughters to apply to engineering and medical colleges before they get married. In the natural process of development, experts say, Indians will eventually learn civic responsibility and demand more from their politicians while denying their demands for bribes. But is it enough to merely accept that eventually circumstances may change? That eventually Indians will care more for their forests and their rivers than they care for their cars, that eventually the downtrodden will feel empowered to dream the dreams of the rich. Ironically, a Chinese proverb says it best. “If we don’t change the direction we are headed, we will end up where we are going”. So what do we make of all this? Is India becoming the global superpower she craves to be? Is growth of wallet sustainable without awareness within? My guess is that the verdict, shrouded in thick fog, is still out.

Teenage Angst in India

•March 8, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Over meals with relatives, I listened to the chatter of my young cousins. They spoke to me of studying, studying to pass yet another entrance examination, to attend IIT, to one day hold the title of engineer or doctor. They did not, however, speak of big fluffy dreams but obligations to fulfill, the wishes of fathers and grandfathers. They seemed to shrug the dreams of fashion designers, wildlife photographers or novelists. Driven by jobs, their parents were constantly fretting over their grades. Instead of their grades, it was usually quotas that dictate who is in and who is out. Favorites are predetermined as are the number of places reserved for the who’s who. They pore over theorem after theorem and learn to calculate formulas in their heads at speeds that surpass the time it takes me to punch the figures into a calculator. Paint brushes and calligraphy pens were long discarded for calculators and graph paper when it was time to get serious. In the classroom they never question, never object, or raise a voice in opposition. Debate is underappreciated and scolding feared. Questions still arise in curious minds and are often left without answers. Why did they burn that mosque? Why can’t I marry a boy from Pakistan? Why can’t we talk about sex in our classrooms? Stories of mental disease and preferences of sexuality are left for the back of the nightclub, rather than the back of the family couch. They spend more time at home but less time with their families, trapped by the freedom of social networking sites. Their adolescent angst logged in to virtual worlds creating safe spaces for expressions suppressed in the flesh.

Browness and Bhangra

•July 24, 2009 • Leave a Comment

July 25, 2009 Op-Ed Contributor




It was our first date, and because this is India we discussed our grandparents. We didn’t start with our careers or our apartments or our favorite movie. No: We began with the past. I told him about nana’s enlistment in Gandhi’s movement, and he recalled his grandfather bearing a shotgun to protect his family during the anti-Sikh riots. This was a first date with a man from India — with a man from a place familiar and estranged to me. The place of my birth. I grew up in the suburbs of America in the ’80s and ’90s, when brown was less than cool. In the days when my mother would pull up to school in her car with Bollywood beats blaring, the kids would stare and I would wish for invisibility. When the only guy who asked me to the homecoming dance was a shy and pimply Indian kid from biology class, I stayed home. When my parents discussed arranged marriage with a “suitable doctor boy” from India, I ran. And so, the days of my teenage angst were spent squirming in my Indian skin. Years later, I returned to the old country in the pursuit of a new career. We discovered each other several years after my arrival. He was born and raised in Delhi but had left India for the rigors of an American education. He came back as an Indian adult with a sharp American twang to his English. It was this sound that caught my ears as we were introduced. At first I protested when he insisted on picking me up, knowing he would sit through maddening traffic of blaring horns from public buses, three-wheel auto-rickshaws and lounging cows to get to my door. “I can just as easily meet you there,” I would persist. He would always be outside by eight. At dinners my attempts to pay were thwarted every time. His adherence to the outdated customs of chivalry were new for me. But I grew to relish his Indian need to serve and protect. Hindi, for me the language of haggling and childhood scoldings, took on a fresh warmth and sexiness. Words once mundane such as “pyaas” (thirst), “dil” (heart), and “zindagi” (life), became beautiful when communicated through the emotive intimacy of Hindi. In true Indian fashion, I met his family for the first time at a wedding. Amid the bright throbbing lights with shoulders shaking to bhangra, the tightness of his circle loosened for a moment and let me in. His sister turned to me, reached for my hand and pulled me on the dance floor. In that moment, I felt belonging. Eventually, these magical moments lost their dazzle, and revealed something darker. I realized that sharing brownness and bhangra with him would not be enough. On the surface, with my Indian skin and my Indian hair, we were exactly the same. But with time, as he became more Indian, I learned I had a long way to go. When I took too long on a buffet line, he was furious for having been left to eat alone. I couldn’t understand at first, but then it hit me: In India, solitude is feared more than anything else. Another time, when I surprised him with a homemade picnic, he agreed reluctantly and then left early. His parents needed him at home. For him, family obligations came first. The ladder of his priorities was long and I, the newcomer, found myself on the bottom rung. But it was from that vantage point that I grew up. Underneath his modern American clothes, his American degree and his American accent, I discovered the beauty of an ancient Indian hierarchy that could not be taken off — of kinship, of family, of honor among men, of the traditions. In his world, the needs of the dozen always override the needs of two. And with that, I uncovered, what I had never really understood. India is a place where love of tribe trumps romance-novel love. Where heritage is still sacred and change skin deep. Where the sights, sounds, smells of Western modernity are mimicked, perfectly, as if Indians were characters on a Hollywood movie set. But when the lights go down and the costumes come off, India is exactly the same — just as she always was. A place, held together, by the kind of human bonds that last.

Back to Bihar

•May 7, 2009 • Leave a Comment

May 8, 2009

Back to Bihar


PATNA, INDIA — It’s 1987 and I am to leave Bihar; the place where I
was born in 1981. It’s the bleakest state in a country with more
poverty than anywhere else. Before my departure my tearyfaced
grandfather squeezes my shoulders and tells me never to forget my
roots. I turn around and go, hoping never to look back.

We settled in Manhattan, where there were three degrees of punishment
for bad behavior. “No more TV” and “go to your room” were acceptable.
But the third left cold terror in my heart. It was the threat to be
sent back to Bihar. Old visions would fill my head — of potholed roads
teeming with animals, of pus oozing from the sores on my legs from
dozens of mosquito bites.

I knew even then that Bihar was a place meant to be deserted — a place
to acknowledge only when absolutely compelled.

Nearly two decades later, in a classroom at the London School of
Economics, I watched a British economist present slides of growth
trajectories of India’s states. All showed positive growth — all but
one, Bihar. The economist dwelled on Bihar’s lack of development. He
told stories of a place of such hopelessness that my classmates
laughed in disbelief. I joined in, but the laughter stuck in my

He asked if anyone had visited India. I raised a timid hand and said
that I was from Bihar. He raised his eyebrows and said, “Well, it’s a
good thing you know very little of the place.”

The truth stung. Bihar, like India, had become a stranger to me
despite my grandfather’s warning. Something deeper than pride stirred.
I knew it was time to return to India and experience the country for

My family was incredulous. Why punish yourself, they asked.

I ended up in Delhi working in the field of development. Eventually my
work took me to Bihar. I arrived in the guise of an expert in
socio-economic makeovers, not as a daughter of the soil. But something
had changed.

Distance and circumstance had given me new lenses. The frequent power
outages were no longer a reason to play on the roof, but a sign that
growth was being stifled. Seeing pedestrians being splashed on the
flooded streets no longer amused me; instead it was evidence of choked
drainage systems that had flooded the region. I learned that millions
of the poorest had lost their homes. Given little choice, they left,
pouring into the other states in search of work.

These facts stoked feelings of ownership and detachment in equal
measure. I felt guilty for escaping, and thankful that I had escaped.

I came to Bihar again some days ago, on the eve of India’s elections.
I imagined I would witness the processes of democracy unfold. I
expected hard questions to be asked of politicians and solutions
demanded. Instead, I discovered acceptance and desperation: The rich
not voting, the poor in revolt. Rule by the people has significance
only when the people have enough to fulfill basic needs.

India moves forward; Bihar falls back. And I fear that there is
nothing I can do. My voice means nothing here. Like the flood victims,
the landless laborers and the educated elite, I left — left so that I
would not be snared by the immemorial Bihari fate: a life of
resignation and silence.

The consequence weighs heavy on my mind. I saved myself, and so became
yet another person who cannot not save Bihar.


Ranu Sinha is a water specialist at an international development organization.