Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Between seeing and observing!

The best bet to know a place well is to be alone and get lost! Not always recommended. But if you would like to know your own place better, take a foreigner around with you and wonder anew at his observations.

Expositions of Indian entrance examination subjects in newspapers is old hat for us. You find them in the Telegraph, an English newspaper in Kolkata; Eenadu in Andhra; and quite a few other vernacular newspapers as well. Contrast that with near-tutorial renditions of the GRE in US newspapers. Nil! Why does it happen, interesting to think about! Read what Nicholas D Kristof of the New York Times has to say on this.

One of India's (and China's) greatest strengths is its hunger for education. Most American newspapers lure readers with comics, and some British tabloids with photos of topless women, but a Calcutta daily newspaper is so shameless that it publishes a column on math equations. Imagine titillating readers with trigonometry!

I visited the ramshackle Hasi Khusi Kindergarten and Primary School in a poor area of Calcutta, where most of the pupils' parents are illiterate street vendors, rickshaw drivers or laborers. Out of an average family income of $23 a month, the parents pay a one-time fee of $13 for registration and then $2.30 a month.

"What they didn't get, their children must get," explained the principal, Sampa Sarkar. Even kindergartners study English, Bengali, math, art and music - and do 30 minutes of homework. Private schools like this one are booming all across the country. (Mercatus had previously harped on this.)

With India's ever-deepening pool of English speakers, its outsourcing boom will continue. Your next employment contract may be prepared by an Indian law firm, your mutual fund advised by Indian analysts - and if you need elective surgery, you may get it at a luxurious Indian hospital that will let foreigners combine their medical care with a recuperative vacation in Agra or Goa.

The rest of the article is pasted at the end for further reference, and it is about the theme of development in India and China. Good summary, but doesn't say anything new.

Nevertheless, continuing on the thread of the "see anew" theme, do peruse through Michael Higgin's post on Why they are doing it that way, which looks at the labour methods ofsix workers trying to remove the sod from about 400 square feet of lawn.

My unresolved one is, why do some nations like the US and Europe use tissue paper (for you know what), and some nations like India don't?

The reminder of the New York Times article.

India has a solid financial system, while China's banking system is a catastrophe. And India is in better shape demographically for long-term growth: China has already reaped most of the economic benefits of population control and is now rapidly aging, but India's population will be disproportionately working-age for many decades to come (a factor that strongly correlates with economic growth).

India's democracy, free press and civil society also provide a measure of political stability. Sure, India can erupt, as it did with the slaughter of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. But the risks of social and political explosions in India are declining, while in China they may be rising.

China will probably manage its eventual transition to democracy with bearable turbulence, as Taiwan and South Korea did, but with China anything is conceivable, including a coup d'├ętat, mass unrest or even civil war.

Yet if democracy is one of India's strengths, it's also a weakness. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh knows exactly what to do, and I've rarely met a leader more competent (or less charismatic). But his reforms are stalled or slowed in the Indian political labyrinth. India's basic problem is that its economic policy-making isn't nearly as shrewd, pro-growth or farsighted as China's.

That's a tragedy: we should all want India to demonstrate that democracy is an advantage. But Indian lawmakers aren't helping.

Foreigners are still blocked from directly investing in some sectors in India, like retailing. Privatization is lethargic. Food subsidies are soaring and are so inefficient that it costs 6.6 rupees to transfer 1 rupee's worth of food to the poor. Restrictive labor laws mean that companies hesitate to hire, and regulations tend to suffocate entrepreneurship.

The upshot is that India has enjoyed a boom that has added few jobs. Only about one million people work in technology, and manufacturing, which could absorb tens of millions of poor rural laborers, trails even Bangladesh. The losers are India's poor.

And while China has been exceptionally shrewd in upgrading its infrastructure, India has been pathetic. India's economic future is marred by its third-rate roads and ports.

India is also horrendously mismanaging its AIDS crisis; it may already have more H.I.V. cases than any country in the world. AIDS casts a cloud over this nation's entire future.

The bottom line is that the once-great nation of India is reawakening from several centuries of torpor, and facing less risk of a political cataclysm than China. India is poised to again be a great world power.

But over all, my bet is that China will still grow faster and win the race of the century. I'm going to tell my kids to keep studying Chinese, rather than switch to Hindi.

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