India Uncut

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Friday, July 07, 2006

Mumbai, New York and economic development

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Abheek Bhattacharya expresses his agreement with the survey that found Mumbai lacking in politeness (and that I'd blogged about here) and says that there is one key reason for this: economic development. He compares Mumbai to New York, but not to the New York of today, as it has become oddly fashionable to do, but to the New York of a century ago. He writes:
... Mumbai today is probably a good approximation of New York, London or Paris in the late 19th century. New York then was an immigrant hotbed, teeming with Italians who formed gangs and Irish who acted as cogs in that giant political machine, Tammany Hall. Victorian London calls to mind those Dickensian pickpockets. Post-revolutionary Paris was a magnet for poor immigrants from the countryside who transformed a grand city into a slum.

Today, Mumbai houses Asia's largest slum; it also draws thousands of poor villagers from elsewhere in India, people trying to escape drought and starvation. So when my nostrils are assaulted by the stench of certain neighborhoods, or when I am pushed out of line while climbing onto a bus, I find solace knowing that New Yorkers were used to similar sniffs when Teddy Roosevelt was their police commissioner.

I expect things will improve in Mumbai the way they have in New York.
It is not just in the context of politeness that he has a point, but also in that of pollution. Bjorn Lomborg, writer of the seminal book, "The Skeptical Environmentalist," had once written in the Economist:
Many analyses show that air pollution diminishes when a society becomes rich enough to be able to afford to be concerned about the environment. For London, the city for which the best data are available, air pollution peaked around 1890 (see chart 2). Today, the air is cleaner than it has been since 1585. There is good reason to believe that this general picture holds true for all developed countries. And, although air pollution is increasing in many developing countries, they are merely replicating the development of the industrialised countries. When they grow sufficiently rich they, too, will start to reduce their air pollution.
I'm more perturbed with the pollution than the politeness, and I agree with Lomborg that economic growth will make things better. But it's coming too damn slow, because despite our so-called liberalisation, the wrong, paternalistic economic policies are still being followed in our country. Industrial pollution can be tackled, but intellectual pollution creates dangerous vicious cycles of its own, and stifles thought, and growth. I am often outspoken on our need for freer markets, but to enable that, we first need to shrug aside received wisdom, and free our minds.
amit varma, 10:54 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage

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