A paradoxical hellhole

By Dev Nadkarni

In a Mumbai suburb, there’s a narrow, low-slung, subway built ages ago during colonial times that lets cars and buses cross the overhead railway lines. Every rainy season, the subway collects enough rainwater and sewage to turn into a reeking, four-foot-deep cesspool that lasts the whole monsoon. The authorities, because they have found absolutely no way to drain the filthy water, actually build a ramp over the pool to let cars and smaller vehicles pass with dangerously low headroom. This wonderful marvel of engineering deserves a place in the record books as perhaps the only subway in the world with a built-in flyover!

This subway, popularly known as the Milan Subway, is a superb instance of the amazing paradoxes and contradictions that plague India. A nation that puts satellites in space, all in a day’s work as it were, does not have a solution to a simple flooding problem that continues to inconvenience thousands of Mumbaiites throughout the monsoon season for over five decades. Look anywhere and there’s a flyover-in-a-subway kind of absurd paradox that stares you in the face: One thousand four hundred languages and dialects –yet among the largest illiteracy quotients in the world. Despite this widespread illiteracy, we have the highest number of graduates in the world but the lowest number of graduate lawmakers in our governments!

The world’s second most populous nation cannot produce a single medal hope in international sporting events. An Olympic bronze is much cause of celebration. A nation that prides itself as one of less than ten that produces its own modern cars –thanks to the Indica—also produces a smoky, polluting, door less monstrosity called the six-seater. And it allows this ancient-looking, three-wheeled anachronism to ply the roads at the turn of the millennium, when it also enforces stringent pollution control norms across the country!

The depressing paradoxes continue. India has more dollar millionaires than most countries outside the USA, yet more than 70 percent of her citizens have no access to toilets and a slightly lower percentage has no access to piped drinking water. We have the largest number of scientists in the world, yet an unscientific temper that has not changed in a millennium. We still have the highest rates of female foeticide and use the latest technologies to spot unborn girls and prevent their birth.

The pride we take in our glorious, five-thousand-year-old continuously living civilisation that we say taught the rest of the world so much, does not help in improving our position in the global corruption stakes. We rank 71st in a list of 91 countries. There’s so much more: more publications than any other country despite such low literacy; lowest computer penetration despite the highest number of software engineers; the greatest number of poor despite being the sixth largest economy in the world; A nuclear and space power that cannot provide water supply and sanitation to more than half its citizens.

This is not just a statistical nightmare. It’s as real as a hellhole can get.