When I was studying about 20 years ago in the UK, I had two Taiwanese flatmates. We all traded some common must-know phrases over the year that I was there—the favourite being trying to learn “I Love You”. While they tied themselves in knots trying to say that in Hindi, I practised saying hello in Chinese, grappling with “Chifanle meiyou” that, loosely translated, means “Have you eaten?” Sui Mei said that this was their common form of greeting in Taiwan. Fast forward to 2010 and when earlier this year I visited Taipei, the swish malls and shops had ushers calling out what sounded like “Ni hao”, or “Hi! how’re you?” What wealth did to citizens in Taiwan, however, went beyond just a changed greeting. After a certain level of fullness of stomach, the middle-class Taiwanese could not digest their smoke-filled, congested, filthy capital with its putrid river adding to the mess. They demanded change and got the government to turn around a ghetto into one of the smartest cities in Asia.
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The older Taipei sounds so much like Delhi today that just hearing the story of reform is a ray of hope. A dig into the histories of other major cities shows similar trends: Wealth hits a large swathe of population in a city and public opinion begins to push governments into cleaning up their act. That point, I imagine, is close at hand in India, or already begun.
Take, for example, the comments on an earlier column on how the systemic corruption and administrative failure of public institutions is beginning to prick the urban mass affluent bubble. The thread through the comments and views on the column is this: Yes, we have a problem and no, we cannot pass it off on anybody else anymore. And even more encouragingly: What can I do? The good part is that this is coming without a large, ugly event to prompt an emotional outburst, like after the Mumbai attack. It is coming out of a feeling that it is just not good enough anymore to allow the system to be run the way it is: of a feeling that personal well-being is no longer enough. Suvikas, commenting on the column (http://tinyurl.com/34m4736 ), possibly sums up the growing feeling in the urban Indian who has moved from the old Chinese greeting to the new one, and he writes: “The first thing we all need to do is, ask ourselves a few basic questions: Did I vote in the last elections? When I saw an issue with the road near my house, did I do something about it? There are so many things all of us can do, and not go searching for them. I say “Nahi chalta hai“. I am going to take a stand and DO these things. Whether anyone else does that or not.”
The absence of a defined common enemy, either colour-coded or marked out physically in any other way, makes for a shift in the strategy of the fightback. If the common enemy is a system gridlocked with individual interests coming in the way of public good, held in place by an interlocking system of corruption, then the wait for an avatar or a silver bullet will be a long one. The idea of one huge change that will clean up the system is futile. Possibly, what will work is a million small cuts that will make the system bleed to its natural death over time. The large battles are glamorous, the small ones need grit. Showing the way is septuagenarian, Narendra Ahuja, who has been battling the Delhi Development Authority, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and the New Delhi Municipal Corporation to get specific clauses in their rules amended so that registered wills do not require a no-objection certificate.
Sure, it’s not a big deal, but he is chipping away at the one thing he feels strongly about and is motivated enough to go after it, year after year. In fact, harnessing this idea—each of us has a key area in which we can individually bring about changes—a movement called What Can I Do is at the very initial stages in Delhi. The idea is to form support groups of between eight and 15 people who meet every fortnight to simply discuss their own individual areas of work. The group is just a sounding board, nothing more, no organization. Collective action means organizations. And that means funds. And then who will be president and who the treasurer. And we’re back to the problem.
If the mess around the Commonwealth Games brought out the ugly face of corruption for everybody to see, the public reaction of a largely middle-class audience at the opening ceremony gave voice to the public opinion about how we feel about corruption and those we see as responsible. The next step is for each one of us to take.
Monika Halan works in the area of financial literacy and financial intermediation policy and is a certified financial planner. She is editor, Mint Money, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org