Spreading the wealth across India

May 21, 2004|By Thomas L. Friedman

WASHINGTON -- India just had a stunning election, with incumbents across the country thrown out, largely by rural voters. Clearly, rural Indians, who make up the country's majority, were telling the cities and the government that they were not happy with the direction of events.

I think I can explain what happened, but first I have to tell you about this wild typing race I recently had with an 8-year-old Indian girl at a village school.

The Shanti Bhavan school sits on a once-scorpion-infested bluff about an hour's drive -- and 10 centuries -- from Bangalore, India's Silicon Valley. The students are all "untouchables," the lowest caste in India, who are not supposed to even get near Indians of a higher caste for fear they will pollute the air others breathe.

The Shanti Bhavan school, with 160 students, was started by Abraham George, one of those brainy Indians who made it big in high-tech America and came back to India with a single mission: to start a privately financed boarding school that would take India's most-deprived children and prove that if you give them access to the same technologies and education that have enabled other Indians to thrive in globalization, they could, too.

I visited Mr. George's school in February, and he took me to a classroom where 8-year-old untouchables were learning to use Microsoft Word and Excel. They were having their computer speed-typing lesson, so I challenged the fastest typist to a race. She left me in the dust -- to the cheering delight of her classmates.

"Dust" is an appropriate word, because a drought in this area of southern India has left dust everywhere. "These kids -- their parents are rag pickers, coolies and quarry laborers," said the school's principal, Lalita Law. "We get these children at age 4. They don't know what it is to have a drink of clean water [or use a toilet]. ... They don't even have proper scraps of clothing. We have to start by socializing them. When we first get them, they run out and urinate and defecate wherever they want. [At first] we don't make them sleep on beds because it is a culture shock.

"Our goal is to give them a world-class education so they can aspire to careers and professions that would have been totally beyond their reach, and have been so for generations."

After our little typing race, I asked the 8-year-olds what they wanted to be. Their answers were: "an astronaut," "a doctor," "a pediatrician," "a poet," "physics and chemistry," "a scientist and an astronaut," "a surgeon," "a detective," "an author." Looking at these kids, Mr. George said, "They are the ones who have to do well for India to succeed."

And that brings us to the lesson of India's election: The broad globalization strategy that India opted for in the early 1990s has succeeded in unlocking the country's incredible brainpower and stimulating sustained growth, which is the best anti-poverty program.

But the key to spreading the benefits of globalization across a big society is not about more Internet. It is about getting your fundamentals right: good governance, good education. India's problem is not too much globalization, but too little good governance.

Local government in India -- basic democracy -- is so unresponsive and so corrupt it can't deliver services and education to rural Indians. As an Indian political journalist, Krishna Prasad, told me: "The average Indian voter is not saying, `No more reforms,' as the left wants to believe, but, `More reforms, please' -- genuine reforms, reforms that do not just impact the cities and towns, but ones which percolate down to the grass roots as well."

India needs a political reform revolution to go with its economic one. "With prosperity coming to a few, the great majority are simply spectators to this drama," said Mr. George. "The country is governed poorly, with corruption and heavy bureaucracy at all levels. I am a great advocate of technology and globalization, but we must find a way to channel their benefits to the rural poor. What is happening today will not succeed because we are relying on a corrupt and socially unfair system."

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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