by Lakshmi Chaudhry May 14, 2013 17:01 IST
On a recent holiday to visit a close friend in Spain, I encountered an unexpected problem. My 5-year-old refused to walk. She had no experience of navigating a city built around excellent public transport and wide boulevards. By the time we hopped on a tram and walked 5 blocks to a restaurant, she was exhausted.
She is, after all, a child of relative privilege who lives in Bangalore where anyone with some modicum of money prefers to travel by car or auto rather than jump on a bus or the in-name-only metro.
Who can blame us when even a 10-minute walk to the nearby Brigade road requires traversing unceasing waves of traffic, broken pavements riddled with potholes, and giant mounds of trash. Gone is the Bangalore of yore where children would roam at will, running down tree-lined streets to play in nearby parks. My daughter's generation enjoys many privileges -- malls, amusement parks, 24X7 television -- but walking isn't one of them.
This ought to be my cue to point my fingers at our politicians, municipal authorities, or even the aam aadmi's lack of civic sense. Hey, we are a nation of paan-spitters ruled by corrupt leaders with appalling infrastructure. All of which is trite, tested and true. But what about the wealthy? Are they no less complicit?
"Take neighborhoods like Breach Candy and Cumballa Hill, home to some of India’s richest people such as the industrialist Mukesh Ambani. Yet the sidewalks, in the rare places where they exist, are chipped, uneven and often broken, commandeered by vendors, or so filthy (covered by garbage, canine and bovine feces) as to be unusable," writes Rupa Subramanya in India Real Time. Our wealthy appear to insist on First World-level A-grade quality in every aspect of their lives except the woeful public environment -- which they treat with the same dismissive apathy as the great masses.
Take for instance a recent New York Times article detailing just how very hard it is to be "the owner of an exceedingly expensive car in India".
"The most challenging thing is the roads, because they are bumpy as hell,” complains Rishab Jain, the petulant owner of a Lamborghini Murciélago LP640 whose "low-profile tires are also prone to puncture on pitted roads, and in April, one of the hottest months, the car is undrivable for long stretches lest it overheat".
Forget walking, it's impossible to drive a humble Lamborghini around here. But that hasn't held back the likes of Jain who remain unfazed in the face of adversity. “ We've been dealt this infrastructure, but Indians are great at playing with the cards that they are dealt,” boasts an Aston Martin dealer. Hey, that's what we call jugaad, whether you're driving a super-duper sportscar or stumbling across those same potholes without the benefit of air-conditioning or, for that matter, usable pavements.
The founding editor of Robb Report's Indian edition Govind Dhar, quoted in the Times article, attributes the love for expensive cars to a new generation of the rich who have "lived or studied abroad and want to live in a more conspicuous way".
But what they don't seem to have noticed is that their wealthy peers who live abroad also care about the conditions within which they lead their "conspicuous" lives.
"In the West at least, there’s a clear correlation between per capita incomes and the quality of public goods that residents can expect. Wealthy residents here don’t seem to have much of a stake in their neighborhoods and therefore, aside from a sense of civic virtue, no real incentive to pressure municipal authorities for improvements," notes Subramanya.
She concludes, however, that it isn't fair to expect the rich to take on what is essentially the burden of the government. "Whether you like his lavish lifestyle or not, Mr. Ambani pays his taxes, so he should surely expect the authorities to do their job. Civic responsibility, like corporate social responsibility, cannot be mandated in a free society."
That sounds fair enough except I can't help that our super-rich have no compunctions in using their clout to extract public goods when it suits their convenience. The Mangeshkar sisters can block the building of a flyover because it ruins their view. Mukesh Ambani can secure his very own local police station and Z security. Or the enterprising Sunny Thakur, "the scion of a suburban family influential in politics and real estate — and, according to press reports, the underworld" who had his uncle, "an influential politician", lower the height of the speed bumps in Mumbai so his 2012 Aventador LP700-4 could clear them.
The reality is that our super-rich can and do intervene to shape public infrastructure, but only when it most narrowly benefits them. One reason for this blinkered attitude is an absence of civic virtue which they share with the rest of their fellow citizens.
The hotshot chucking a coke can out of a BMW is no different than the maid who throws her garbage on the street. We are culturally inclined to only tend to what is defined as our own: our home, our car, our family. We have no investment in anything shared or public.
Another is the luxury of opting out. Why worry about roads in Mumbai or Bangalore or Delhi when you can hop on a plane at whim and stroll the streets of Paris. And closer home, there is the ever-present air-conditioned bubble of luxury to keep the filthy, broken down, overheated streets at bay. In fact, the filth outside is in some ways all the more gratifying because it underlines the sense of privilege. Insulation becomes the ultimate marker of status. There is no greater indicator of wealth in our nation than the fact that you never, ever need to walk anywhere.
My little girl is in excellent company - and all the poorer for it.
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