David Payne: India in Edinburgh

David Payne In the 1980s there was an eight year waiting list in India for a landline telephone. Long distance “trunk calls” had to be booked with an operator and required you to stay in all day and wait to be connnected.

Now the subcontinent is the world’s largest cellphone market, with 851.7m mobile phone subscribers. The development has revolutionised how Indians do business, both with each other and across the globe.

Shashi Tharoor, a member of India’s parliament from the Thiruvananthapuram constituency in Kerala and a former adviser to the UN Secretary General, told an Edinburgh International Festival 2011 audience that when he and a friend fancied some coconut milk to quench their thirst recently, their call was answered by a coconut picker who was up a tree at the time, and appeared moments later with their drinks.

Dr Tharoor’s lecture, part of the festival’s Continental Shift series, described India’s economic transformation in the 64 years since partition and the demise of the Raj. Jaguar cars are now manufactured by Tata Motors (India). Tata also now owns Corus, formerly British Steel.  And Bollywood-inspired Hindi soap operas are a big hit in Afghanistan, he added.

India gets talked about a lot at the BMJ Group. We have offices in India. We host BMJ Learning Masterclasses for Indian doctors, including one beamed to 1500 GPs from 50 locations. India is the fifth highest traffic source to bmj.com. Editorial colleagues travel there frequently to advise Indian doctors on how to get published.

Booking for this year’s Edinburgh Festival opened in April, a week after I’d returned from my first trip to India. While there I was struck by how even the most humble bookshops in the rickshaw-clogged streets of Old Delhi and Connaught Place are piled high with medical, business and accountancy, and IT textbooks.

But Shoma Chaudhury, managing editor of national weekly Tehelka, warned in a second Continental Shifts lecture that the country’s educational and professional focus on IT and business is at the expense of science and humanities. 

Provisional census figures published in March this year indicated a 9.2% rise in India’s literacy rates, to 74%. But Chaudhury warned that this figure doubtless include people for whom literacy means only being able to sign their own name.

Chaudhury shared a platform with her boss, Tehelka founder Tarun J Tejpal, and they discussed anti corruption campaigner Anna Hazare, who ended his 12 day hunger strike the day after the two Edinburgh lectures.

Both agreed that support for Hazare from India’s “consumerist and depoliticised” middle class (an estimated 50m people in a country of more than 1.2bn) was symptompatic of a long-held grievance that the country’s founding fathers had championed universal suffrage, severely curtailing middle class political influence. They didn’t like politicians because they couldn’t control them.

Chaudhury said Hazare’s supporters included the mother of one friend who had the equivalent of £300 000 in “black money” stashed under her bed from a recent property deal. She said their energies would have been better spent protesting about discrimination against young Muslim men and low-caste Hindus.

The two lectures were chaired by Niall Ferguson, a history and business professor at Harvard. Was the Raj all bad, he asked the three speakers. The panellists pointed to India’s independent judiciary, press freedom (now dominated by a huge electronic media presence), and the railways, of course (this caused some mirth in Edinburgh, a city that cannot complete a long-awaited tram system on time and within budget).

But Tejpal criticised high society’s insistence on an English style dress code at formal functions. Lounge suits and ties in a climate where summer temperatures routinely reach 40 degrees?

But what of English? Tejpal argued that in a country with more than 22 official languages, the ability to speak English remains a social and cultural “faultline.” Shakespeare has no relevance in India, yet he talked of friends’ labelled academic failures because they could not master the Bard at school.

David Payne is editor, bmj.com