This Is Nothing : One Year In India

On 2 May 2015, I delivered a narration to an audience invited by the Asia New Zealand Foundation (“the Foundation”) in Auckland, New Zealand about my experience in India so far. The Foundation, which you can learn about more here, seeks to bring New Zealand closer to Asia and is mandated also to improve the understanding of Asia among Kiwis. As a Kiwi of Indian birth, heritage and design who has bollywood and cricket running in his blood, I gave them a small snapshot of what the last year for me in India has been like. I did not have a title for this, but tentatively call it, “This is nothing”. You can watch snippets of the talk, here, and the full transcript is below.

This is nothing: One year in India

There are many ways in which I could describe what India is, to me, and for you.

An oxymoron from the day you arrive, everything is maximum and minimum, overt and covert, visible and invisible, ugly and beautiful, love and hate, at the same time, sometimes in adjoining moments.

The sound of horns and honking drives me crazy now when I walk on the road, making me want to pick up a stone and smash the windshield of the irritating guilty driver going past. In my mind I try and search for trends, try to spot patterns in the kinds of people that do this on the road. The results betray how people in India behave in “shared spaces”, there is no trend. Cutting across hierarchies, classes and brands, from Gucci to Armani to the Khaadi cotton cloth that the great Mahatma Gandhi wore, and what my cousins sells farmers in Barielly (Uttar Pradesh) – everyone disrespects, nay, disregards public spaces in India. Here, there is no trend, yet everyone is part of some trend.

The BMW 7 Series, followed by the three legged stray dog, the vegetable cart vendor, the swanky Jaguar XJ, followed by the muddy cow, each pass at their own pace, making their own unique set of noises… honking, barking, hawking, screeching, mooing, like the incessant din of a 5th day test match, post-tea session, the noise is reaching decibel levels fit for a cauldron… the Chepauk stadium in Madras is full to the brim, Kumble’s turning it and bouncing it and Bhajji is making the ball talk… take me away… take me there…

I am back on the road.

 

 

It is a dying breed the rickshaw-puller, who pedals and peddles and has no private support to help evolve his existence into relevance in the process monetizing his job further.

 

 

And I notice the rickshawallah, the cycle rickshaw 3 wheeler is being pushed into oblivion off the edge of the road by this motley crew of living and non-living organisms. With a carbon footprint of negative one hundred, fine, perhaps minus 50 with his cheroot flavoured beedi, turbaned, the rickshaw wallah driver charges me INR 30 to go from home to the metro station (about 1500 metres from each other) each morning.

It is a dying breed the rickshaw-puller, who pedals and peddles and has no private support to help evolve his existence into relevance in the process monetizing his job further. There is no Uber for rickshaws, because there is no demand for one. Heck, I fire up my iPhone on most days to call an Uber cab.

Uber – the triumph of privatization and heralded as the “disrupter” that cuts across industries and regulatory environments not yet ready for its success. The taxi unions are worried, the automobile industry is worried – to the point industry experts are predicting crashing sales for cars. In India, Uber has disrupted the rickshaw pullers daily wages and it means there are some nights where the roti is squeezed away from his plate, just as the organic and inorganic traffic squeezed him out of his country’s roads earlier in the day.

 

A rickshaw-wallah gets his sleep before a big day

 

 

A long Delhi winter

This last Delhi winter was extremely cold, a heavy pall of smog puts the sun and the moon to bed for months giving the Capital a post-apocalyptic feel where water and power shortages are the new norm and people freezing to death under a bridge is considered… ordinary.

 

 

Put the interests of the child in any dispute first and you will be OK

 

 

I hosted a friend from New Zealand, who grew up with me, same school in Auckland, same university, same law school, heck even the same classes. During family law, a particularly tough subject in the winter semester of 2008, tough not because of its content but because it was an 8am Tuesday class, Thomas had told me – “Don’t worry Rikky, I have the password for getting an A in this class”. He would not tell me the whole term what the password was, but the day before the exam came to me and said, “Rikky… the professor and the family court of NZ both always want you to think first about the children. Put the interests of the child in any dispute first and you will be OK”. It would be years until I digested this piece of advice fully.

I’d never felt colder and more alone than I was in January of this year. The pollution had me wheezing at night, I was homesick and was questioning my choice of being in a country that clearly did not care for my well-being. The combination of a steadfast personal policy against wall-heaters, given the electricity situation in Delhi and a misplaced sense of mana or pride that had me scoffing at those who gave in and chose the comfort of a heater over numb toes, had left me with a perpetual blocked nose.

Delhi houses are made to keep the heat out for their excruciatingly hot summers. What this means is that they are equally bad at keeping the cold out in the winters. William Dalrymple famously likened Delhi to a mystic City of Djinns, where temptation lurks at every dark corner and in January 2015 I had fallen completely out of love with this mystique. I was ready to leave, but my friend Thomas saw me and said, those 8 life changing words, “Rikky mate, why don’t you buy a heater?” You can afford a heater he reasoned and it will make your life easier. I remember my guard melting, here was a heart that had known me 12 years seeing me in some self-induced pain and putting sense into something that I had built up for me as a wall of strength to prove nothing to no one.

It was a late night decision in the last week of winter in Delhi, in my mind still the most severe week last winter, and three months of feeling unwell had left me weak. The air had a heavy chill and fog and as I walked out toward thechowk where all the rickshaw-wallahs normally stood, I saw one guy, old, two sweaters, beedi in mouth, always with the beedi. I told him I needed a ride to the shop and for him to take me there and bring me back I offered him INR 100 (roughly double of what he would normally get for such an endeavour). He agreed, and I recall about halfway, as we took the right turn on to the highway, I saw the first sign that he was shivering.

I thought I’d ignore it, try to harden myself up, but every pedal he took, this 50-60kg man pedalling a 100kg behemoth to a heated shop from which the behemoth would buy a heater, every pedal seemed to send a shiver up his spine. I could have, I should have walked, I thought… why put him through so much pain? I’m going to let him goonce I’m there and walk back. But when we got there he told me, “Thank you saab, aaj roti mil jaayegi” [Thank you sir, today I will be able to eat].

So I purchased the heater from the Tata showroom and took the same man back for the drop back home. The incident left me doubting the feelings that led me to being miserable, what is it that made me feel like I had had a tough winter? Why just sit there and feel unwelcome in a country where you speak the language of the people, when perhaps what I needed to fix is my own attitude towards India?

I realised I had been doing things correctly in theory but not in practice. “Think of the child”, Thomas had said to me, the day before the family law exam, and it was the Child I thought about, the Child in me, that winter in Delhi. Except, there was a Child that I needed to think of before that, and that was the child in the rickshaw-wallah.

In the words of Pratap Bhanu Mehta, “The creation of India as a sovereign independent republic was, in some sense, the commencement of a bold experiment in political affairs as significant as any that had been conducted in world history. The creation of India in 1947 gave 200 million largely unlettered and unpropertied people the right to choose their own government and the attendant freedoms that come with it. It was a leap of faith for which there is still no precedent in human history.”

To paraphrase PBM, whose talks, speeches and thinking have me mesmerized, “There are many good resources on facets of the Indian scenario, but anyone who seriously negotiates its complexity cannot but help admitting that contradicting oneself or feeling tentative cannot be avoided”.

 

 

What is the real India? Taken at a terrace party in south delhi

 

 

Arriving in India

I arrived in India in January 2014, after a year as a solicitor in the legal team at the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI). In MPI I was the youngest of a team of 35 lawyers, analysing legal risk for government decision-makers. There was a shift in thinking in progress while I was employed at MPI, a churning and change which was either progressive or regressive depending upon who you speak to about it.

You will note there are many inter nodes I go on, and branches of topics and off-topic, but I will try and always come back to the main topic of this piece when I do… cricket.

MPI at the time was involved in writing the Resource Management Act of New Zealand, a piece of legislation that goes to the very heart of our culture, our kiwiana… and the individual specifically drafted in to write this piece of legislation was from NZ’s biggest and most evilest law firm – Russell McVeagh (or RMac). But that last bit is just hyperbole, what is really important about RMac is that it represents the very corporations that seek to take full advantage of the natural resources of NZ, our national parks, our off-shore oil resources, while writing the very piece of legislation that is mean to protect those resources. This is akin to what in cricket you would call a “fix” and in the New Zealand I thought I was growing up in, a conflict of interest. At best the government is asleep at the wheel, at worst, it is complicit in the eroding of their own natural resources.

This trend was worrying, and in 2013 I had neither the experience nor the knowledge to articulate why I did not support the very organ of government I was working for. As an Indian born New Zealander, you always also risk being called less Kiwi – “oh, he’s Indian, what would he know”, when voicing popular opinion so I needed to exit.

An opportunity arose in the shape of a legal and human rights organization with roots in Delhi and the rest of the Commonwealth. Remember in New Zealand, I was one of 35 in a legal team, at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative(CHRI), I was pushed into the deep end, given charge of what the British called, and CHRI continue to this day to refer to the region of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania as – East Africa. The portfolio? East Africa Police and Justice Sector Reforms. My education into what is plaguing us as a world society today had just begun.

East Africa and South Asia

The first thing I learnt in this job was that East Africa and South Asia are more connected than I had previously thought. And strangely, the one thing that connects the two, apart from being one of the world’s oldest trade routes and migration routes, was the law of the land.

The British colonial power or East India Company was one of the world’s most successful corporations. Run out of a small office in London, it was a symbol of efficiency and influence, everything that government just could not do. Similar conditions were replicated in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania with the Imperial British East Africa Company, a commercial entity that administrated British East Africa, with the help of the Police Act 1861. The Act forms the backbone of how the police and security forces are regulated and behave in both these South Asia and East Africa to this day!

For some context into why this is so shocking, other than the date, 1861, which is 155 years ago (!) the Act was written at a time when India had just had its First War of Independence or as it is also known, the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny. In popular culture, the mutiny started because Hindu and Muslim Sepoys of the East India Company’s army discovered that the cartridges on their Enfield Rifles were greased with the fat of cows and pigs. The beef-less Hindus and the Pork-less Muslims stood up against this and the British government drafted an Act, the Police Act 1861, in a time where rebellion and revolution were in the air. It gave the police and the State wide-reaching powers to detain without warrant and arrest without warning, without some of the safeguards some of us take for granted in a civilised society or a liberal democracy such as New Zealand. But the police in both India and Kenya and by proxy the rest of South Asia and East Africa continue to operate in a regulatory skeletal framework, the nervous system for which is meant to extinguish protest and arrest revolution and dissent. This automatically puts the police above the people, not with the people, for the people.

Lessons from the NZ government

I arrived in India in January 2014, 8 years of experience working in NZ government buildings had given me a mindset that government is good, when it works well, and it works for all the people whom it serves. The idea of best decision for everyone was one I saw in practice regularly at the Ministry for Primary Industries. At MPI, we continue to ensure that the food we eat is labelled properly, accurately, transparently, honestly and in a way it is one of the last bastions of the activist left and socialist anti-corporate thought process where the individuals genuinely care about what they do. The recent prosecutions MPI brought against meat sellers who were injecting sulphates in their steaks to make them last longer on the shelves is another such example. There are many more… from the huge uproar I recall, that irradiated tomatoes were now to be allowed to be imported into NZ, and arguments on what appropriate labelling should be done for these, to constant internal debate about what constitutes our golden national treasure, “manuka honey”. It all showed a common belief that government existed because it was there to safeguard the best interests of the New Zealander when they sat down for tea later that evening.

 

 

“How will we ever know which political party, which ministers, which MPs, which politicians, which judges, which NGOs, which expert consultants, which police officers, have a direct or indirect stake in something? How will we know which newspapers are telling us the truth, or more accurately, making it a point not to, or even more accurately, lying blatantly?

 

 

Similar experiences were imbibed in me at the Ministry of Justice by the judges in the Wellington District Court and the Auckland High Court, the Judges showed me why they turned up for work every day, because they had been chosen to help make things better, that are bad; and keep things the same, that are good.

Application in India

Landing in India was a sea-change. Here is a post-colonial society stuck with systems that were never meant to handle 200 million, let alone 1.4 billion (in 2015). In India, the government has failed its’ people and corporations have made life easier and better for some, while at the same time being guilty themselves of trampling on the rights of the poor.

 

India grows at night

 

According to Gurcharan Das, “India grows at night, when the government sleeps”. The insinuation is that when the bureaucracy is awake, it acts as a hindrance to slow down progress… and when it is asleep, that is when India prospers. It is a dangerous proposition, because it oversimplifies the line between public and private.

To quote a particularly passionate Arundhati Roy, “When the scale of money involved is what it is, the stakeholders are not always easy to identify.” Roy was talking specifically about corruption in the iron ore and bauxite mining industry of the Central Indian state of Odisha, which according to 2004 prices had a 2.27 trillion dollar value. In 2009 it was 4 trillion, today it is roughly 5 trillion.

A trillion has 12 zeroes. Think about that for a minute. For those weak in mathematics such as myself, if you are ever writing a trillion of anything down in number form, you may start writing right to left so that you don’t miss any zeroes. With 5 trillion dollars, Roy asks a question that is especially pertinent not only for India but also for the rest of the world today, and the question is this:

“How will we ever know which political party, which ministers, which MPs, which politicians, which judges, which NGOs, which expert consultants, which police officers, have a direct or indirect stake in something? How will we know which newspapers are telling us the truth, or more accurately, making it a point not to, or even more accurately, lying blatantly?

Leaving CHRI

At CHRI after 8 months I was disillusioned, some would say it is foolish to give up on something so quickly, but I felt like I had hit the same brick wall twice, and a third time would break me. The problem was in the model by which international NGOs operated. To paraphrase a typically erudite Bill Clinton, “It’s the money, stupid.”

At CHRI I worked under a legend called Yash Pal Ghai, in Kenya. Yash is the father of the Constitution of Kenya and has been involved in the constitutional processes of Fiji, Solomon Islands and Nepal. He went into exile under Daniel Arap Moi and living under his roof for two months in Nairobi, I was drafting a document that we believed would change the way the people of Kenya interact with the police. The document was a pocketbook titled “101 Questions you have for the Police but were afraid to ask”. The only problem? The funders were flakey and the money was scarce. The document was completed but never reached the printing press. A similar experience previously with the embassy of a Northern European country had left me jaded and I had to follow the trail of the ginger bread crumbs to the house of the Wicked Witch to find out for myself where the problems lie and why things are so skewed at the moment.

Being away

In being away from New Zealand, the distance gave context into what I loved and missed about Aotearoa. There is no quality of life better than here, and soon Northern European countries, rich on the back of oil will be looking at us as the bastion of prosperity and not the other way round as it was while I was growing up in NZ. All those countries have comfortable lifestyles for their people on the back of rich oil companies providing dividends to the citizenry and with oil prices continuing their downward spiral globally, NZ is poised for both growing prosperity and added global responsibility.

The question for me from the 1st day I arrived in India was “Can an all things considered public policy approach work in a country like India?”

As Roy said “There are people who even after 60 years of Independence, have not had access to education, healthcare or legal redress.” Digesting this particular statement and spending time in India, I did not want to fall out of love with the abstract imagination and fantasy that India is.

 

Can capitalism save India?

 

 

In “Good Capitalism, Bad Capitalism”, writers argue that the best kind of markets are not state-directed or oligarchic but a blend of “big firm” and “entrepreneurial” firms.

India now has that blend – large companies that are state-owned, family owned or foreign multinationals and thousands of smaller entrepreneurs from different backgrounds. This entrepreneurial capital has been a critical ingredient into what Nandan Nilekani describes as “a cocktail of ideas propelling India forward.”

 

Public-Private Nexus: India and Sri Lanka

My journey since leaving CHRI has taken me into a role at Control Risks in which I investigate the nexus between politics and business that exists in India, Sri Lanka and the rest of South Asia. Both India and Sri Lanka are idealistic and ambitious economies at the moment, largely this is due to their respective Heads of State – Narendra Modi in India and Maithripala Sirisena in Sri Lanka have both had landslide victories on the back of an “anti-corruption” agenda and there is an air of opportunity in both Delhi and Colombo.

Sri Lanka especially is seeing democratic rights restored to a population that has just come out of what some would call a civil war, others genocide. The Right to Information Act has just been promulgated in SL with the 19th Constitutional Amendment which opens up new avenues of democracy and transparency in the country. Expect a lot more dirt to come out about the last Rajapaksa regime over the next few months, which is preparing for a fightback in parliamentary elections coming up in July.

The money and size of investments for companies looking to take advantage of the stability in both these countries is mind boggling. We needed 20,000 USD to get the 101 off the ground. In the company I currently work for a basic due diligence into a company and 2 principles attached to it costs about the same and it is a mere 20 day job!

And here is the real rub of the green, the amount is still but a smidgeon… a fraction… of what the information may actually be worth to a client for a potential deal worth millions… This is where we stand, this is where I stand.

A product of NZ and India

As a product of both colonial and post-colonial societies, I felt I had a unique role to play in the betterment of the Rickshawallah in Delhi and that child from Family law that got me that A. All of us are here based on some level of connection to Asia and a deep sense of being New Zealanders as we wear that Silver Fern with pride. When Brendan McCullum walked out with his team in close tow every game of the world cup of cricket he made every kiwi around the world proud, he made the whole world sit up and watch. Specifically for me, he personified two characteristics of the Kiwi Spirit that we forget in our everyday lives… 1) Aggression that does not harm anyone else, and 2) Humility in success and defeat.

And one could go to the extent to say that those two qualities made me identify with being a New Zealander more than anything else, because no one other nation in the world is known to be both “nice” and “tough” at the same time. As Kiwis we identify with the plight of both the Bhutanese refugee in Christchurch as well as the rickshaw puller in Delhi, and making “all things considered” decisions for “the betterment of all” but always putting “the child first” leaves me both resolute and hapless and hopeless at the insurmountable challenges in the way of realizing these ideals.

The all things considered approach

In India population pressures make a utilitarian way of solving problems an uphill task for the government, and it is here that corporations come in and show people that there is a path out of poverty which is both legitimate and “clutter free”. As I look around me, I am both humbled and  delighted to be speaking to an audience that is part of the “change-makers” of the world, and I invite you to look back at the days in which you wanted to make something of yourself and ask what it was that made you choose the current profession you are in, or if it was not as free and informed a choice due to the circumstances at the time, what the social and professional circumstances afforded to us in NZ are that allowed you to flourish to the extent that you have today.

I left NZ because I needed to continue exploring, in turn I found myself disillusioned with systems around human rights and advocacy, and specifically felts that the lack of accountability on funders of organisations, because they are seen by society to be “acting for the good” is missing.

There is a part of India where communism is a way of life for the last 35 years. These are the jungles of Central India where the land has been taken away from the poor. Members of the Maoist or Naxal movement as the terms are erroneously and interchangeably used in India at the moment, were deemed India’s biggest internal security threat in the 10 years of previous governments in India.

In Delhi, I lived for a few months in an artists’ commune called Tara Apartments. We had freedom of sexuality, religion and art and music in that house, and the neighbours held co-operative society meetings when they saw two of my male friends kissing in the stairway. To mark a protest against their way of being we put a red bulb outside our main door. The red bulb was at once a giant middle finger from the collective to the moral organisation the cooperative society wished us to be part of, and a play on the “laal salaam” or the Communist salute. Rebels with a cause not as big as anything the communists of Dantewada were fighting, the members of Tara regularly turn up to protests around Delhi, organized TEDx Delhi, have album deals with Sony Music, sculpt, sing, draw, paint and most importantly disagree.

This is the youth of India that largely is angry with a system which threatens at every election to leave them disenfranchised.

As Gush-Up concentrates wealth on to the tip of a shining pin on which our billionaires pirouette, tidal waves of money crash through the institutions of democracy—the courts, Parliament as well as the media, seriously compromising their ability to function in the ways they are meant to. The noisier the carnival around elections, the less sure we are that democracy really exists.”

The space for freedoms in India, freedom of speech and freedom of religion being two that are especially topical at the moment, are seen to be under attack by the very majority government that was voted in. Friends are part of underground film clubs in which if they run movies which question and debate status quo are shut down under strange and irrelevant pretexts.

So Tara rebels.

Conclusion

There is a juice shop near my house in Delhi where a guy makes me vegetable juice every evening. He knows little else from the looks of it, other than putting vegetables down the throat of that noisy machine. At one point he had asked me what month of the year it was and I had marvelled at his existence, and at our co-existence in the same 200m radius.

I had asked him once where he was from, boy of about 19 with a kind face, and he had answered sheepishly, “Not from here”.  I told him me neither. “Main bhi yahaan sey nahi hoon.”

Have you heard of New Zealand I asked, calling on one of my multiple identities, and he had replied yes, he had heard of it. I probed further, asking what can you tell me about it. And he had smiled that sheepish smile…

I think we have our work cut out for us.

——–

Rikky Minocha is a NZ trained lawyer with an India-trained childhood and adolescence. Rikky can trace his lineage back to Sargodha District in Pakistan, from whence his grandparents set forth to what would become India a year later. Born in Panipat (Haryana) he gained his primary and secondary schooling in Mumbai and continued tertiary education (studying Law and Psychology) in Auckland and Melbourne. In January 2014 he decided to move to New Delhi, which is now where he is based.

Rikky Minocha

Coming home to Siyaram.

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