Monday, July 21, 2008

Book Club

I recently began reading Edward Luce's In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India, and even though I've only gotten through a chapter so far, it's been extremely interesting.

I think partly this is because I'm just "ready" to read a good book that explores India's recent history and current affairs - it's something I know woefully little about, I'm going back to the country relatively soon and just came back from it relatively recently, and it's just a really interesting place, textured like no other part of the world I've ever been to (an admittedly low bar.)

But it's also because the book is really engaging, and presents some facts of which I was simply unaware, and are of the kind that make one go "Hm...maybe the way I previously thought about X was simply incorrect." For example:

Less than 10 percent of India's dauntingly large labor force is employed in the formal economy...[That] means that only about 35 million Indians [out of 470 million employed] pay any kind of income tax...Of the roughly 35 million Indians with formal sector jobs, ... 21 million are direct employees of the government. This leaves just 14 million people working in the private "organized" sector. Of these, fewer than 1 million - that is, less than a quarter of one percent of India's total pool of labor - are employed in information technology, back-office processing, and call centers. ... Fewer than one million Indians produce annually more in IT and software export revenues than several hundred million farmers earn from agricultural exports.

So in other words, the IT sector that I had kind of always assumed was the main reason for India's prosperity, especially over the last decade or so, employs less than one out of every 400 people with a job?! And the truly staggering thought is that (I haven't really done the research to back this up, but) I might not be wrong about IT being India's main economic engine. Which would imply that the division of people into the haves and have-nots is taking place in India to an absolutely outrageous extent. Those 435 million Indians employed in the "informal" sector, after all, are probably not raking it in, and while the 35 million with "formal" jobs are doing pretty well by comparison, not all of those jobs are exactly creating millionaires either.

Not to mention, the Indian government employs 2/3 of all formally-employed persons in India! WTF!? I thought China was the communist country, and India was the free-market liberal democracy...although I had recently heard that Indian Railways (the state-owned railroad) is the world's largest non-military employer, with over 1.6 million employees (i.e. almost twice the size of the entire IT sector).

As but one example of something tangentially related: At one point during my trip to Delhi, Sarita and I needed to go to the main train station so that she could get some tickets for a trip she was planning on taking (or something; the exact details are a little fuzzy.) We had to go to the foreigner's office, because the government maintains a ticket quota for foreigners on some trains (and buying tickets reserved for Indians when you're not an Indian is, owing to substantial subsidies, a pretty bad and probably illegal idea.) So we went, and after some looking around the busy station, we found the office, in a sleepy second-floor corner. It was the kind of place where you expect a solitary fan to be droning on, back and forth across the quiet, dingy room (I can't remember if there was one, but it was that kind of place.) Everything had to be filled out (literally) in triplicate. Along the back wall were dusty, overflowing, ancient filing cabinets and accordion folders, packed with 3 identical copies of thousands of foreigner applications for tickets to Jaipur and Jabalpur and Agra. In front of the cabinets were middle-aged men in no hurry, whose ancient computer terminals were similarly lackadaisical.

I still shudder to think at the armies of people it must take to process all that people, and then file it away into oblivion, and then very occasionally sift through it all to retrieve the one or two important documents contained within. As someone who's spent the last year working in a very nearly paperless office, this manner of conducting business felt even more retrograde.

But then again, and this is I think the most important point to always keep in mind (not that it's too difficult), India's just so freaking big. Any small or medium-sized country can go from "forms in triplicate" to "forms in HTML" relatively quickly and painlessly; but try doing that when you have a country of over a billion people, only 65% of whom are literate. There simply aren't many fair comparisons one can make.