A visit to China is always a humbling experience. Unlike Terminal 3 at — what else? — Indira Gandhi International Airport, there are no carpets concealing the floors of Beijing Capital Airport. Why planners of the Delhi facility wanted carpets is a mystery. Already they are looking dusty, and the smell of mould is creeping into the atmosphere. Within a few years, the odour will be overpowering, as will be the dust. Of course, there is a silver lining. Hospitals catering to respiratory diseases will see a sharp rise in their custom, as passengers spend hour after hour waiting for flights that seem never to take off, either because the pilot is in a bad mood that day or for some other cause. Of course, carpets are not the only useless — indeed, destructive — extravagance in a facility that has become not the best in the world, but the most expensive. Even the toilet facilities come from fancy locations such as Germany. Clearly, those in charge at IGIA Terminal 3 are used to their bottoms resting on the seats of German-made cars, hence their obsession to boost employment in that country at the expense of local suppliers.
Thirty years ago, China was as dysfunctional as India is to the present day. While Mao Zedong unified his country and transferred some of his confidence in it to the rest of the populace, he was as weak in economics as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been. It was only after Deng Xiaoping took charge of economic policy in 1979 that China began its climb to the top. Today, to compare India to China would be even more fatuous than comparing India with Pakistan. Our northern neighbour is so far ahead that it is not even visible in the distance. Our administrators pride themselves on being the “steel frame”. A better word for their effect on the country would be straitjacket.
Either because of an absence of courage or of character, officials in India have connived with politicians in creating webs of graft that are choking the economy as surely as weeds destroy a lake. These lines are being written in the business class cabin of the high-speed train going from Tianjin to Shanghai. Because the seats are fully reclinable, this columnist was able to catch up on sleep lost in the Delhi to Beijing flight, which departed from IGIA at 3.25 a.m. The train itself proceeds smoothly to Shanghai at a speed of more than 300 kilometres and hour, many times more than the fastest in India.
Of course, the Chinese cannot savour the theatrical brilliance of Mamata Banerjee or Lalu Yadav the way we fortunate citizens of the world’s most regulated democracy can on our television screens. Their political fare is much duller, comprising episodes where suited men with broad smiles go to various public locations and thereby demonstrate their immense love for the common man.
Although the UGC may not know much about originality in research — and in fact would be horrified at such subversion of the system — its babus are masters at conjuring up numerous mechanical milestones. These days, doctorates get turned out with the frequency of Ford cars during the time when old Henry was still around in Detroit. Interesting ideas are spurned in favour of rehashes of tomes written elsewhere, with exactly the degree of copycat prose needed to escape computer traps for plagiarism. Research in India’s university sector is as barren as the Gobi desert, and the UGC seems happy to keep it that way. Unfortunately, the Chinese disagree. From the time Hu Jintao took charge as General Secretary a decade ago, there has been an emphasis on R&D, so that while in 2002, China was where India is today, importing almost all its high-end technologies, these days the country is self-sufficient in most.
Tianjin is an example of how far China has leapt ahead of India. Although more than 150 kilometres away from Beijing, the city is reached by train in a half-hour. Its two universities, Tianjin and Nankai, are working at excellence, as are other universities in China. In the 1980s, almost all were worse than their top 20 Indian counterparts. These days, even middle-rank universities have left Indian ones far behind, another great achievement of the UGC and its babudom. It has an international airport and a huge port, where several ships, including cruise liners, regularly call. Comparing Tianjin with the squalor of Gurgaon, where taxes disappear into the pockets of officials and politicians, is an exercise in raising blood pressure to dangerous levels. If China can do it, why not India? Why not indeed? Look at our officials, look at their political masters, and the answer will become clear.