A Postcard from Gurgaon

By Mike Loftus on Oct 23, 11 06:40 PM in

Along with pretty much everything else in India, a ride in a taxi brings its own particular delights and novelties. Your driver will agree very confidently as you give him the address and set off chatting and purposeful. Generally all goes well until you are a kilometre from the destination, when the fine tuning of the journey becomes a little more inventive.

Pretty soon it's a fairly comprehensive effort involving passers by, security guards from nearby buildings, and other taxi drivers who are all part of the intensive joint effort to locate and direct the driver to the precise spot you require. After a few taxi journeys you get acclimatised but the first time is a bit disconcerting particularly as in my case that first time was a journey through a Mumbai almost emptied by an ongoing terrorist outrage and where it was far from certain what might lie in waiting round the next wrong turn.

Though the taxi driver's life isn't made any easier by a somewhat cavalier approach to addresses. An appointment today was at no 1, xxxx Marg. Number 2 ( and indeed sitting next to number 2, numbers 3 and 4) was found with the usual communal effort but of no 1, no sight. It was eventually revealed to be about half a mile further down the road. As this was the HQ of one of India's mega-corporates, I can only assume that only 'number 1' could possibly serve as an address and so was usurped from its rightful plot and attached instead to the top company's building.

Anyway, my initial taxi journey took me to the new city of Gurgaon which sits just outside the Delhi boundary about an hour - on a good-ish day - from the Dehli centre. Its worth recalling that when the centre of Delhi was laid out by the British in the early 20th century , it was with monumental buildings, fine treelined boulevards and a sense of style and dignity which is still very apparent even if a little frayed at some of the edges. Dehli wasn't built to be capital of India but to be the alternate capital and second city of the global British empire - from where a large part of the empire would be administered.

Post independence, Delhi became essentially a city of government. When India's new growth became more apparent in the late 1990s and began to have a physical impact in Mumbai and other cities, you get the impression that Delhi found all of this commercial activity a bit beneath its dignity. The growing Indian businesses and those from overseas eager to stake a claim in the capital instead found a less prim attitude to development in Gurgaon - and in Noida to the north of the capital.

And it is here that India got its own dose of the Pudong-Dubai virus with rampant development and a skyline festooned with tower cranes. However India doesn't seem to have been taken with the relentless skyward thrust of these competitors. The new development is Gurgaon is remarkable for its sheer bulk and mass - many of the buildings resemble nothing more than lines of small hills - the Malverns from a distance, say. Once you lower your eyes to street level, however, its all very emphatically still India.

And at that level what is it that is most occupying the man in the street in Gurgaon - and elsewhere in India ( when he isn't advising stray taxi drivers). The print and electronic media are fairly clear - its a new and heightened attempt to deal with corruption in public and commercial life. A campaign initiated by veteran activist Anna Hazare earlier this year with a Gandi inspired hunger strike had led to proposals for new legislation and an ongoing campaign. The Chief Minister of Karnatka is currently in jail seeking bail in the light of corruption allegations; the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu has been resisting attempt to bring her to court in neighbouring state.
India has to an extent suffered from having moved from an over-regulated economy - where 'corruption' was a way round the rules to get anything done, to one where the real benefits of rapid growth are overlaid with the urgent desire to make money quickly. There now seems a greater willingness to recognise openly the extent and impact of corruption - almost every conversation I have had raises it directly or by allusion - and among the more confident a sense that there is ground swell among many that may begin to make some impact.

As with so much else in India, change and new opportunity is the recurring theme - delivering change and securing huge opportunity is the challenge.

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