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India: Functioning anarchy

census interview
India's census involved using two million enumerators  

NEW DELHI, India -- The distinguished economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who served here as American ambassador, once described the country as "functioning anarchy".

It's the rich and the burgeoning middle class who complain about that anarchy, who work themselves into a lather about delayed flights, dead telephones, airconditioners that don't cool because there's no electricity, and dry taps.

But recently India scored two remarkable administrative triumphs which show that it's the poor, not the prosperous who are willing to do something about the anarchy.

The central government has just completed the gigantic task of counting a population of more than one billion people. Some two million enumerators have fanned out into the remotest parts of the country to count heads.

Census estimate due in one month

One of India's most respected demographers, Professor Ashish Bose, said to me "we should be proud of our census."

Of course the demographer was not arguing that the census would reveal the exact number of Indians. He described the declaration that on May 11th last year the population of India passed one billion as "buffoonery". In his reckoning, the billion mark was probably passed a year earlier.

What he was arguing was that the census would be sufficiently accurate to produce invaluable information on which to base decisions about the future of the country.

Wealthy less likely to cooperate

Within just one month Indians will have a first estimate of the census results, which is a remarkable achievement bearing in mind that much of the counting is still mental, not computer, arithmetic.

According to Professor Bose the success of the census depends on the cooperation of the people. But he told me that the better-off Indians are, the less likely they are to cooperate.

Kumbh Mela
Millions of Hindus attended the Kumbh Mela festival  

During this census there have been reports of enumerators being threatened with dogs because wealthy citizens objected to their privacy being invaded, or feared that revealing details of their households might alert the income tax authorities.

Most less- well- off Indians gladly cooperated because they wanted to be registered to strengthen their claim to ration cards and other government facilities.

Kumbh Mela a triumph

A week before that head-count ended the last of the major bathing days at the Kumbh Mela in the northern city of Allahabad passed off without incident. This was another administrative triumph.

For more than a month, the government of Uttar Pradesh, usually considered one of the worst administered states in India, ran a religious festival attended by millions and millions of Hindu pilgrims who came to bathe at the confluence of the Rivers Ganges and Jumna.

Even on the busiest day of all no one was crushed, no one drowned. Food and water were available for all in a tented city spread over fifty square kilometers. In spite of attempts by the local press to create a scare about sanitation there was no outbreak of disease in the crowded camps for pilgrims.

Vehicle ban broken

Like the census, the success of the Kumbh Mela depended on the cooperation of the pilgrims, most of whom were poor. If they had not been disciplined, if they had pushed and shoved instead of waiting patiently for their turn to bathe, there would certainly have been stampedes.

But the prosperous still insisted on trying to drive their cars through the crowds even after the police banned vehicular traffic, and some of those who were influential did break the ban and disrupt the orderly flow of ordinary pilgrims.

The irony of India is that those who cry loudest about the inefficiency of the administration only cooperate when it suits them. If the government was to rely on the cooperation of the poor more often and ignore those other voices, then India would become less anarchic and more functional.

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