‘It’ll be a disaster if India progresses like West’

What exactly is progress? And when can we be said to have achieved it? Is it progress when double-digit growth translates into personal prosperity, palatial bungalows,  trendy malls and fancy cars for a madly consumerist few? Or is it progress only when everybody gets a chance to hop on to the bandwagon without imperilling the environment?

And are all those who advocate the latter view retrograde reactionaries if not blazing red commies who, while enjoying  the fruits of progress, are seeking to deny it to the rest of their countrymen and women?

Sir Mark Tully, the BBC’s voice of India for more than two decades, has a new book out, India’s Unending Journey: Finding Balance in a Time of Change. And in it he makes a simple point: that the world is making a mistake by equating India’s software prowess, the export of Bollywood films, the middle-class’ clamour for cars and foreign travel, as a sign of progress.

“When I first went to India the picture was of a country riddled with poverty, a hopeless place which was described as ‘living from ship to mouth’ because it was so dependent on food aid. I always struggled to try to portray the other sides of India without denying there was poverty…

“Now there is a reverse situation where people are being simplistic about the progress India has made; glibly talking about India as the great economic power of the future, without realising and remembering that there are enormous problems India has to address, and without discussing the way that India should develop economically.”

In an interview with The Independent, London, Sir Mark makes an additional point that is so commonsensical but rare in our gung-ho, anything-goes media culture. Which is that India should not make the same mistake as viewing progress through the same prism as the West.

“I firmly believe that the way the West has developed economically is unbalanced and that if India develops in this way, it is going to be very dangerous for it. Growth in the West is driven by consumerism, which is unbalanced and unhealthy, because it inspires greed. We all need to consume things, but that must be kept in balance. It is also unbalanced because of what we are doing to nature, the amount of energy we consume.”

What do Indians make of his words of caution, now that greater riches appear to be in their sights?

“Some Indians say ‘You are trying to stop India becoming like other countries and stop us enjoying the kind of things the West enjoys,'” he admits. “But one of the things I admire and love about India is that it’s a hugely open society. I’m a foreigner after all, and yet I can go around India and say these things about where I think India is going wrong and I’m listened to with respect and interest, though by no means always with agreement.”

Read the full interview here: ‘It’s always a question of balance’