India

Last week, I went to India as part of the Prime Minister’s business delegation. The trip came completely out of the blue, and I was surprised and honoured to be asked. We were only in India for a couple of days — a whirlwind tour — but it was an unforgettable trip.

In fact, having now spent 20 minutes staring at those two sentences, I’m finding it a bit hard to know where to begin. We spent quite a lot of time on the plane, but in between, we met a sparkling array of very interesting people from all sorts of backgrounds, visited places from the firmly affluent to the strikingly poor, and learned some valuable lessons about technology, democracy and civic engagement.

My bit of the trip was the hack day that we did at Google with some Indian developers. Rohan Silva, Liam Maxwell, Edmund von der Burg, Tim Green, David McCandless and I turned up at Google India, not quite knowing what to expect. After a very delicious curried breakfast we piled into a meeting room for a big chat with lots of Indian developers. I’ve written about the hack day separately, and David’s also done a piece on the Guardian Data Blog.

The Prime Minister

After a hurried lunch, we all piled back on to the plane for our flight to Delhi, which took several hours. Upon arriving we were briskly sent off to an evening reception, where the PM did a short speech (and where I just-so-happened to wander over and mention Dextrous Web, which he seemed excited about). The reception was fairly short, and we were soon back at the hotel, where — after a brief spell in the indescribably humid Delhi evening — we all went off to bed.

South Asia Foundation

The next morning, we went off to learn about the Panchayati Raj. It’s a system of elected village assemblies which receive money from the Indian government to spend on local services. It’s an interesting approach, and embodies many of the current government’s Big Society principles: radical decentralisation, with local decision-making and accountability. After a briefing from the British High Commission and a panel session at the South Asia Foundation, we left the city to visit several village Panchayats and see the work that they do.

Paved, with gutters

For me, this was undoubtedly the highlight of the trip. We visited several villages, saw how people there live, met elected Panchayat members and saw the improvements they were making to their villages. One had managed to pave all its streets, with proper gutters, and had built a school. Another was making a proper dirt road between their village and the next. We visited the workers as they were leveling the ground, and the difference between the completed road and the rest was remarkable — I doubt our minibus could have traversed the lumpen, muddy path that they were following.

Periodic Table

More than anything else, though, I was moved by the extraordinary welcome that we received. Every village gave us garlands and flowers, and sat us down for tea, water and spiced nuts. One processed us through the streets with music. They were warm, generous and proud. At one village we were drinking Chai in the local school when I spotted a periodic table on the wall and took a picture. The principal of the school came over and told me about how it had been made by his 11-year-old students. The chief civil engineer for the district accompanied us and told us all about the roads and schools that they were building. In the first village, we walked past an incongruously well stocked pharmacy, and one of the kids came over to tell me about it.

Of course, my impressions are skewed. I’m sure it’s unusual for westerners to visit these villages, and that that provoked a certain level of excitement — especially with one of the PM’s senior policy advisers leading the group. I would like to know what day-to-day life is like in these places. One of the officials we visited later said that he thought 80% of Panchayats probably experienced some degree of fraud or embezzlement, which I don’t doubt. But the improvements in these villages were clear, and the villages’ sense of pride was palpable. So fraud is, perhaps, an acceptable cost of doing business.

Eventually, and reluctantly, we got back on our minibus and headed for home. Upon arriving back in the city, we went to a plush reception thrown by BBC Worldwide at the hotel — wherein, incidentally, a 24-hour wifi pass cost the same as 7 days’ pay for one of the labourers building the dirt road we’d been standing on not two hours earlier. It was a stark contrast. India is definitely a country of extremes.

At the South Asia Foundation, the Minister leading the Indian delegation said that Indian governments had a history of promising people the world, and then failing to deliver. That India is just so big, and so populous, that central government couldn’t even make most of the people happy, most of the time. It’s this reality that he said the Panchayati Raj are there to fix. He said that radical decentralisation is the only system that can work in a country as big as India, and that it is vital to make it work to prevent people losing faith in democracy as a system of government.

This argument seems plausible to me. But it made me wonder how the UK could learn lessons from India, given that we don’t have the same problems of scale. We also don’t have the same degree of engagement in civil issues — or anything even close to it. But that is, perhaps, to be expected. India has more to do. And in fact, I suspect that the motivations for Indians to become involved in civil issues are much the same as those of Britons. You can bet that if London had no roads, schools or hospitals, a vast number of Londoners would be doing things about it. And, in fact, most people do get involved in some way when things happen that affect them directly: like school and hospital closures, or objectionable planning applications.

And that, I think, is the lesson. In these villages, everyone knew the Panchayat members. And when the members walk down the street, people go up to them, and air their concerns. As more than one person told us, politics in India is very personal. People know who to ask, and how the system works — primarily because it is simple, and they are close to it. At least, when it comes to Panchayati Raj*.

But that is the polar opposite of the UK, where almost no one knows their Councillors, and where engaging with local government means climbing a nigh-impassable mountain of tedious bureaucratic complexity. Where, unsurprisingly, most people decide it’s not worth the effort. And whence the chattering classes are born: that particular breed of people who enjoy traversing the peaks and valleys of big bureaucracies.

If that’s the problem that the Big Society is supposed to solve, I’m all for it. And I think the Indians are probably lighting the path.

*The rest of Indian government is notoriously bureaucratic!