Why India loves a good electrician
- 7 November 2012
- From the section Magazine
Many Indians seem to be proud of their ability to deal with inefficiency - but how long can a country that projects itself as a global powerhouse continue to put up with a situation where anything that can go wrong, usually does?
It has been two years since my family and I moved to India full-time and, when I look around the boxy, expensive flat we rent and reflect on how I have spent my time here, inevitably I feel a bit tired.
On the bright side, I have managed to produce a second child, work and have some amazing adventures - but I also see many lost hours spent endlessly repairing things.
I have lost count of how many electrical sockets have melted. For the past month, strange electrical fluctuations in our sitting room have turned it into a discotheque. We have even had light bulbs explode above our heads.
No wonder my electrician has become my best friend, visiting us on average twice a week.
All too often, while we are all getting ready for school and work, the water supply to the bathroom suddenly disappears, leaving everyone in mid-wash or with a mouth full of toothpaste.
It is yet another one of those maddening Delhi dilemmas. Why is there water cascading off the roof from an overflowing storage tank but no water in the taps?
Our landlord, as unflappable as ever, had a novel suggestion this time. He recommended we thump the taps, so while my husband and I went upstairs to try this, my three-year-old son ran for a pee into the marble-clad bathroom whose door opens directly onto the shower floor.
His foot flew out from under him and he landed with an audible thump, dazed and shivering, before yowling for nearly 20 minutes in genuine agony.
Not the "thump" my helpful landlord had in mind, I thought, furious, as I checked for signs of concussion.
My son survived but I often wonder how long I am going to.
As I write, my toilet flush is malfunctioning for the umpteenth time. A new metal cake-stand I bought yesterday does not fit together and, as I inflate a pack of party balloons for my children, I am finding every other one has a hole in it.
That is not to mention the broken pavements or the dogs that roam freely in terrifying packs from nightfall.
I know, I know - India is an emerging power and a poor one at that. A few dodgy party balloons or stray dogs do not matter. But chronic inefficiency has a profound social and economic effect.
Yes, there are now malls and fancy cars here but the people in them - India's upper classes - routinely fall ill from unclean food, dirty water and mosquito-borne diseases.
Like them, I too have hired an army of domestic staff to help keep the problems at bay but I cannot shake the view that, if the roads, power, water, hospitals and courts worked, we could all get on with more important things.
Curiously, like my landlord, many Indians seem almost proud of being able to deal with constant inefficiency. Some have even suggested that this is an asset, and encourages creative problem-solving.
But increasingly that suggestion is laughed at, especially by entrepreneurs in this burgeoning economy who are trying to create jobs while fighting death by 1,000 cuts.
One internet entrepreneur described how his business survived a difficult start-up and predatory monopolies, only to fail when raw sewage began seeping into his offices. Rather than being compensated, he was sued for being late with the rent.
An American who manufactures luxury furniture said an £11,000 ($17,000) fine appeared one day because he denied free furniture to a tax official.
But the most unique story of how India can confound came from a French contractor.
He described how the site of a new multi-million-dollar construction project was suddenly overrun by a low-caste tribe claiming rights to the land.
After panicked consultations, he was informed that the police would prove useless and the courts would only tie him up in knots.
The solution, he was told, was to hire a rival tribe to drive the intruders away. Bizarrely, this worked but, as he pointed out, it hardly sends a business-friendly message.
Nowhere I have lived has proven more fertile ground than India for Sod's (or Murphy's) Law - the axiom that anything that can go wrong will go wrong - than India. So what explains this epic inefficiency?
My economics professor had an answer - India, he told me, has long had an economy based on digging holes and filling holes.
Things go wrong by design, so that a multitude of middlemen can earn a living by fixing them.
That was OK - charming even - when renting a flat here cost £300 ($480) a month and there was not a vast young, jobless population.
But today, India is expensive even for the poorest and it continues to project itself to foreign investors as a global power house, albeit one with a fluctuating current.
Which means there is at least a long and prosperous career ahead for my local electrician.
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