The BBC's former man in India talks about the country's future. And the places you must visit
Nobody knows India like Sir Mark Tully. As former Chief of Bureau for the BBC in India, Sir Mark can call upon a lifetime of knowledge to comment on the country's vibrant history and incredible potential. His latest book, India: The Road Ahead, examines the country as it emerges as one of the world's future superpowers.
As you'll discover below, he also has tips on the hidden corners of India you must visit to gain an insight into this diverse and intriguing country.
You were born in India. You’ve spent much of your professional life there and it's your home now. What is it that draws you to India?
Various reasons but it’s all to do with the belief in Karma – a belief in somehow things telling you what to do rather than you always trying to make your own life.
When I first went back to India, 20 years after I had grown up there as a child, I suddenly felt at home. The whole of my childhood rushed through my head and I thought India must be something special for me. As events in my life turned out it became more and more obvious to me that it should be the place where I was living.
Of course, there were other, simpler reasons as well. I got a great deal of enjoyment out of living there, I’m very interested in it, I’ve got a lot of friends there. And I got a lot of recognition there as well. But there was also this sense that it was somewhere that mattered to me.
What is the biggest difference between the India of No Full Stops and the India of The Road Ahead?
The biggest difference is that India is much more confident now than it was when I wrote No Full Stops. Then it was a country that didn’t have much obvious success to its credit. Its economy was growing, but it wasn’t growing very fast. It was also a country where people lacked aspiration.
Now it’s a country with great, perhaps too much, confidence and also a country with a larger and more aspirational middle class. And when you go out into the rural areas you find people are much more aspirational too and much less prepared to put up with the sort of government and services that are shabby and inadequate. Also, they won’t put up with the idea that they are fated to remain where they were born.
You travelled mainly in the north and the east to research this book. Why was that?
I wanted to go to the regions that were, in a sense, the most backwards. I wanted to go to where the problems were. What I’m trying to say in the book is that India has great potential and can become an important economic power in the next 20, 30, or 40 years. But unless it realises the problems it faces then it won’t get there. In other words, it’s a warning against over confidence. And those problems are most stark in the areas where I visited.
There have been some very bold predictions about India’s future. The BRIC report suggests that it will be one of the countries dominating the world’s economy in 20-30 years. Do you think that will happen?
This is my point. I don’t think it will happen if India does not make very considerable reforms in how it is governed and bring about reforms in its administration, in its ability to deliver services. There’s a very appropriate phrase I quote in the book that says it’s a ‘flailing not a failing state.’ I think that’s very true.
The quick answer to your question is yes, India has this potential. But if it lies back and thinks that it’s going to come to them naturally then it certainly won’t get there.
If it does reach this potential, will it filter down to all parts of the community? Or will there be divisions still within the country?
I think with the mounting aspirations, if it doesn’t benefit the vast majority of the people, then there will be a tremendous mess in India. It won't realise its potential because there will be social unrest.
One of the reasons people believe India has this potential is because it has a very young population. People talk about the demographic dividend. That demographic dividend could turn into a disaster unless India’s record on health care and education improves dramatically.
In the book you mention the concept of jugaar, just muddling through. Do you think that’s holding India back? Or do you think that with a country as large and diverse as India, it’s the only way it can realistically get by?
I think it’s a matter of keeping it in balance. To some extent you’re absolutely right. This talent has seen India through many crises and in some ways is a valuable talent. But if taken too far it means that you never do much about anything really.
The trouble is, it is taken too far in India at the moment. The worst thing you could do to India is to try and impose some sort of very rigid form of government. Making a government function by becoming dictatorial. That would be a disaster. You may as well bust the whole place apart. But equally, you do need more discipline, more order, more efficiency, far more than you’re getting at the moment.
What gives you the most hope for India?
Indians. I think they’re wonderful people. They are highly intelligent people. When provided with opportunities they take them. You can see that in the countries where there are Indian communities of the diaspora. They’re not communities that just lie back and wait for things to be done for them. So I think it’s Indians, above everything else, that gives one hope.
Is there anything about India that creates despair?
Quite a lot. Especially when you’re driving around Delhi. Quite often I find myself thinking “What am I living in this madhouse for?” But then when I come back to the UK I think it’s all rather dull and orderly.
One of the things that I think is worrying about India is the way that there is not enough concern about poverty and deprivation. I notice it in myself. I have to kick myself sometimes to remember that I am living a highly privileged life in a country where many people don’t have any privileges at all.
In the book a chap called Ullas Karanth suggests that tigers are a kind of barometer of how India is dealing with the environment.
What he meant was that if you have a healthy tiger population it indicates that all down the chain, right down to small insects, the environment is in good health. In one sense he’s talking about a particular environment, the environment of the forests, but at the same time, I think he is also talking about the symbols.If you can’t take care of your tigers, well, what on earth can you take care of?
You talk about the Forest Departments having a colonial ethos. Any attempt of outside help is rebuffed. They regard their department as their patch and bridle at any suggestion they are not totally in charge. Do you think that goes all across India, across all departments?
Sadly, I think it’s typical of all the government departments.
One of the things that Indians say themselves, very often, is that they are really still being governed by a system which was founded by the British. And one of the worst things about it is that it has that British Raj attitude of superiority. Of governing rather than serving. You take the police force, you take the forest service, any of those type of things, the civil service in general.
One of the common things you hear when you go into the villages of India is, “Civil Servants don’t listen to us. They don’t pay attention to us.” When they compare politicians with civil servants, they say, “Well, at least the politicians have to come and listen to us once every five years.”
I just want to touch upon tourism in India. Is it a saviour or is it part of the problem?
Well, again, you’ve got to get it right. It’s a very important industry, very valuable because of the jobs it creates and very valuable because of the foreign exchange that it provides. But again, you’ve got to make sure that you get it right. You’ve got to make sure you don’t do what happened in Goa, ruining the whole of the north Goa coastline, by allowing totally uncontrolled, unplanned development.
There is another problem that is difficult to get around and that is the problem of numbers. Take the Himalayan Hill Stations, for example. They have all been ruined by too many people wanting to go and live there and too many people wanting to go and visit. How do you cope with that?
I was in Bhutan earlier in the year and having a very interesting discussion there. The government of Bhutan is thinking of relaxing its policy, which is to keep numbers down by making it very expensive to go there. I said, "Judging by what’s happening in India, I’m not absolutely sure that that is the best policy, frankly."
The other thing I would say about tourism, and transport in general, is that I think that too much money is going into aviation. The railways, which is a much better form of transport for most of India, and the only thing available in many parts of India, are making no progress at all.
The railways could be very useful for tourism as well. You’ve got one or two luxury trains, but that apart, people don’t use the trains for tourism. Partly because they don’t run on time.
That’s a shame. My experience has been that to fully experience India you have to catch a train. It is quintessentially the whole of Indian life crammed into one compartment.
I agree with you. I never go anywhere by air that I could get to by train. But you see more and more small airports being built. More money going into airports. More and more airlines springing up as well.
Wildlife tourism is an area that has really boomed in India. I was interested to read in your book about the problems that this causes. For example, elephants that were used to monitor a tiger's "kill" site are now being used to take tourists on elephant rides.
This is another case where you have a numbers problem. To what extent should a wildlife park be for the preservation of animals or for observation, and to what extent should they be places where people go to see the animals? I think that’s a very difficult balance but I certainly think if you go too far down the tourist line then you’ll wreck the whole thing.
As an Indian ‘old hand’ where would you recommend a traveller go to get a real insight into the country?
Well I’d recommend visitors travel as much as they can by train if they are pretty hardy and ready for unusual circumstances.
I’d actually recommend against travelling too much because travelling does take a lot of time in India. So if you’re going for two weeks, don’t try to get to a new destination every day.
I also think that it’s a good idea to limit your tour to a certain part of India and then go back again to another part of India. Really soak up one part of it.
I would say visit eastern India, which is largely ignored. There are wonderful places there – Assam, Bengal, Darjeeling, Sikkim, Puri on the coast. So don’t ignore the east and don’t ignore Calcutta, if you want to see the big cities of India.
Finally, if you had to name your favourite place in India, where would it be?
That’s very difficult. Delhi has been home for over 40 years now. Calcutta, where I was born, I’m very fond of. And places in the countryside I’m very fond of.
But there is a place called Chail, which is about 30 miles from Shimla, where the palace of the former Maharajah Patiala is. I do love going into the mountains and this is reasonably accessible – but not spoilt – in the middle of a reserved forest. That is the place where I’ve been the most relaxed, most at peace and enjoyed most in India.