To Catch a Fish

Nancy and I were in the lounge of Etihad airlines at 1am on the morning of November 5, 2012. I was feeling pretty glum. Going home, we were facing 22 hours of travel time ahead of us. Nor had it been lost on me that Eithad, the airlines of the United Arab Emirates (Etihad means ‘united’) is an anagram for I Death.

I struck up a conversation with a man from Bangalore. His name was Sunil. He was a helicopter pilot en route to Lagos, Nigeria where he was going to fly workers to and from an oilrig in the Gulf of Guinea. He has family in Bangalore. He will work for a month, then fly home for a month. The money, he said, was much better in Lagos.

He wanted to know what I thought of India. I told him about the Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen take on it; namely, that India is among the strongest economies in the world and yet at the very bottom in terms of malnourished children (“Putting Growth in Its Place,” Outlook 11/14/2011), even below every country in Africa. While I was talking, an older, elegant looking man who had been sitting to my right moved closer and said, “I couldn’t help overhear your conversation. Do you mind if I join you?”

To Catch a Fish You Need a Net
He told me that he has worked closely with the head of MIT’s Media Lab, Joichi Ito. He handed me his card and said that I was to call him “Jay.” Now was this a meeting made in heaven or what?

Jay told me what Dreze and Sen said about India was undoubtedly true. But the root cause was not cultural barriers like, for example, the caste system and the way in which it inevitably skewed the Indian government’s initiatives away from the social needs of the people. (Of the 315 editors of major newspapers and journals in India none are from the so-called scheduled castes.)

“Imagine you have a lake filled with fish,” Jay said. “If you stick your hand in it, you will not catch a fish. Why? You need a net. India has no net. If the prime minister of one state is charged with corruption, people will not investigate. They will say ‘How can you investigate him and not the prime minister over there who is also corrupt. It isn’t fair to go after one and not the other. In the end nothing happens.”

Jay says that is India’s biggest problem. The government has no workable mechanism to hold people accountable. No wonder corruption goes unchecked.

“You have many problems in America,” he said. “But you have a structure to address them.”

Shortly after I returned home, I read an editorial in the Boston Globe (November 26, 2012). The editorial was about the death of Bal Thackeray, an 86 year-old leader of the right wing Shiva Sena (Army of Lord Shiva) party. According to the editorial, Thackeray was “indicted after the Mumbai riots of 1992-1993, when he reportedly told his men to ensure that every Muslim be sent to Allah’s house. But he was never tried. India’s leaders feared the chaos that would erupt if he were ever jailed.”

I imagine that this was, in part, what Jay was talking about; a country suffering from the trauma of its own divisions but unable to address it through legal channels acceptable to everyone.

I thought it was significant that this conversation took place on the eve of our own presidential election. In any event I came away from the conversation imbued with a renewed respect for federal prosecutors.