Some time back, while touring around in a small California town with a local friend, we came to the town hall.
“This is the town hall. This is where it began for our town in 1896. We bring all tourists here.” My American friend said looking at the town hall. He had a mixture of pride and awe in his eye. When he looked at the town hall, it reminded him of the efforts taken by early settlers to clear up things, build roads, houses, bridges and make way for the generations to come to leave peacefully.
I grew up in Mumbai. I must have passed over the municipality building, the old General Post Office building and other building hundreds of times. But I never thought about them in such a way. For me, any government establishment was always dirty, slow, corrupt and useless. It existed only because the favor I did as a taxpayer. I felt no personal connection with the old era Mumbai.
British people introduced this form of institutions and government systems in India. They replaced existing social institutions which were local, disorganized, disconnected and based on some outdated social customs, based on caste or religions etc.
The new institutions they created were impartial to existing class/caste systems. The universities were open to any caste. The government office was open to any religion. The police would protect anyone whether he/she was from Royal family or a poor peasant family. Anyone could use the roads. Anyone could ride the trams and trains. May be don’t appreciate it as such, but the very identity of an individual without religion, caste, social status was somewhat of a new thought and British get credit for introducing that to India.
This same age saw Industrial revolution taking over the world and a new social class, middle class, was born. This class in society was not poor enough to stay entirely focused on survival, yet not rich enough to stay busy merry making. Given a decent infrastructure, this middle class could afford a stable lifestyle with some room left for fun, and given access to these public systems they could work to improve their lifestyle.
Indian middle class took advantage of all the infrastructure and the public systems. When it became possible, this middle class sent their kids to good schools. When the doors of opportunities opened up, these kids immigrated to other countries.
But the this middle class never wholeheartedly felt connection to the institutions that made it all possible. They did not look at the government as anything other than a source of most stable jobs.
Perhaps because they were busy competing in the rush for better lifestyle? Or perhaps these institutions were not really created by them from scratch? They had not invested blood sweat and tears to get voting rights. They had not walked miles for water. They had not been denied education because they were part of or were not part of a social group. In some ways British had to force these institutions on them.
So in the Indian social fabric, these public institutions always got a orphan or step-child treatment. When it came to making contribution of money or time, we preferred our language / caste / religion based institutions. But when it came to expecting returns, we unleashed our wrath on all these public institutions. No matter that the temple does nothing for me, I am happy to drop money in the donation slot year after year. But no matter if municipality gives me uninterrupted water for 364 days, if it’s out on the day 365, I am mad as hell. (All these while conveniently forgetting that I myself wasted precious water to wash God idols time after time)
Barely half of us vote in elections every four years. Most of us pay taxes not because they are particular in paying taxes, but because the taxes are taken out from the paycheck, not leaving any choice. That’s all is our involvement in creating functioning institutions. Yet all of us take time to continuously criticize these institutions.
I never remember feeling any pride when I looked at the building of Mumbai Municipality. The disconnect is so gross is that I do not even know where is the first institution that took care of Mumbai.
Today, looking back, I dream of the day when we will glean over the pictures of our old universities, railway stations, town halls. We will have that glaze of nostalgia in our eyes and we will tell the fellows around “This is from good old times. This is where it all began for Mumbai.”