When questioned about the cultural and technological stagnation that came with socialism, a bureaucrat in Nehru's time once remarked that all the best work had already been done in the West, and we merely had to pick ideas for our own use. At a time when Indian inventiveness and productivity were state-controlled and highly suspect, borrowing made a lot of sense.
Sadly, even in today's era of open economic borders, we still remain unconvinced that the Indian mind is capable of producing anything of real value. The new Terminal 3 at Delhi's Indira Gandhi International airport is cited as the eighth-largest in the world, and comes loaded with other enthralling statistics: a floor area of over six million square feet, the equivalent of 20 malls, 92 automatic walkways, 78 aerobridges and 168 check-in counters. In every respect, the building showcases all the high-tech skills of construction and automation, and all the customer satisfying conveniences that say that the building belongs to the new century.
Certainly, the successful completion of a large and complex structure like an airport is to be commended. But is the satisfaction of statistical demands the only way to go?
What makes London's Heathrow airport a traveller's nightmare is the unfortunate mile after mile of mind-numbing anonymity that goes with the experience of moving 40 million people annually. Jakarta airport may not be in the same league, but its thoughtful, extremely Indonesian layout provides precisely the opposite experience. You move past courtyards of plantations that induce a quiet intimacy and a background of such calm that the trials of long distance travel are subdued and annulled.
But Jakarta and London are specific to the identities of the two very different places. Unfortunately the grand design of infrastructure in India is still based on the bureaucrat's belief that the best work has already happened in the West. Terminal 3, though built in Delhi, was designed by American architects, and managed by MGF, a Dubai-based construction consortium. It uses tempered glass, a steel frame, and aluminum cladding all shipped from abroad. However, as a concession to India, Indian labour was employed in its erection. World class it is, because it's conceived and built by the world.
The various venues for the upcoming Commonwealth Games reveal a similar story. Peddle Thorp, an Australian architecture firm, has designed the indoor stadium for badminton and squash; the new, aquatic centre is the brainchild of a foreign company that specialises in water sports facilities; the refurbishment of Jawaharlal Nehru stadium, which now looks like a space ship, was carried out by the German engineering firm of Schlaich Bergermann and Partners. The food concessions at the Games Village are being handled by another Australian company. In almost all facilities, the foreign hand can be felt from conception to realisation, catering to management. Enthralled by the scale of the endeavours, the shine and sparkle of steel and glass, as Indians we have stood by proudly to watch from the sidelines.
Foreign technology and inventiveness on Indian soil is certainly not new, especially in a country that has had a long history of direct imitation and mimicry. In the 1970s, it was a matter of Punjabi pride that the world's most successful innovations could be copied in Ludhiana. Grimy workshops filled with labour were kept busy producing German machine parts, American denim, and other sundry items picked up in European markets. Indian businessmen travelled abroad to European industrial fairs and American specialty stores merely to buy items that could be duplicated in India at a fifth of the cost. Today, things remain much the same, only the scale of the borrowing has changed; as an open society we need no longer secretly copy and produce, but invite the original inventors to participate in a global bid.