Saturday, July 15, 2006

Mumbai Railroad Blues

I have very fond memories of the Mumbai commuter rail system from when I lived in the city for an overall too short period of time eight years ago. I think the commuter rail is truly one of the ``seven marvels'' of human civilization: a system of trains that delivers each day of the week six million people to their working place and then back home. It is the heartbeat of the huge living organism that is Mumbai. I remember flying into Mumbai from central Europe, getting there in the middle of the night and then seeing the city come alive, its pulse quickening, the trains running more and more frequently. I remember on a warm and lazy afternoon the road that leads to Churchgate, the pavement lined with booksellers where you are sure to get all the latest state-of-the-art software engineering literature you might wish to possess. I remember walking there just before rush hour begins and then waiting for the flow of people to build up to a rushing stream, a mightly river that carries you along towards and into the railroad terminal.

Today I am watching the images of the aftermath of the train blasts of July 11 and I remember stations names, landscapes. I dreamt of Mumbai for years after I left it: of all cities I ever even briefly inhabited, it is still the one I love the most.

Mumbai Suburban Railway
Mumbai on the Net

There's much talking of India as (one of) the superpowers of the future, the giants of economic growth, that will one day take the place of faltering Europe and embattled US. I do so much hope it will! Today India has scientific capability that can easily rival with most of the so called developed world. Some Indian research institutes would fare in comparison better than nearly any European institution and would lag behind just a handful of North American ones.

Tata Institute of Fundamental Research

There's been a lot of talking of the emergence of China as a world power. That's under the eyes of everybody. Come to think of it, why shouldn't that be the case? Across millennia of human history China was always the most technologically advanced civilization. It was only an accident of history that brought about the emergence of European and North American world powers during the nineteenth and the twentieth century and momentarily took (by force mostly) the lead over the rest of the world. The current phase of accelerated development of China is only the natural course that will bring it back to its prominent position.

With India the issue is in a sense far more interesting, because India will also develop into one of the new superpowers, but the course of events that will lead to its emergence is perhaps more fascinating and uncertain.

The issue of the emergence of India as a global power, the role of secularism and of its rich tradition of scientific and rational thinking, as well as a very interesting comparison between the paths of development of both China and India, are beautifully treated in the book "The argumentative Indian" by Economy Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. I especially recommend in this book the first essay (and in particular the parts on the historic origins of Indian secularism in the times of the kingdoms of Ashoka and of Akbar, the role of the atheist tradition in Indian philosophy, and the general discussion on scientific achievements). The whole criticism of the Hindutva movement and the rising Hindu nationalism is beautifully argued and maximally to the point. The essay on India and China provides a careful comparative analysis of achievements and obstacles, which touches upon all the most relevant issues starting from mutual historic influences and on to issues of great contemporary relevance such as choices in matters of basic education, politics and the role of democracy, health care and family planning. The many essays collected in the book are full of gems the reader will discover, such as the discussion of the Indian identity and its misrepresentations in the eyes of the West.

Amartya Sen Nobel Lecture