Friday, August 12, 2011

Yes, But

As long as we're on the topic of how many people need to die for a story to break into the news cycle:

On Sunday, July 10, at least 64 people were killed in a train wreck in Fatehpur, in northern India. Maybe more died after. I remember reading the following day that perhaps a cow on the track had inspired some injudicious emergency braking, which in turn led to the thirteen-car derailment. After a few days, I didn't hear anything else, here in India or elsewhere. I can't recall seeing anything in the NYT, but surely there were a couple paragraphs in International?

Two weeks later -- July 23 -- a high-speed train derailed in China, in Wenzhou. 40 people were killed. I haven't stopped hearing about it, yet. Admittedly, this has mostly been meta-news, regarding the short-lived triumph of the thousands of Chinese 'micro-bloggers' who managed to express something like indignation and even outrage at the PRC for its hasty, corruption-riddled approach to major infrastructure projects. Of course, that undercurrent -- the barely-concealed Schadenfreude (mostly here in India and in the U.S.) resulting from our own fears about the rapid infrastructural development in China -- is the story we're supposed to read anyway. Nobody really cares about the microbloggers, not really. I mean, come on. Reuters wants us to believe it suddenly cares about citizen journalism?

(In fact, try this, as I just did: search for "India train wreck." None of the four stories were about the July 10 derailing. Two of them were, in fact, about the Wenzhou accident!)

I know it would be cynical (or, ironically, naive?) to expect that the sense of a train tragedy -- and the corresponding degree of international interest/scrutiny -- might have anything to do with the body count. But I can't help thinking there's something seriously skewed about the attention to these two wrecks.

Is it just what we expect from India? The national train system here is a nightmare of a populist mess (the victims' families were, in all probability, awarded jobs with the train service). The trains themselves are dirty, badly worn, overcrowded. Millions upon millions of Indians depend upon them every day. The 'superfast' long-distance trains, the cream at the top, travel at an average of just below 35 miles an hour. Sometimes they derail and people are killed. More often, people run over at train stations, where they walk across the tracks because the overpasses are in disrepair. The wreck in July was only the biggest accident so far this year. There will be more.

Could India be better at this? Yes, but it won't, until people who matter ride the train. The people who ride the train now? Pffff. A bunch of nobodies. Their comfort? Really? Seriously? These people should be comfortable? They're lucky we subsidize the vada pav at the train station. In spite of its best efforts -- it really is making efforts -- India can't seem to overcome the VIP (and, I'm not kidding, VVIP) culture that frames its way of understanding its public services.

But the official story is: India is a democracy, the world's biggest. It's free. Anyone is welcome to talk about the train wreck, but, awful as this is to say, it just isn't really news. It's good for a few column-inches of hand-wringing and mud-slinging. But 64, in a train wreck? The country is too free, too democratic, for this to be important internationally?

China, on the other hand, I don't know so well. For obvious reasons. But that train that crashed looked really nice. I understand that some of the work has turned out to be sub-standard. Shoddy. I get that there are real problems under that shiny surface. But there's a genuine, and menacing, push for serious infrastructure in that country that is hard to ignore.

Until, you know, microbloggers manage to evade censors. Now that's news.

Finally, speaking of riots and police shooting people and stuff, d'yall hear about the unarmed farmers gunned down by cops here the other day during a protest just outside of Pune?

Yeah, I didn't think so.


Sean Paul said...

Couple of points.

First: last time I rode a train in India was a first class carriage. My cabin mate was a member of parliament. Important people do ride the trains in India. This was actually the second time I shared a cabin with an MP in India. Yes, I know it is first class and the vast majority of Indians cannot afford this. But still, important people do ride the trains.

Second: why is China's infrastructure buildout "menacing"? Is it menacing because they are doing what India is not? Or is it menacing for some other reason?

I will give you this: I think Americans have taken to discussing the issue because as you write it is schadenfreude.

Enjoyed the post.

Sean Paul Kelley

barba de chiva said...

Hey, thanks.

You're right, technically; though generally MPs are on the train pointedly. And they can sometimes make life difficult for everyone else on the train when they do this sort of populist pandering (the trains don't make scheduled stops for security reasons, the usual vendors are prohibited from roaming the cars, etc.). In his or her defense, it sounds like your first-class cabin mate wasn't pandering, though . . .

As for menacing, I couldn't think of a better word. But what I meant was menacing to those of us whose best response, so far, is to celebrate the microbloggers. I don't at all mean menacing in a general sense. Maybe 'awesome' would have been a better word. I'm not sure.

Anyway, thanks.