New Delhi, June, 1998. Searing heat of the highest Indian summer I've ever experienced. Taking off for the hills. First stop, Dehra Doon – 250 kms away. This is the beautiful valley that is the gateway to the Garhwal – famous in the days of the Raj for Mussoorie, then known as the ‘Queen of hill stations’. But Garhwal has been important from time immemorial for the pilgrim destinations of Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. We are headed for Gangotri – near the source of the Ganga, the sacred river of Indian civilization.
I recall a National Geographic article entitled ‘From the Hair of Shiva’ which I read as a child. It told of a journey from Gangotri to Calcutta in an amphibious jeep. Well, many years later, here we were, in two Marutis, heading for the sacred river that emerged from a divine dreadlock and bequeathed fertility to an entire civilization.
It is early morning. As we approach the edge of town a cop stops us. He's wearing a mufti shirt on his uniform trousers, and he looks quite mean. I'm in the second car. I have to follow because I do not know all the turns – and there are no road signs. The cop and my friend ahead have a long discussion. I get a little impatient. Then my friend emerges from his car and approaches my window. Seems the cop wants some money, because his car has tinted film on its windows – and these have just been banned in Delhi. I give the cop a big piece of my mind and we exit town. Foul taste in the mouth.
HIGHWAY #61, REVISITED
Dylan on the stereo: ‘Highway #61, Revisited’. But this potholed anomaly where death lurks at every corner ain't no highway. A proper highway would be reserved for motorized vehicles capable of cruising at a basic minimum speed. It would have lanes painted on it; there would be a lane for breakdowns; there would be high-visibility signs to guide you to your destination and ensure you don't take any wrong turns; it would have exits to take you to towns and villages – they would not crop up on the highway itself.
I first saw a proper highway when I was a student in London. I hired a car for the day and took off on the motorway nearest to my house in West Hampstead. I drove to Oxford, Bath and back. Exhilarating. It was the same highway the world watched during the unhappy occasion of Princess Diana's funeral. The cortege went through the city streets for about half an hour before turning on to the highwav. There were many bridges across the motorway upon which people stood and showered flowers. These bridges were built so that the highway could be crossed safely and conveniently at regular intervals. Lanes were clearly marked; signage was excellent; and the other fact to note is that the royal family arrived at that country mansion in some remote English village by train! So they say ‘every great city sits like a giant spider on its transportation network’ The capital of India, New Delhi, from which a powerful state governs an ancient civilization, is not such a city. Far from being a nimble spider, it is more like a gigantic blob that keeps bloating year by year. Every Indian city is likewise. Economists at the Planning Commission don’t know the worth of cities.
We're playing Side 2 of ‘Highway #61, Revisited’ now. The track: ‘Desolation Row’. That's what this street should be called. It continues almost forever as a dismal urban thoroughfare. It leaves Delhi and goes through another town, and another and another. At Meerut there's a bypass, but people are building all kinds of things on the bypass. I travel this route regularly. Every time I pass by I see another new construction here. There is now an institute of management; various dhabas; a school; a housing colony; a church and even a village of tanners. All this was built after the bypass came up. The bypass has become an urban road.
After Meerut, the highway becomes a rural road. Every manner of farm vehicle plies on it. The highway has also become narrower, from so-called ‘four-laned’ to ‘two-laned’. Of course these lanes are only notional. There is no paint on the highways of India. They're spending our money on more important things - things presumably essential for our ‘development’. Highways, rural roads and urban roads are not on that list. They'd rather spend on ‘poverty alleviation’ and ‘employment generation’.
In the ‘four-laned’ section to Meerut the good thing was that the slow vehicles (and the hawkers, cyclists and pedestrians) kept to the sides - so motorized vehicles effectively had the central section free for them. Things are no longer so simple. I am cruising along merrily when a bus coming from the opposite direction decides to overtake a bullock-cart ahead of him. The bus swerves on to the road directly in front of me, and pushes me off the highway! There are too many such experiences on Desolation Row.
Just short of Muzaffarnagar, the only town other than Meerut with a ‘bypass’, I have this ‘Khatauli Revisited’ experience. Khatauli is a town that completely and totally assaults the sensitivities of any student of government - for it proves that our rulers are ‘irrational’ and ‘predatory’. Here, the highway - when it is supposed to be the town's main street - completely disintegrates. Khatauli is a town without a main street! They have paved the street now with uneven stones which makes progress difficult, but not long ago main street was just moonscape. On both sides of main street are shops where colour TVs, VCRs, washing machines and refrigerators (now frost-free) are being sold to residents. Consumers of the town are paying indirect taxes. The predatory state has not supplied the town with a proper main street - an essential public good. The price of Khatauli sugar is listed in the commodities page in The Economic Times. Khatauli produces wealth and bristles with commerce. Obviously it also pays taxes. Yet it does not have a main street.
I have travelled on the other route to Dehra Doon via Panipat and Shamli and I have noticed this phenomenon there too: within every town, the highway simply disintegrates. There are many towns around the capital of India which do not have a main street. We have proof of the predatory state all around the capital.
As we cruise along we come to a major traffic jam, presumably another ghastly accident. We are passing through a small village - that is, a large number of tiny houses lining both sides of the highway. We find a road leading off the highway and, along with many others, take the diversion.
This side street is narrow, rutted and virtually non-existent. It has buildings on either side for barely a hundred yards - and then the open fields begin. The truth is: this is a large country. There is lots of space. The way to use the space efficiently is to build roads. Had there been side roads, our little village need not have cropped up right on the highway. Therefore, when we travel on a busy Indian highway, through innumerable crowded towns, what we see is not the ‘population problem’. It is the undersupply of roads causing everyone to congregate on the only road available. Further, the lack of connectivity between the primary city - in this case Delhi - and its surrounding towns means that Delhi bloats up while the surrounds do not develop to their full potential. We need spider cities.
After Roorkee, just short of Doon, we enter a forest - and get that refreshing feeling of finally being out of town. The road is full of monkeys. Everyone feeds the monkeys so they prefer hanging around the highway instead of looking for food in the lush forest. This is risky business for the monkeys - I have often seen those that couldn't dodge the traffic in time - but it must be easier. Brings to mind something from Bauer. The fact that these monkeys beg does not imply the forest is without resources. Monkeys beg because we, the people, actively encourage them to do so - by feeding them. Bauer pointed this out with regard to the real beggars of our cities: they do not prove the country is poor. Widespread begging does not prove poverty. The fact is that both Hindus and Muslims consider it meritorious to give to beggars. Beggary is thereby encouraged. There are no Sikh or Parsi beggars in India because these communities practice charity in a different way and instil the value of self-help.
FROM DEHRA DOON TO UTTARKASHI
In Dehra Doon the size of the group increases: we proceed the next morning in three Marutis - the third a new ‘Zen’. Another point: all three cars are made by a company in which the state has a 50% stake - which it sticks to most unashamedly. The state has invested in a car factory. It has not invested in roads. Irrational? Predatory? What do we call this manner of statal investment?
Mussoorie is just about 30 km from Dehra Doon and the road is generally passable, but it gets crowded as we approach town. It is the height of the season. We enter at a point called ‘Library,’ and see the faint outlines of the lovely town that the British built and we Indians destroyed. We note that in both Dehra Doon and Mussoorie the British supplied public goods: Dehra Doon's clocktower and Mussoorie's library are just that. We take the narrow road past the right of the library and head towards Mussoorie's famous picnic spot - Kempty Falls.
It is a narrow road flanked by houses, making progress difficult. This crowded scenario continues for about a kilometre - during which time we pass the National Academy of Administration, the state's pretension to knowledge. Then the town ends and the open countryside starts. Some ten km on and we come to the famous falls. The kids get excited, but we pass by. We have to go all the way to Uttarkashi, and our journey has barely begun. And too many people around the falls. A little beyond, we stop for coffee and sandwiches.
Our group comprises the four of us - friends who began double dating over 15 years ago - our three children and two grandparents with an even older friend. Three well represented generations. One grandparent has lived in these parts since childhood and she recalls the beauty of Kempty in the old days. What has happened to it since then she calls ‘uglification’. Need I say more?
The journey to Uttarkashi is magical the rest of the way. For the major part we drive along the blue-green Yamuna, then turn off east to head for the brown waters of the Ganga. Lunch is at a little dhaba: karhi-chawal and a bonus rajmah. Good stuff. By the time lunch is over, the clouds have come in, the wind is high, and rain imminent. All our little cars have loaded carriers atop. Only one has a waterproof cover. I know the rucksacks we are carrying are not waterproof. This unpleasant discovery was made the previous year when we were holidaying in Kumaon, the adjoining district made famous by Jim Corbett. We were deep in the Kumaon, past Bageshwar, when we were caught in tearing rain. The next day we found, to our shock, that our Indian rucksacks were not waterproof, and our clothes were hopelessly damp. Thankfully it was a sunny day, and the compound where we camped soon resembled a dhobi ghat. We shrug and visualize another dhobi ghat in Uttarkashi, - and proceed on our way.
It does rain. A lot. But that makes everything just that much more magical. Till then it has been hot. We are in T-shirts, wearing dark glasses. It is, after all, the height of the Indian summer; hot even in the hills. Suddenly it grows cool and the green of the thickly wooded mountains in the soft grey afternoon light is a sight the eyes drink in thirstily. And there are the jacaranda trees: Till now they have been purple patches we drove by, but now they are purple paths we drive on! The rain has brought down the flowers and stretches of the road have become a swirling mass of purple.
OBSERVATIONS IN UTTARKASHI
Uttarkashi is the last petrol pump. Sorry, no unleaded. The two older cars tank up. Town looks dismal. We cross a narrow bridge onto a broken down street whose surface improves as soon as habitation ends: same old story. A kilometre on we're in The Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, with its wide open spaces, well-laid streets and pretty houses. Proves the point: roads create space. The road up the hill created the space for this institute. This lesson is even more important in the hills. Our ‘hill stations’ are crowded simply because there are not enough roads around. Mussoorie is not spread out for this reason. Dehra Doon is likewise. As is the capital of India, Delhi. If Delhi was the kind of city that ‘sits like a giant spider on its transportation network’, the residents of Delhi would have spread out all over the place into the vast open spaces that this huge country has afforded us. Ghaziabad, Modinagar, Muzzafarnagar, Khatauli, Roorkee - the towns between Delhi and Dehra Doon - would all have ‘developed’. Similarly, if Dehra Doon itself had a tramway network that linked it to outlying smaller towns (like Herbertpur), the urban development picture would have been different. Mussoorie, too, with better roads all around (and I have often visited the Landaur area) would have spread out instead of being crowded.
Last year I found this very same phenomenon in Nainital: A crowded, dirty town around a beautiful lake - that's what you see. I was surprised to find that Raj Bhavan - the Governor of Uttar Pradesh's palace on top of the hill - has an 18-hole golf course. A road created the space for the palace and its golf course, just as it did for the NIM, Uttarkashi. Excellent roads around Nainital, connecting it to the other lakes in the neighbourhood, would have spread tourism and administration. Unfortunately, the entire burden has fallen on Nainital itself - the primary town of the district. And roads have been undersupplied.
At Uttarkashi, while the rooms are duly converted into dhobi ghats, I take off for the town to pick up some waterproof covers for the luggage. It is still light. I am advised, by a hardware storeowner on the roadside, to park, walk across the river on a footbridge, enter the ‘main’ market, and find a shop called ‘Paramount’. Sure enough I find the famous Paramount. I get three strong, white plastic sheets for Rs. 100/= only! He knows these things are required in that area - so he stocks them. I don't know where I would have found these in Delhi. I look around his shop. He has jackets, rucksacks, sleeping bags and the like. He got these products from the plains - Hardwar. Lucknow and Delhi. Proves the first point of the free marketeer: that place of manufacture is irrelevant. As long as anything sells, from anywhere, there is gain. In these hill towns, everything comes from outside - even vegetables. Nothing is locally manufactured. Yet there are economic gains and commerce because of trade. Shopkeepers stock the products they think will sell, and if these are sold they reap a reward for anticipating demand accurately. Paramount had anticipated demand for plastic sheets as also for rucksacks, jackets and sleeping bags. These, however, are all sourced only from Indian cities only because we believe in swadeshi - import and exchange controls. But to both the trader and the customer, place of manufacture is irrelevant to the economic gains from trade. If Paramount had American tents, German sleeping bags and Australian (waterproof) rucksacks, it would not have made a difference to his gains as a trader - or to my gains as a consumer. By restricting Paramount's sourcing area to Indian cities we have effectively restricted his ability to trade - and hence his ability to generate wealth, create markets for new products and serve his customers. Swadeshi is not a trading ideology. It places local manufacturing above trade. In a way swadeshi is like socialism - for it believes that the state can create ‘industrialization’ (i.e. local manufacturing industry) by restricting trade. This is where Nehru meets Advani!
What about foreign exchange problems if we have free trade? Will the wealth of India not just disappear overseas? Not really. Money is just a medium of exchange. Real goods matter more than token money. If we were to give away our gold and get real goods - like Ferraris - in exchange, what would it matter? Suppose a tiny agrarian village sold its annual harvest in Town A and then, with all its earnings, bought its requirements in Town B - what difference would it make to the local economy? None whatsoever. What difference would it make if our villagers, instead of blowing up their earnings in Calcutta, decided to shop till they drop in Singapore? What it requires is good money freely tradable and of stable value. Free trade cannot transpire without sound money.
I ask Paramount some questions about the market: How many shops? How much business? I emerge from the shop and look around with new eyes. It is a very narrow street - couldn't believe it when a Jeep drove through - with hundreds of little shops on each side. I am told there are 400 such shops in Uttarkashi doing a few crores worth of business every year. The only liquor shop in town rakes in 50,000 rupees every day! I discover that a shop in the main market costs upwards of 1,50,000/-. Elsewhere in the town a little shop comes for about 35,000/-. Sounds like expensive real estate, but only because of an undersupply of roads - the same diagnosis. More roads would have meant more space - and additions to the supply of usable land would naturally lead to a lowering of real estate values.
My son wants a pen knife. I find a chap on a cycle polishing knives. I buy a little pen knife. Then we get talking. Transpires he's from Bijnor. I see the benefits of free immigration. He rents a place here for 500 rupees a month. He earns about 200 rupees a day - as he is, in his own opinion, a ‘technical’ man. I'm astounded.
This ‘technical man’ and Mr. Paramount validate my law of prosperity: ‘Technical’ is a Person with Knowledge (PK) in the market. Paramount is likewise. He knows what's available, and he knows the needs of the people. He not only knows their needs, he anticipates their needs. He sees a new product and thinks of a customer. He is, as a trader in Uttarkashi, soldiering for the market at the point Lord Bauer calls ‘the development frontier’.
Here is proof of Hayek's theory of knowledge: that ‘planners’ cannot collect the knowledge required to effectively replace the market. Paramount's stock; the shop opposite selling plastic, brass and bronzeware; the shop that sells umbrellas, windcheaters and raincoats; the knife man - all these are operating in the market with very special knowledge of demand conditions, supply situations, and - in the case of ‘technical’ - a scarce skill that is largely ‘uncodifiable’. (The skills of a successful trader are also ‘uncodifiable’.) No planning body can collect all the knowledge these people possess and manage to effectively replace the market. If it were attempted, the people would only be supplied with the goods that planners have rationed out for their consumption. The wide choice would have been absent. There would have been a considerable lowering of local prosperity and economic contentment. Instead of economic freedom there would be slavery.
The market brings into active community service all the diverse bits of knowledge we separately possess. This knowledge may in many cases be ‘confidential’. Paramount may never be willing to divulge the address of his sleeping bag supplier in New Delhi. But the bags are there to be bought. Planning, on the other hand and in marked contrast, uses power without adequate knowledge. A frightening thought!
For example: a beer in Delhi on a hot day. It is still summer as I write. I'm just getting out of 'holiday mode'. Beer is a pleasant summer drink. Indeed, quite essential when temperatures cross 40 degrees. Now in Delhi - unlike any other Indian city - the state has a monopoly on the retail trade of alcoholic beverages. Which means, if you want a beer, hit a government shop. This naturally poses many disadvantages to the customer - in this case, yours truly. In the past 15 days I have thrice failed to get beer. Twice there was no beer in stock. The third time they had only one brand of super strong beer, which is something I particularly loathe. But that's not the point either. We were talking about knowledge and the market.
The state, as a monopolist of the retail trade in alcoholic beverages, cannot effectively replace the market if it cannot collect the knowledge required for the task. It seeks to run a retail chain. This requires aggregating demand information for a wide variety of brands of a large number of products. I saw such a system in operation in London when my wife at the time worked for WH Smith, Britain's largest retail chain of newsagents, stationers, book and music sellers. A very complex and advanced electronic information system kept the central warehouse informed about the movement of diverse stocks in all the shops. The warehouse could then supply each shop with its requirements on a daily basis - beginning with the day's newspapers. The government of Delhi does not have any such system. It therefore can never run its monopoly retail chain properly. WH Smith have their system, after all, because they are competing with local newsagents. In Delhi, the state is operating a monopoly.
By the same logic, planning cannot work. The information required is simply too awesome to handle. In Hayek's words: What cannot be known cannot be planned. Economic decision-making, from investing in steel and power plants to buying a beer on a hot summer day, is best left to disaggregated individuals in the free marketplace. The state and its planners will only undersupply the things we need - like roads, power, phones, railways... and beer. For all these things there is ‘effective demand’ - which means demand backed by purchasing power. I went looking for beer with money in my wallet. People want to pay for power; they want to pay for phones; they want to pay for railway tickets; they surely want to pay for roads - but nothing is forthcoming because the state has monopolized these areas and not allowed the market in.
HARSIL, WHERE EVEN THE STONES ARE HAPPY
From Uttarkashi it is a short hop to Harsil - where we plan to camp for four days. But the road is a nightmare. It is simply too narrow for comfort. There are several hair-raising moments when we come perilously close to the edge of an abyss and cringe as a mammoth bus passes just a hairbreadth from us. One nudge and we'd be history. In the hills the custom is to give way to the vehicle going uphill, but buses don't care for Marutis. They come barreling downhill and expect you - and the entire convoy - to scamper for cover. The road has been built by the Border Roads Organization. I do not see why an ancient place of pilgrimage should still be on the ‘border’. If anything, since masses of Indians desire to go there, it should have an excellent highway provided just by the market. After all, there are millions of consumers for the road. Gabriel Roth's ideas of turning roads into marketable goods deserve serious note in India. The state has definitely failed in this vital area.
Harsil is just 20 km short of Gangotri and we are told a romantic fable about the origin of its name. Harsil is a combination of two Sanskrit words: harsh, which means happy. and sil - stones. Harsil is ‘Happy Stones’. I like the name of the place. If the stones are happy, the people must be happier still. Last year in the Kumaon we visited another place with a lovely name: a little village called Song.
The story goes that a good king of Harsil prayed to the gods to divert the river Bhagirathi to make it flow through his capital. When the gods agreed and the river took this wide turn at Harsil, the stones in the valley were overjoyed hence the name. The riverbed is covered with smooth round stones about double the size of a football. I am told that in winter, when the flow of water is much reduced, the river laps gently over the stones and Harsil lives up to its name.
We have some rooms, but we also have three tents - which we pitch beside a brook just 10 metres short of where it merges into the Bhagirathi. A thicket of pines shields the tents from the strong afternoon winds Harsil is known for. The babbling brook and the thundering river provide all the music you need at bedtime. That night, as we sip rum sitting on the sandy beach outside our tents, the clear night sky reveals how the river has indeed ‘turned’ to go through Harsil. The big dipper, like a giant spoon pouring its shining contents into the rushing waters, showed North to lie across the river. The river flows east to west here. Gangotri should lie north. We drive there the next morning. In two cars this time, for unleaded fuel must be conserved.
Harsil is a valley surrounded by snow covered peaks, two of which - Harsil ke Singh or the ‘Horns of Harsil’ - impose themselves upon the horizon like twin Matterhorns. From all these peaks, streams of crystal clear water descend into the valley and merge with the Bhagirathi. We have two streams near the camp. And the small town is criss-crossed with them. Hence there are little footbridges everywhere. Sometimes they flow right across the main road. One we dubbed ‘natural carwash’ - for it pours over the cars and bathes them clean. There are also a couple of avalanches on the route. Ice in huge sheets has slid down the mountainside bringing trees and mud into the already muddy river. There are workers without gloves or socks clearing the road for us. The women have the most incredible nose rings and I pause to photograph them. Turns out they're from Nepal. Migrant labour. The local people must be well off.
There are some interesting signs on the highway. At Lanka, the toll bridge is at least a thousand feet above the riverbed and you look down into two deep gorges through which the Adiganga and the Bhagirathi flow into one another while rock pigeons (the original ancestors of the common pigeon) fly around. As you cross the bridge there is a big roads department signboard in Hindi saying Jaldi bhi kya hai pyarey, dekh prakriti ke nazarey: What's the hurry pal; stop and see the splendour of nature. We take a picture around this happy sign. But there is another that we cannot fathom at all. Just a few kilometres short of Gangotri a rock sign in English proclaims ‘God is nowhere’. It bears a military insignia. We take another picture seated around this, the ultimate philosopher's stone. This is India! And God is nowhere! The army says so.
FROM THE HAIR OF SHIVA, GANGOTRI
We arrive at Gangotri - God's own town. You know you have reached when you come across a line of vehicles parked on the left. It is a long file so we press on ahead hoping to find a place to park somewhere further up. A cop stops us, points to a scooped out hole in the mountainside where you can reverse and make a three-point turn, and orders us back. There's a minister coming, he says, telling us to disappear. Proof of what the late Prof. Henry Parris, historian of British bureaucracy, once told me: by constitutional law, British bureaucrats exist to serve ministers - not the people. Our bureaucrats, from top to bottom, are likewise. Luckily our cars are small and we find crannies for them.
It is a long walk up to the temple. The street is narrow - too narrow and getting narrower all the time: undersupply of public goods yet again. Both sides are lined with shops selling food, trinkets, souvenirs, groceries, camping requirements and so on. Everywhere sit sadhus with all their mysterious paraphernalia. We approach what looks like the main square. The narrow street heads towards the temple - you can't see it yet, but it is just around the corner. This is where the real ‘bazaar’ is. There is a huge rock on the right dotted with scores of energetic small black birds with bright yellow beaks - probably Himalayan thrushes. A pathway straggles down to a footbridge across the muddy river. There are numerous boarding and lodging establishments lining the other bank. I see a sadhu coming up from the bridge. I take a wide-angled shot of the scene. As soon as I put the camera down the sadhu approaches me and teasingly scolds me for having taken a picture of his mahhan sharir - magnificent body. Chal, mujhe ek kilo chini kharid de, he goes on to order: Come, buy me a kilo of sugar!
I peer at this wizened, shrunken old man in dreadlocks, wearing nothing but two pieces of coarse cotton cloth, and think: Why not? The man has style. A provision store is at hand and I ask the shopkeeper to do the needful. The sadhu seems pleased as punch. He gets conversational and informs me that he needs sugar because he makes his own tea. Why not take some tea too? I ask. He is thrilled. I go on towards the temple. The road becomes extremely narrow, the shops more numerous and closely packed.
It is obvious we are at a place very important to the entire Indian civilization and not just to northern India, through which this river flows. There is a shop selling Marwari food to crowds of people I presume are Marwaris from Rajasthan, an arid desert without any river whatsoever. There are plenty of Gujaratis and one can hear the sounds of South Indian languages being spoken. I meet a gentle sadhu from Kerala who speaks good English. Bengalis, of course, are too numerous to even try and count. Many sadhus are Bengali.
The sunshine is bright and it's difficult standing barefoot on the stone slabs that pave the temple courtyard. I have an enlightening experience soon after. When I retrieve my shoes I forget about the camera bag and leave it behind. When it suddenly occurs to me some ten minutes later, I rush back to find the little shoe depository overflowing with people. But the bag is exactly where I had left it. Makes me think that ours is indeed a civilization, and a great one at that. Which means that people have, within themselves, absorbed a moral code that evolved over thousands of years. This moral code obviously includes property rights. It is shameful that our constitution does not accept this morality and protect property rights. This opinion is reinforced once again in Gangotri - but we'll talk of that later,
When I return to the spot which can be called the main square of Gangotri town - where the path leads down to the bridge and the great big rock dominates - I am met by yet another sadhu with a request to buy him a bar of soap. I agree. I have just purchased a large brass trishul - Shiva's trident – from a trinket shop and I presume, with my long hair, I look like a serious Shiva devotee. The sadhus and sadhvins descend upon me. Soap, sugar, tea, matches, a kilo of flour, a pair of rubber slippers... I am transformed into a Santa Claus for the sadhu community. But mark one thing. Not everyone comes. Many just sit back and watch. When everything is over and my wallet much depleted, I return to the rest of the group who are in the tea shop next door wondering what on earth has come over me. They greet me with a mock round of applause; I take a bow. We finish our tea and head back towards the cars. Some go for a short trek to a cave nearby which was once inhabited by the Pandavas. I am wondering what to do with myself when yet another sadhu, with an even more imperious voice, touches me on the shoulder and asks: Ai bhakth! Tu dum lagatha hai? Translated: Hey devotee! Do you smoke the holy smoke?
Sure, I say, whereupon he invites me to join his group. We sit there, huddled in a circle, in the main market square of this holy city, and blow a chillum. The sadhu gives me a little piece of hashish as prasad. I give him some money to help him during the rest of his pilgrimage. The sadhu speaks of the ancient wisdom of the land - of maya, the ‘illusion’ which is ruining life in the plains; and how people who come here need to meditate - and not just perform rituals and return. Salvation cannot come from rituals alone, he says.
It is obvious sadhus are philosophically insightful; it is also obvious they are physically hardy. On the road to Gangotri, all the way from Uttarkashi, you come across hundreds of sadhus trekking the route. They go all the way to Gaumukh. Indeed, most trek the entire ‘char dham’ (or four holy places) tour of Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. Sadhus were our earliest botanists, exploring the plant world for herbs that had medicinal purposes. They discovered cannabis. They have been using this for over 4000 years. We smoked it in the main city square and no one even looked at us or raised an eyebrow. This is India, and our legislators – who are supposed to be ‘representatives of the people’ in this, the world's largest democracy – have made this herb illegal.
Stoned immaculate, I return to the cars, alone. That is when another funny thing happens. I find a loaf of bread on the roof of my car. Just that. A plastic wrapped fresh loaf of fresh bread sitting atop my car. No-one from the group is about. Some have gone to the cave; the rest, I later discover, have walked on ahead to a shaded spot to play Scrabble. I am there, stoned, alone, with a car with a loaf of bread on its roof, wondering where on earth everyone is. And what is this silly loaf of bread doing there anyway?
I find a rock on the mountainside above the car, plant my trishul into the dry ground and sit down. It is a long wait. The loaf remains where it is. You could say there are beggars everywhere - because these sadhus beg. [To live on aims is the holy man's way of life. The Buddha begged too.] Everyone who passes looks at this loaf of bread - because it makes for such a peculiar sight, perched atop an unattended car - no-one notices me, but no-one touches it. Makes you think once again about morality, the market and property rights, and the concept of ‘spontaneous order’. (It later emerges that the bread has been left on the roof by one of our forgetful kids.) We sit under the stars again that night at Harsil. Babbling brook; rolling river. I smoke the prasad. Happily stoned at Happy Stones.
REMEMBERING ‘RAJA’ WILSON
The tiny town of Harsil is on a dirt track off the main Uttarkashi-Gangotri road. The dirt track ends in a small market square, in which seven government vehicles are parked. Presumably their occupants have taken over the government hotel there. Someone comments that the place has the atmosphere of an Alpine town - but lacks the ‘sophistication’. There are shops selling all kinds of things. I even find bottled mineral water - here, where every stream bears pure water! Up the track, across another footbridge over another gushing stream, past some apple orchards, and we come to a burnt-out ruin called ‘Wilson's Cottage’. Wilson was an Englishman who came to Harsil with the knowledge of growing apples. He spread this knowledge, married locally, proclaimed himself ‘Raja of Harsil’ and even coined his own currency. On his death the cottage became a forest department bungalow, but it burnt down a few years ago - and nothing has been done to restore it. Wilson's memory is likely to fade away. Was he a good king? Better than today's rulers, whose cars dominate the market square? A question worth examining.
Well, we spend four lovely days in Happy Stones. The kids enjoy swimming and larking about in the big stream. Or they make sandcastles on the wide silver beach of the river. When the winds of Harsil rise every afternoon there's quite a sandstorm. High altitude beaches and sandstorms are quite different from seasides and deserts. The feeling and the sight is impossible for me to put down in suitably poetic prose. We do not do the Gaumukh trek as planned - which suits me fine because I have really had enough of sadhus, religion and charity. I spend time reading Hayek's ‘The Denationalization of Money: The Argument Refined’ and wonder about the quality of the currency Wilson issued.
When we are packing up to leave, we find two black scorpions in one tent. This is the Indian tent. Our two other tents are gifts from loving relatives who have migrated to places where good tents are available. They fold up into little packets; they are easy to put up and take down; and they seal up completely when you zip them up. We have often found it preferable to sleep in these tents rather than in rooms because insects never get in. How come the scorpions? And thank heavens the children were not in it. We decide swadeshi is bull. We need good products and the only way to get them is through free trade. Scorpion-proof tents and waterproof rucksacks we definitely need.
We return to spend a few days in Dehra Doon. We hear about the heat in Delhi - and the power cuts - and dread having to go back. This power shortage business has got to end. Every marketplace in Dehra Doon hummed with private generators. Where we were staying, the voltage was so low that there was no ice for our drinks. In Harsil, the voltage was probably in single digits: candles outshone Edison. Electricity is a private good. It can be priced and sold. There are millions who want to consume it for a fee. There may be millions too who want it free. But then, if possible, these people wouldn't pay for anything. They probably don't buy tickets on trains. They are ‘free-riders’. Why should they matter so much that policies to supply electricity privately get held up? We need reliable suppliers of quality electricity and we are prepared to pay for that: there is a huge market for generators, inverters, UPS systems etc. to prove our purchasing power. In my own work-station, I have invested considerably in voltage stabilizers and power back-ups. Power must be completely privatized - immediately, totally and thoroughly. The staff unions that oppose the move must be seen as a vested interest - happy to work for unaccountable monopolies.
CONCLUSIONS ON THE STATE OF INDIAN CIVILISATION
Finally ran out of leave - and had to hit Highway #61 again. Back home, the questions remain: What can we discern about the state of Indian civilization after this tour? And was Raja Wilson a good king? Let's sit back in the capital of this great land and consider these questions.
The tour confirms the diagnosis made earlier about the state of Indian civilization. The root of the word ‘civilization’ is civitas which means cities: urban areas. We suffer from choked urbanization because of poor connectivity between towns and around towns - and some bad laws like rent control and urban land ceilings. This diagnosis is reinforced between Uttarkashi and Gangotri - both of which are towns. It is usually said that Indians ignored the hills till the British came - thinking they were meant for the sadhus, oblivious of the many people who lived there. The name of the town Uttarkashi, on the contrary, indicates that its founding fathers dreamed of building a great city in the mountains - one to rival the actual Kashi: Varanasi as it is better known. Uttarkashi was to be the Varanasi of the north. It is not so only because of poor connections to the cities around it and also the undersupply of public goods - like open space for a big commercial centre within it. There is a photograph of Simla when the British were clearing the space for the mall in Anthony King's Colonial Urban Development. That's the way to do it: massive public works. Our towns display classic symptoms of an irrational undersupply of public goods. Forget democracy; not even a revenue-maximizing king would neglect his towns so. That's why the Mughals built Chandni Chowk opposite Delhi's Red Fort. Gangotri, naturally, suffers from the same problem. The entire town has only one narrow street.
In both Gangotri and Uttarkashi, and indeed during the entire trip, it was obvious that the average Indian has commercial skills and acumen and is able to conduct business - even under adverse conditions like long distances, poor roads and decaying urban infrastructure. Every street is teeming with commerce: too much commerce; too little street. Uttarkashi's main market, Gangotri's bazaar and Harsil's town square where you can get bottled mineral water from the plains - all these testify to the ability of traders in the Indian market to satisfy customer preferences. The smug assumption of planning - that ordinary people are incapable of responding to the price signals of the market and hence need authoritative resource allocation decision-making by an intellectual-moral elite (planners) is emphatically disproved. Indians are highly capable in the market. They need the market today, not the state. Harsil is indeed like an Alpine town. What it lacks is not ‘sophistication’. Alpine villagers are not ‘sophisticated’. What the place lacks is prosperity.
The question whether Wilson was a good king is complicated. He spread knowledge - of apples. This is a good thing to do. And the fact that he issued currency means there was sufficient local commerce to take to that currency. At least he saw that the people had commerce and did not assume them to be incapable of it. That is a sign of a far better king than the ones we have today.
If we compare today's kings of Harsil with Wilson we can make a few judgements. For one, today's kings are spending tax revenues on things the market could supply (private goods like Maruti cars, electricity, hotels and so on). They are not spending tax revenues on the roads (public goods) that the market cannot provide. This is a grave mistake. In Harsil, as you enter the Tibetan locality (they were forcibly removed here from Nelong and the entire town handed over to the Army (forced immigration) you see a sign on a wall indicating how much the state is spending on local ‘employment generation’. This is just clientelism at work: the state and its agencies funding their chamchas, the scornful Hindi word for sycophant. I would much rather invest in roads linking Harsil to the towns around and to the plains, but also within Harsil itself for creating a big town square, internal town streets and so on. We need to do the same in Uttarkashi, but that is district headquarters - and what is not happening there will surely not happen here in Harsil.
To conclude, it may be said that Indian civilization has collapsed insofar as civilization means cities. All our urban areas have been destroyed. The focus on ‘rural development’ that has marked our ‘development economics’ so long is completely inappropriate. Urban areas generate wealth. Urban areas are civilization. They must be invested in and not just preyed upon by the state's tax collectors.
The essential fact is that urban areas matter greatly to Economics because therein there is maximum division of labour and knowledge and consequently the greatest generation of wealth. The destruction of India’s urban areas is fatal to prosperity. Treating rural-urban migration as a ‘problem’ is also a big mistake. India must pursue urbanisation vigorously. The vision free-marketeers present to the people, therefore, is one of 400 Singapores. This should be contrasted with the socialist-Gandhian vision of millions of self-sufficient villages.
The new millennium beckons. Will India regain her lost glory? Will India be a land of happy, prosperous people at peace with the rest of the world? It is all a case of vision. Vision based on knowledge. Socialism wasted 50 years with a false vision and false knowledge. It is time for India to shift the paradigm.