Twenty two years ago I went on the Paris-Dakar Rally, a glittering African adventure that, at that time, went through some of the poorest countries in the world. It was an extraordinary experience, but it was not always easy.
“Have you ever tried to eat when you are surrounded by scrawny, underfed children?” I wrote. “One of the overriding aspects of the Dakar is that there are so many children out there in the desert and wherever you go they ask you for two things: a “bic” or a “cadeau”. On the Dakar you learn the value of little things like biros. If a kid has a biro they can learn to write. Ari Vatanen speaks of being humbled by the event, and unless you have no heart at all, you understand. For me the best thing about the event was the faces of the kids when they had been given half a tin of rabbit stew or a plasticised piece of cake. They were amazed and joyful.
“The organisers of the rally take a lot of flak for taking a bunch of rich playthings into some of the poorest countries in the world and so each year they donate things – like a new water pump – to help out the locals. Not that private enterprise is dead. Far from it. The day the rally comes to town is the biggest day of the year and prices are hiked to amazing levels. It is amazing what people will pay for things.”
It is not surprising that some are now questioning the morality of Formula 1 going to India. The local Reuters man has written a thoughtful and emotive piece about the circus coming to town.
“Within the circuit grounds, where shiny Mercedes Benz display cars are parked, poor Indian women used brushes and their hands to sweep dust and stones from an access road, their children playing nearby,” he wrote. “In nearby Salarpur village, Meera, who is illiterate and can only guess her age, held a sick child in her arms. He has suffered malaria twice. Rubbish lay in ponds of stagnant water. A young calf grazed on garbage.
‘I don’t understand this concept of cars racing for entertainment,’ she said. ‘People pay money to watch this? Like a movie?’
“Nearby, workers sprayed the manicured lawns around the F1 track with water in last minute preparations. Meera, who has electricity for four hours a day, must walk half an hour to the nearest water pump.”
No-one doubts that this is the case, but for most of the people in the Formula 1 world, the hope is that the event will create economic growth and that, in turn, will improve the lives of the poor.
Formula One comes to India because of the vast developing market of young consumers. India has one of the fastest growing economies in the world, with a growth rate last year of 8.3 percent. It is on its way to becoming a globally important consumer economy. According to the consulting firm McKinsey, the Indian middle classes are now estimated to number more than 50 million people and they are attuned to Western culture. In 2006, 22 percent of Indians lived under the poverty line, but the country is growing so fast that the government’s aim is to eradicate all poverty by 2020. Growth is all about confidence and successful international events give a country confidence and national pride. It shows the world that the country can compete on the global stage. The international coverage of the F1 race will help the already growing Indian tourist business. Today that is the country’s largest service industry, responsible for 6.23 percent to the national GDP and 8.78 percent of the total employment in India. In 2010 more than 17.9 million visitors arrived in India and the number is growing at an impressive rate each year.
The Indian Grand Prix is not a government project. It is funded entirely by Jaypee Industries, a private conglomerate. There is little chance that Jaypee will recover the investment being made in the race, but that was never the idea. Jaypee is aiming make money from the real estate around the track by building a city for the future: Jaypee Sports City. This will house a million people.
The English have a proverb that is apposite in the circumstances. “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”.
Yes, it seems odd to have the glittering F1 world next to poor villages, but in the long term it could be a better solution than anything that the government has to offer…
The Jaypee Sports City is a grand vision, but if it all works according to plan it will create opportunities for everyone in the region. Perhaps even in Salarpur.
That may be naive because of the inequalities that exist in India. The country has suffered in recent times from a string of corruption scandals and there is no shortage of whispers in F1 circles of payments that have had to be made to get things done.
Go to Google and search the words “India” and “Corruption” and you will read some startling stuff.
“A 2005 study conducted by Transparency International in India found that more than 55% of Indians had first-hand experience of paying bribes or influence peddling to get jobs done in public offices successfully,” it says. “Transparency International estimates that truckers pay US$5 billion in bribes annually. In 2010 India was ranked 87th out of 178 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.”
More shocking still is another paragraph, further down the article.
“India tops the list for black money in the entire world with almost US$1,456 billion in Swiss banks. According to the data provided by the Swiss Banking Association Report (2006), India has more black money than the rest of the world combined. Indian-owned Swiss bank account assets are worth 13 times the country’s national debt.”
One can only wonder what might happen in India if all that money (or even just the tax due on it) was spent trying to improve the infrastructure, the housing, education and healthcare of India.
Senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader L K Advani said this week that he believed that scams dogging the government are tarnishing India’s image abroad.
He is probably right.
F1 can do nothing about this sort of thing. F1 is in India to make money, but if in doing so it can contribute to a better life for all Indians then all well and good.