Mayhem rules under the influence of affluence

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How safe is India? Opinions differ, but now the monsoon is upon us, what I can say for sure is that I'm glad I don't live in a corner house next to a railway line. And when a man appeared in my local park the other day selling balloons, I looked at him hard and long.

One of India's more exotic, yet terrible, hazards is a "criminal tribe" called the Pardis. A couple of weeks ago, a few days after I arrived in this city, the Pardis drew attention to themselves in the only way they know how. The story was featured prominently in all Delhi's broadsheets, illustrated with diagrams and photographs of large pools of blood.

In a nice satellite town south-east of Delhi called Noida, four members of the Mathur family were killed with the utmost brutality and dispatch. Their assailants, taking advantage of the din caused by the air conditioners, wrenched the Mathurs' locked and bolted front door off its hinges with crowbars, burst in on them and bashed their skulls in with clubs carved from a particular sort of tree. They fled, taking everything of value except the computer.

Indian papers are less inhibited than British ones about naming the guilty in advance of the process of law and no one doubted this crime was the work of Pardis. It was all too clear - the massive crowbars, the blood-stained bludgeon abandoned at the scene. This is how Pardis always kill. And killing is what they do, in the same way that Welsh folk sing or Scots people keep careful accounts. It's traditional.

As the monsoon approaches they steal away from their hovels in rural Madhya Pradesh, central India, and head for the big cities. They move at this time because the cloudy monsoon nights make it easier for them to melt away after they have committed their crimes, while the rackety air conditioners which the middle class use in this season enable them to break in unheard. Corner houses are preferred because comings and goings can be observed from a distance; railway tracks make it easier for them to rush away unseen. Often Pardis masquerade as balloon-sellers, choosing this innocuous cover as a way to move around, or loiter by a likely house, without attracting attention.

Pardis being profoundly traditional (and possessed thereby of the most solid genetic excuse, though that doesn't keep them out of jail on the rare occasions they are caught) have been doing their thing since the British days. Of course, the British didn't put up with their nonsense. They knew the Pardis' proclivities of old. So whenever Pardis left their home area, or entered a town, they had to report to the local police, on pain of imprisonment.

Come independence, such tyrannical restrictions were lifted, and the Pardis were given plots of land and told to go away and become good citizens and farmers. Only they didn't. All they know, it seems, is how to bludgeon and steal. Within a few years they went back to their old ways, unchecked.

Relating this train of events, Indians yield an involuntary sigh. It's the same when they talk about the impossibility - due to corruption - of getting anything done about fire-trap cinemas, or pollution, or unlicensed storage of dangerous chemicals, or criminal politicians. No Indian, I imagine, misses the British as such. But they miss the order they imposed, the glue they forced between the interstices of Indian life. On the day Hong Kong went back to China, the pocket cartoon in the Indian Express had an Indian beggar advising a passing yuppie busy on his mobile phone, "Tell your friend in Hong Kong, it's better to start off with fear than hope."

"This is a very hard country to move." The observation of Disraeli about Britain applies a million-fold to India. You can, in the end, move a bit of it; you can make the rich richer, and you can take that neat, clean family off their Bajaj scooter, mum, dad, two children and the baby, and stick them in a Maruti Suzuki 800cc ultra-compact car, and call them middle class.

But what are you going to do about the Pardis and the millions like them, the "tribals", the hundreds of occupational castes who still cannot see beyond living out their lives in the traditional way?

East and South-East Asia's economic miracles have been founded on a myth - epitomised by Japan - of homogeneity. All jumped together, all got rich together; incomes doubled, as Japan's did in the 1950s, across the social spectrum. That way no one got consumed with envy, no one got left behind.

But in a country as diverse as India, homogeneity will never be a myth; it cannot even amount to a lie. Millions of Indians are getting richer as the economy grows at about 6 per cent a year, and just as surely hundreds of millions are getting left behind. The result will be disjuncture on a scale so far unimagined.

You get an inkling of the trouble to come when you travel on the main roads. Your vehicle is a Maruti Suzuki minibus taxi, quiet, reliable, fast, made in India, its thin skin well adapted to conditions in Japan, where traffic accidents hardly ever happen. This bit of road, built perhaps by the World Bank, is fast and wide and smooth. You are travelling at 80kph, the speed of traffic in the developed world. You round a bend, and coming towards you in your lane, just yards away, are 500 long-horned cattle, or a herd of goats, or a train of carts loaded with bits of machinery and pulled by water buffaloes. There is no chance of stopping. India's highways are littered with the remains of crashes where the new and the old, the rich and the poor and the fast and the slow have smashed into one another. Forget the Pardis. Affluence is going to be much more dangerous.