Friday, January 25, 2013

Miami politics, India style ... by gimleteye

"Once they are elected, you never see them," our guide said of local municipal officials in the small town in Tamil Nadu where we are staying. "All they want to do is get their photos taken with big politicians." Don't we know. (I didn't mean to channel Manny Diaz.)

Villages, visible through our car windows, bear remarkable similarities: peoples' homes -- surrounded by swept dirt -- are neat and clean, and any public space unclaimed by property ownership is frequently littered with plastic and bits of garbage.

From our Florida experience, we know that people can live with pollution. I asked our guide: isn't there a municipal authority responsible for cleaning up the trash in municipal spaces?

Of local municipal politicians, our guide muttered, 'They don't do anything. Often, title to land outside the town is simply changed so that it is in their own name. Then they try to bring water and electricity and roads to the land they suddenly own.' Oh. So Miami, but our version doesn't switch titles to their own names in the dead of night. Big campaign contributors tied to the Growth Machine figure out ways to make elected officials work.

Speaking of climate disruption, our guide assigns the cause of the widespread drought in recent years to the tsunami from Indonesia in 2010. I didn't have the heart to correct her impression. I'm fairly sure that Indians, like us, will do nothing to reverse C02 and other emissions that are massively disrupting the climate, until catastrophe is on the doorstep.

But our guide is onto something. More than two hundred years ago, a tsunami decimated coastal businesses conducting important trade with southeast Asia. The business elite, called Chettiars, relocated inland about fifty miles to an area safe from rising seas. Call it, climate adaptation.

The part they couldn't adapt to was the result of World War Two and the independence movements in the region. What was a magnificent concentration of wealth -- one member of an important clan said that her great grandmother used to measure out diamonds as family gifts using a rice cup -- quickly collapsed.

Today, garbage aside, the remnants of Chettiar glories are reflected in the relic mansions of Chettinad and surrounding villages. There are thousands of mansions, and most are in decrepit condition. At a lane filled with so-called antiques, the last bits and pieces of a faded empire and the Chettiars important place are visible. But even these have been picked over. Burmese teak, carved in exquisite detail, was shipped to wealthy buyers long ago. One wonders what of Miami will be found valuable once conditions emerge from which our future citizens cannot adapt.

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