Visiting India really makes you think.

The positive things from the visit:

– To see and experience the state of India today for myself – since it is such an important country and culture in the world, and something which I am drawn to a medium degree (fabrics, Bollywood, food, history/castles, Hindu religion, etc.). And Indians are one of the “great” immigrant groups in America today…
– food was very good
– hygiene has been surprisingly good inside the hotels and restaurants with a few exceptions
– colors and fabrics
– the historic forts and palaces
– the wide variety of people and daily life on the street every day
– some friendly people and in many cases “innocent” curiosity and friendliness

Video of our trip highlights:

It would have been nice to be in a situation where we really knew some middle class Indians, who travelled a lot or were interested in the same things, and seen a bit of their everyday life and some socializing, but alas…

I was surprised by the true state of things – the negatives

I have been reading too much about how quickly the Indian economy is progressing and how fast the middle class is being created. Although I have also read plenty about the negatives, I went into India expecting a country that was dynamically improving. My yardsticks to measure India against: Other developing countries such as Mexico, Brazil, China, Turkey, all of which have changed dramatically for the positive in the last 20 years before my eyes.

The reality of today’s India is, well, awful.

Garbage. Garbage is everywhere. In the towns in piles that cows disgustingly graze on; the piles are burned daily, plastic and all, creating noxious fumes. Garbage is strewn along virtually every foot of public road. It’s in every waterway. The exceptions: Udaipur (the city center and the clean lakes), and the upscale area of Bombay. But otherwise, garbage, garbage, garbage. The cows that wander in the towns leave their droppings. Sewers are open and clogged with plastic and other trash. Cities outside the city centers are strips along the road with wide patches of dirt between the road and buildings; these strips of dirt are covered with people, puddles of mud, piles of trash, cow droppings, etc.

“Indians… are oblivious to anything that is not of direct self-interest to them… filth… garbage… flies…the stench of sewage… stray dogs…” (Being Indian by Pavan Varma, p.101)

I find the dirtiness a big turnoff and I tend to immediately judge “the Indian people” for tolerating it. Of course nothing is that simple and one of our guides did discuss with us from his point of view the importance of educating people and the huge challenges in accomplishing that in India given its size and the fact that they don’t have a dictatorship in China which can ram through policies and changes.

Other negatives:

  • Мajority of the population still lacks electricity or running water
  • 626 million Indians do not even have TOILETS and must defecate in the open – 60% of the world’s open defecation is in India (See video below)
  • Many children still do not go to school
  • Some rural Indians still do not have enough nutritious food

It is noticeable when scanning the tv and from reading that, compared to America, Indians with money devote little attention to these problems. In fact, rich Indians seem quite spoiled with “disposable” servants whom they treat horribly and house in closets. Children and adolescents are especially egregious in their treatment of personnel and staff. This is compounded by the Indian tendency, when they first meet a person, to broadcast one’s position and connections, which comes off as arrogance and self-importance to Westerners.

“in the Indian tradition the powerful are not expected to be reticent or modest in the projection of their power” (Varma, p.18)

But it is easy to demonize. I have to say that I admire the American spirit of compassion more in this regard (and the Western European one even more!) – but, as individuals we all act individually. There are always a few true saints and everyone else just trying to get on with their own life in their own circumstances. Indians with money are no different.

The rich may not be very sympathetic with the plight of the poor, the government has been trying to improve the situation for the poor since independence, with some success. It has also greatly broken down the barriers of the caste system.

Other negatives:
– Even in our hotels, the electric went out several times a day until generators came on
– Lack of modern roads
– Polluted air everywhere
– No supermarkets only small stores
– Misogyny embedded in the traditional culture
– Racism i.e. elevation of light skin over dark skin. (There are two original races in India, light and dark and historically the light-skinned were the upper castes)

Dynamics of Indian society

So, compared to its fellow developing countries, what the hell is wrong with India?

Problem 1: Being passive. I have read books by local authors (e.g. Being Indian by Pavan Varma) and both refer to the Indian culture which is quite passive and doesn’t try to change things much. Again:

“Indians… are oblivious to anything that is not of direct self-interest to them” (Varma, p.101)

Bettering society is not really in the culture – they are more oriented to:
a) the thousands-year-old caste system where everyone has their place and
b) if you have a bad life it’s due to karma from a past life.

Problem 2: the government is not only slow but extremely corrupt. And, importantly, there is a sort of acceptance that that is how things are. Corruption is expected and there is not a huge push from the people to stamp it out.

“For all the condemnation that corruption publicly provokes, Indians are ambivalent about the practice… Their understanding of right and wrong is far more related to efficacy than to absolutist notions of morality” (Varma, p.76-7)

Problem 3: India after independence in the 1940s, quite understandably admired the Soviet model, which had created an industrial superpower out of a largely agricultural Russian Empire in a few short decades. India did very well at putting a stranglehold on the capitalist economy. But it did not manage to accomplish any of the good things from the Soviet model, such as building up industry, educating the poor, or bringing them electricity and running water. All the bad without the good. India slid backward from the 1940s all the way through the 1980s.

The shock at the garbage and pollution made me think – boy, it’s hard for even me to see anything positive in this place. It looks apocalyptic, and they’ve let their country go to hell. It was disappointing considering that for the past 10 years we’ve been hearing about all the positive changes – more jobs, more consumer goods, higher quality of life all round for Indians. And indeed, one night our driver was saying many of those positive things. He said 10 years ago, no jobs, nothing here in Rajasthan, wait 20 years for landline phone, wait 20 years for car. He said now life is very good.

So… it’s all relative.

Until the very end of the trip I thought I wouldn’t go back to India. But I think now maybe I would, to see Kashmir or the Himalayas. It is an interesting country and that’s a key criterion for me.

I think India will be food for thought as to how good we have it in the West with our clean sidewalks and functioning government, and lack of cows in the street eating plastic bags from heaps of garbage. It’s also a reminder of the past of our cities – I thought back to that great BBC show about the streets of London in medieval times.

Sanitation problems

Video of dead bodies in the Ganges (not for the faint-hearted)


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