Tuesday, 17 June 2008

India - why all the mess?

I've just come back from India from my second trip, and (again) I feel troubled by what I see there. Pollution is getting worse and poverty seems not to be getting much better.

Walking around is so different to seeing photographs. I just can't convey the stench of the piss soaked walls or the things which wash past you when you walk up a street in the rain.

It seems to be a land of contradiction and contrast. Filled with iconic architectural marvels (like the Taj Mahal), yet immersed in such chaos, environmental disaster, filth and exploitation. I've not personally seen the like of it anywhere in Asia. On this occasion I spent a little time with a woman from Cameroon and she said to me that things were indeed not the same in her country.

People's first response to why its like it is is because of the overpopulation. So, starting with some simplistic comparisons lets compare some European countries with India.

Based on information from the "world fact book" it would seem that "Population Density" of India is not as high as the Netherlands and only a little higher than Germany

NationDensity (persons / Km^2)
The Netherlands490

Parts of Sydney, certainly Tokyo and even Helsinki are equally dense in habitation to New Delhi, so just on the surface of it its not looking like that is the main culprit (see here here and here).

I suspect part of the answer lies in India itself. While the elite within India like to entertain notions of National Grandeur (I was stunned to see recent examinations of "will India become a superpower" in the newspapers on this visit), not much seems to have brought to the attention of the upper and middle classes (or should I say castes?) the magnitude of the problems created by the lower classes and poverty.

Part of this thought process started while visiting the Red Fort in Agra, where I found this plaque on the wall.

I read it, and started to wonder if despite all the exploitation of India by the British colonial forces it if was not perhaps the British who had also taken some care and interest in the preservation of India?

I wonder how many of the NGO's who devote time to trying to help the poor and needy in India were started by the British or other foreign powers?

Its an interesting question, and I believe cuts to the root of the problem. No one in India seems to care much about anyone other than themselves (and perhaps their family).

One of my personal yardsticks of civilized behavior is the ability of people to form an orderly queue and wait in turn for some service. Just go to the airport, visit McDonalds or even just go to a shop and there everyone is always pushing their way in or jumping straight to the head of the queue. Not just some people, its most people. Perhaps its because all the "special people" in India are so used to being the only special person that when they are surrounded by them they could not possibly think that there is anyone else less than themselves present? Waiting for a burger at McDonlands in New Delhi the poor clerk had to tell everyone who came up and just shoved money over the top of the counter that he was serving someone, there was a queue and please wait your turn for service. Seemed to ruffle up the feathers of some high class people every time.

Drive around for a while and its the same on the roads, no one seems to give the least regard for things like lanes, roundabout directions (or even road driving direction for that matter) or overloading unsafely. Its like no one else matters.

This "I'm the VIP here" attitude got one fellow at the airport on our way out of New Delhi into an argument with the armed Indian Army Sergeant on duty at the security check. The guy tried to push his way though another person just getting onto the metal scanner and then started talking down to the guard when he was told to go back. Its hard to fathom.

Meanwhile whether it be the poverty, the lack of education, the lack of resources or just the lack of interest sees Indian rivers (and streets) choked with pollution, human excrement, rotting food and plastic bags.

Its almost like its assumed to be filthy outside (where the common people and animals live) and no one seems to even notice it, much less care.

I only hope that in their race to be a proud world super power that it is not these Indians who suffer the most.

I've been suggested this reading by Milton Friedman to help explain the economic basis to the problems. For example this poignant quote:

...though the number of tourists entering India in recent years has been growing, the amoun recorded in official statistics as spent by tourists has been declining.

Reminds me of the "receipt" we got for our meals at one of the hotel. I just felt for sure that it was going straight into some ones pocket.


The current danger is that India will stretch into centuries what took other countries only decades.

The authors final summary was not highly optimistic (although written in the 1960's).

It will, I fear, take a major political or economic crisis to produce a substantial change in the course on which India is now set in economic policy, and I am not at all optimistic that such a crisis if it occurs, will produce a shift toward

I hope not ... although I think the document makes quite a compelling argument. I wonder how much it explains the other social interaction issues. While I was there this time there was an ongoing dispute between people in Rajastan (called Gujjars) and the central government in New Delhi. This seems to have escalated into road blocks and train derailments ... next thing they'll label them terrorists and crack down heavily on them.

Time for my last quote from Friedman:

"The British left parliamentary democracy and respect for civil rights as a very real heritage to India.Though I very much fear that this heritage is being undermined and weakened..."

Amazingly an article in The Times of India ("Green cover up, says CM on Environment Day "friday, June 6 p9) speaks of Delhi being one of the Greenest Capitals in the world. What a laugh! Its been said that there are Lies, Bloody Lies, Statistics and Maps ... this is surely a Statistics application of the truth!

The future will make it clearer I suppose.

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