Wednesday, October 30, 2013

India and its Incredible Problems

In the year 2000 I spent several months in India. I love India and it was my third visit to the subcontinent. Anyone who has spent time there either ends up loving it or hating it - the sheer in-your-facedness of the whole place, combined with the manic religious devotion that forms a part of everyday life force you to face up to who you believe yourself to be. Yes, India is life with the volume turned up to number 11.

I saw a lot of unsettling things in India. I saw a young woman being burned on a funeral pyre, and afterwards the dogs snuffling through the ashes and running off with morsels of meat. I met sadhus - holy men - who had forsaken the material life and devoted themselves to asceticism, I saw the bullet holes in buildings where British colonial soldiers had massacred Sikhs, and I went to a school high up in the Himalayas where the Dalai Lama was the acting headmaster. And I also met a thousand hucksters and conmen whose ingenious trickery knew no bounds.

I have a fantasy of one day going back to India and living there for good - if it survives the onslaught of pollution, nuclear madness and dam building. Perhaps this will be when I 'retire' (ha ha!). As far as I'm concerned, there is no place of Earth like India for sheer oppositeness to our western culture, although Sri Lanka and Nepal come a close joint second. I'd live in an adobe shack in a fishing community in the deep south. My small sailing boat would be moored nearby and I'd use it to 'commute' between the ancient world (India) and the old world (Europe) to collect my state pension cheque, which would be enough to survive off for another year (in India).

Beat that for a retirement plan - it's not exactly golf and cruises.

Anyway, for all the talk of India becoming an advanced industrial nation like the US or European countries I say: no way. That will never be. The limiting factors that describe the scale of the problems she faces are just too constrictive. It's not just economics that is not on their side (and far too often these days debates are just about economics and nothing else - don't people have any other idea of how to look at the world?) there are so many other factors to consider. This is what I wrote in my travel diary when I was there 13 years ago. I haven't been back since, but other than in tech-happy enclaves such as Hyderabad, I can't imagine it has changed all that much.


December 2000, Tamil Nadu state, India

People say that you can not merely 'see' India but are forced to experience it to a greater or lesser extent. This sore fact is now quite apparent to us and I hope to be able to give some impression of the confusing emotions that have been aroused.

The primary and most obvious facet of Indian life that is unavoidably obvious even to the most casual visitor is the level of abject poverty. Any romantic notions of the existence of some sort of genteel poverty are soon dismissed when one sees the desperate plight that many people face in this country. Beggars are commonplace even in so-called prosperous towns and much of the begging is done by ragged children and leprous adults. The pitiful sight of the man dressed in rags sat in the dust holding out an outstretched fingerless hand or the barely-alive young woman lying in the middle of the road whilst her child sits sullen-eyed beside her and monstrous Tata trucks thunder past only inches away are not uncommon sights. It is impossible to walk in the streets without attracting the attention of the more mobile beggars, mostly children, who will hold out their hands or else crowd around you and tug on your clothing. This kind of scene prevents a moral dilemma for the westerner who, by comparison with these people, is rich beyond imagination.

Even the most penny-pinching backpacker who eats only bread and uses the most dilapidated and cheap transport, though he may not readily admit it, has a kind of wealth beyond the dreams of these dusty figures for he can afford the elite luxury of foreign travel and does not have to devote every ounce of his energy to earning enough rupees just to keep himself alive. Assuming that the potential donor acknowledges this fact the dilemma that is presented is multi-faceted. Firstly, even if one were to choose to do so, one cannot give change to every beggar. On the streets of Old Delhi, for example, one would be forced to hand out money every few seconds. Secondly, the act of giving to beggars, conventional logic tells us, perpetuates the problem further. Although this argument is most commonly used by people who feel the need to justify their meanness in the face of overwhelming poverty there must be some truth in it.

Although it would be very difficult to gather 'proof' of such a theory (you simply can't go about asking beggars what made them decide to 'go into begging') it was clearly apparent in the hills of Nepal where children now routinely skip school to demand sweets and pens from passing trekkers, enough of whom oblige to keep the scourge alive. Thirdly, stories abound of adults mutilating their children (or the children of others) in order to arouse the sympathy of others and thus increase the takings. Whether these stories are true or not it is difficult to say but the image of the young boy sitting in the gutter minus a foot is far more likely to get people to dig into their pockets than the same boy with both feet attached. Whatever moral dilemmas westerners tangle themselves up in when it comes to giving their 'hard earned' money to beggars the fact remains that, by ignoring the problem and not giving them anything, they will not simply move into some other 'profession' or fall back on some non-existent charitable fund or government scheme. Most of them, one imagines, would simply die quietly to be replaced by others.

Another immediately obvious problem faced by India is the ruination of the natural environment. At times it can seem that entire towns and their outlying vicinities can be several inches deep in biodegradable and non-biodegradable rubbish. As is occurring elsewhere, the rush to become a consumer society has made no allowance for the correct disposal of the trash that it generates. In times past, one imagines, this problem would not have existed as all waste would be composed of such material as banana skins, crushed sugar cane, wood carvings and vegetable waste. This would be routinely tossed out into the streets where the famous holy cows would devour the majority of it (surely the real reason these beasts are allowed to roam freely). Whatever was left would be swept up by the untouchables, put into carts and dumped into the nearest river, pond or creek. This practice doesn't seem to have changed much and travelling through Uttar Pradesh and the Punjab, I don't recall seeing a single pond that wasn't stagnating with plastic trash or a single stream that wasn't oozing pollutants with more and more cartloads of waste being taken to their banks and tipped in. These squalid scenes are normally populated by scavenging dogs of such obvious ill health that it seems a wonder that they are alive at all. Neither does it help that any open space, whether in town or country, is used as an open toilet which , in some instances, creates a slick of evil-smelling slurry.

In addition to the despoilment of the land and the water there is the serious problem of air pollution. In Delhi, for example, the air around the old part of the city was so polluted a single trip through it in a rickshaw during the evening rush-hour had us coughing and blowing black soot out of our noses until the next day. Motor vehicles, of which there are many, are in the main not fitted with the slightest modification to prevent thick black plumes of smoke issuing forth from their exhaust pipes. As if pollution from vehicles were not enough there is a similar lack of control over the emissions of factories and power stations which can be seen belching thick smoke into the skies. Added to this is the habit of setting fire to piles of plastic and cardboard waste in the streets as a way of 'getting rid' of it. In fact, it is said that living in Delhi subjects one's health to the equivalent of twenty cigarettes per day. The rickshaw wallahs are the most likely casualties of this pollution as they are normally of the lowest caste and social status and therefore least likely to benefit from any healthcare system. It is they who have to sweat through the polluted air, day in day out, breathing the poison deep into their lungs.

Many of India's problems arise from the sheer number of people who live here. A billion people now live in this country and this number is rising at an alarming rate [about 200 million more now live there since I wrote those words 13 years ago]. A night-time satellite view of northern India shows a relative paucity of light pollution when compared with many other countries. The Netherlands and Japan, by way of example, are so built-up and industrialised that it is as though their entire countries are floodlit. Northern India, despite a population density that rates as almost the highest in the world, is dark by comparison. The reason for this, of course, is the relative unavailability of electricity to such an over-stretched region. In fact demand can be so great and the supply so temperamental that power outages are commonplace and industry is forced to shut down regularly as a result. Any business that needs to present itself as reliable and modern in these difficult circumstances is required to install some sort of backup power generation, usually in the form of a noisy diesel generator and a heap of car batteries. When the power comes back on these same batteries must recharge their cells which then create another excess demand for electricity which will in turn cause the whole system to become unstable and so on and so forth.

So far the picture I have painted of modern India is a bleak one. But for every man-made disaster that India faces there must surely be a man-made solution. Unfortunately though, for the common Indian, there seems to be little prospect of hope from the politicians. The incumbent ruling party, the Hindu nationalist BJP looks to be keener on spending resources fighting Pakistan over Kashmir and developing nuclear weapons than implementing far-reaching policies of poverty alleviation and education. What efforts they do serve up in the name social advancement appear to be white elephants, normally in the form of giant dams, which many claim merely serve self-edifying politicians and consolidate the power of water distribution into the hands of a few. The huge Narmada Valley dam project that is currently being constructed in Gujarat will irrigate a large region and provide a source of power at the cost of the displacement of a million marginalised Indians who do not posses a strong enough voice to block the decision to build it. It will also be costly in terms of the amount of land it will inundate. Gerald Durell, the late English naturalist and captive breeder, once challenged the Indian government over the decision to flood a large area of land for economic gain even though the area was considered to be of great importance for wildlife. The minister in charge of the project rounded on him saying ' we in India can not afford such ecological luxuries'. Indeed it was Nehru who, in the 1950s, delivered a speech saying that 'dams are the new temples of modern India'. Today, despite widespread condemnation from within and abroad, there appears to be no letup in the persual of this received wisdom.

[The Booker Prize winning novelist Arundhati Roy (author of 'The God of Small Things') has written a nice polemical pamphlet on the social and environmental cost of the Narmada Dam Project entitled 'The Greater Common Good' for those interested]

In any picture of modern India it is impossible to leave out religion and the caste system of discrimination. The beliefs of Indians holds a huge sway over the population and their daily decisions which certainly can not be ignored. The government, whilst claiming to be modernist and therefore religiously neutral are clearly, as Hindu nationalists, not going to go to great lengths to improve the lives of Muslims, Sikhs, Jains or tribals. I am not able to relate to a starving beggar refusing food from me because, me being a non-Hindu, I would have spiritually polluted it. And the concept of holy animals (cows, monkeys, elephants) on the basis of some mythical association with the Hindu pantheon seems anomalous whilst at the same time the streets are full of starved-looking and badly-whipped horses and donkeys (who, when they die from exhaustion or are hit by a vehicle, are tossed into the nearest ditch to be torn apart by dogs and vultures) and the rivers are polluted to the extent that all life is eradicated. One thing is clear however and that is as personal wealth grows there is a diminishing of religious belief. The Indian television adverts almost universally feature light-skinned wealthy Brahmin types (I've yet to see a dark-skinned Indian advertising a Business Class plane seat) who live in Beverley Hills type surroundings and drive sports cars and wear expensive suits. These modern role models for the Indian elite and nouveau riche show no outward signs of religious belief other than in some cynical consumerist way ('Bring a new surround sound Philips flat screen home entertainment system this Diwali'). Basically speaking then, religion, the consoler, is for the suffering masses who have little control over their lives. Religion, after all, doesn't cost anything, financially speaking.

It seems that for India the solution to the great problems of today can not be expected to come from politicians or Big Business. India is a vast nation of a few big cities and thousands of villages and small-scale schemes seem to often be the most effective. Soon, the Indian Post Office will be training their postmen in the science and philosophy of effective contraception. In Indian society the postman does not just deliver the mail but quite often reads it out to illiterates and his advice may be sought on matters pertaining to it. He is therefore a trusted ally of the people and will be a useful weapon in the war against rampant population growth. One also reads of micro credit schemes where ordinary people are able to lift themselves out of abject poverty by receiving a small loan to start up some small-scale activity, such as making baskets, that they are able to do.

India, most marketing people seem to agree, is an overwhelming of the senses. The potential holidaymaker might be expected to imagine walking through a teeming bazaar full of smiling women in brightly-coloured sarees selling technicolor mounds of tikka powder in silver dishes whilst the whiff of sandalwood and incence drifts up into the clear evening sky as the giant orange ball of the sun sets over the Arab dhows on the Indian Ocean. The reality is a little less prosaic. India is certainly a land of smells, not all of them pleasant, and anyhow the 'magical pink light at dawn in Varanasi' is only a result of the industrial pollutants hanging over the Ganges. The coffee table book that contains glossy pictures of a colourful and spiritual India tells only half the story. Tales abound of people planning trips of several months or years in India only to find themselves travelling on the first plane back home after two illusion-shattering days in Delhi. India, for sure, demands a lot more of her visitors than most countries but, in turn, offers a lot more food for thought.


  1. Arundhati Roy's searing indictments of social injustice are indeed well written, but it is sad to me that even this strong voice will not be enough in the end. It was the Narmada Dam issue that also brought Franny Armstrong and her projects to my awareness. Another bold voice that will not be enough. ( not feeling too optimistic lately)

    1. A more updated take on how India works can be glimpsed via the pages of Aravind Adiga's 'The White Tiger'. It's well worth a read - humorous and depressing all at once.

      Population might be India's biggest problem but corruption is a close second, followed by resource stress, exploration by foreign multi-nationals and inter-communal violence.

  2. The biggest problem in India is its huge population. And as you said, increasing consumerism. Try getting any system work midst that chaos! India had a lot of sustainable-living principles embedded in its village-centric model earlier, but with the increasing popularity of cities, all that are now gone. I guess people will eventually realize the dangers of mimicing the west, without adapting it to suit the country and learning from the past. I hope there will be a more sustainable modernity, that works for the country. Agreed, there is a lot of learning to be done.

    1. That was my impression. Systems cannot 'work' in India unless they are designed for a small privileged minority. The rapid population growth simply means that any measures put in place to, say, alleviate poverty are soon overwhelmed by growing numbers of the needy.

      Gandhi said that India's biggest problem was its 'huge' population - and he was only talking about 300 million souls back then!

      There's no doubt in my mind that places like India will have a very miserable century, but at the same time I wouldn't be surprised if some new paradigm of managing human affairs emerges from the wreckage there.

  3. Perhaps India is the future after all. The future that awaits all of us, that is.


I welcome comments that are relevant to the post and add to the debate about our current and future predicament. I'll try to reply to them all as time permits. You can post anonymously but I'm less likely to reply.