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Long route home Our trip all the way home, trying to catch no planes and stay on the ground like civilised people. It's taking us via India all the way to Europe from Japan, the furthest of the Far East...

Future shock

INDIA | Tuesday, 23 November 2010 | Views [792]

As you can tell from this slightly jumbled round up, our race through this huge country left us reeling - so many glimpses of people's lives, so many stories and so many possibilities. It's hard not to wonder what the future holds for India. This beguiling nuclear power presents its technological and industrial prowess to the world, but close up, it seems to be held together by sticking plasters and stretching the seams - the great Indian tradition of jugaad. The recurring question in our travels has been, how can the rich/successful minority with their MBAs and new ideas, pull this vast, uneducated majority out of poverty? Having a population of a billion puts everything on such an unprecedented scale. There are so many people that it's easy to find success stories, plenty of English language speakers to fill the call centres with cheap labour. But those jobs and successes are just drops in a huge ocean of corrupt disfunctionality.

To begin with, the caste system lives on, whatever politicians may say. It is no longer enshrined in law, but societies' prejudices make it hard to move anywhere on this complex social hierarchy. That caste system is not only repugnant and outdated to us, it's also a huge block to progress. Vast groups of society believe they can never be more than street cleaners and beggars, for that is their place - and we saw few who had ambition to change that. We didn't give to child beggars, because it encourages them to spend their lives begging, but nothing we saw suggested there was any other option for them, both because of their own expectations and because of those of the society around them.

In countries like Vietnam, Thailand and even Cambodia there was an energy, an ambition to progress, and we had a sense that the internet brought knowledge of possibilities and other worlds that made people demand rights they would not otherwise have known about. Perhaps because of the high levels of illiteracy, perhaps the lack of internet access, we never had a sense that the disposessed and lower classes of India might be able to effect any changes to their lives.

And while the poor are stuck at the bottom, power is crystallized with an elite at the top who seem blind to the poverty, or too tied by the red tape, self interest and corruption to make any major steps forward  The negligence of leadership shows itself in so many ways. From the overgrown gardens to crumbing museums and the pot-holed roads, it often feels as if nobody cares. Nobody cares enough to drive proper road building to meet the ever growing numbers of cars, nobody cares enough to implement any meaningful birth control, or to sterelize the stray dogs that multiply on the streets, nobody cares enough to clean the streets, to bring in proper refuse control, to build public toilets. It is an exaggeration to say that nobody cares - there was a group called Sulabh who had built a few toilets at key points, but so few they might as well be pissing in the wind.

Politics continue to be dominated by the Nehru-Ghandi clan, in a democracy that is more hereditary than Japan. Sonia Ghandi is said to be more powerful than the elected Prime Minister, while her son is viewed as the obvious next PM. The much vaunted democracy is stuck in quicksand like so many things. The Commonwealth Games held the headlines for much of our stay, and are a good example of all that holds back India's development. It should have been a chance to showcase India's prowess to the world, they had the money, they needed the infrastructure and here was the time to build. we were so happy that the Games passed without incident, like the much vaunted Indian wedding metaphor, everything came together at the last minute. The venues didn't fall down, Dengue fever did not infest the village, and India's sports men and women did the nation proud.

But, the success doesn't change the fact that they spent billions of dollars more than they needed to on roads and venues that will not last. Overpasses with one lane instead of four to save money, which are useless for Delhi's traffic, stadia built on poor foundations with poor materials, whose paint is already washing off in the rain, metro stations rushed to open on the day of the Opening Ceremony without the proper safety checks. You could argue that hosting an international sports event in a country where people are starving is itself extraordinarily wasteful, and that may or may not be true. But to spend almost a billion pounds, to embezelle so much money and only deliver what are essentially temporary venues, to bring the nation's failings to the eyes of the international media, that can only be described as criminal. The arguments over who stole what, the scapegoating and blaming was still going on when we crossed the border. It looked as if Kalmadi will take most of the blame, but I'm sure the corruption was everywhere, just as I'm sure it infests every level of Indian Government.

As one guy said to us on a train, "of course it's all been left to the last minute, by creating an emergency, they get more money - and more money means more baksheesh for everybody. That's the Indian way". We talked to him more, and to others who had this fatalistic acception of the corruption. They say, this is India, we have too many people and corrupt politicians, what can you do? We said, this is a democracy, surely you could vote for someone else? And there seemed to be no answer. It is sad that people can blame corrupt politicans for everything, yet do no feel they have a role to play - either in electing or corrupting their society

The Games are a simple example of corruption and heavy footed delivery. As travellers, time and again we were struck by the way that the country cannot keep up with the level of its population - everything always feels out of control and overcapacity - the roads are crammed with vehicles, the trains crammed with people, there are power brown outs because they can't generate enough electricity, there's nowhere to put the rubbish, not enough schools/teachers, and as the infrastructure groans under the growing weight of demand. Reading people's impressions from 30 years ago, nothing has changed, they've just grown more people!
It seemed to us that India doesn't have the infrastructure for the number of people living there, and doesn't have the political will, or organisational capabilities to get ahead of the game - by the time they've finished a new road/new power plant/new school, they need 10 more!  Comparisons between India and China are often made but it's like comparing apples and oranges.  Quite apart from the fact that one side eats noodles and the other bread, they're also poles apart in terms of development.  India is backwards and traditional, close to Africa in terms of human development.  China is modernising, within touching distance of Europe.

Can the successes of microfinancing, the foreign businesses setting up factories, the ubiquitous call centres hold out? What will happen as those people find it harder to get to work, if the factories crumble or gain a reputation for shoddy workmanship?  In no other place we've been have the levels of human suffering made us seek progress and hope for the future as it did in India. The size of the states and the numbers of people mean that driving change will require immense effort, co-operation and selfless leadership. But as the twins of corruption and neglect flourish, and the millions who survive below the poverty line continue to grow. It is hard to see where the vision and desire for lasting change might come from.

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