I’ve now been in India for almost three months. It’s
always been a favourite country of mine, a place that’s always been very good
for the ‘WOW’ factor, always full of surprises. Even in the centre of the
cities you can see people on the streets that looked like they’ve just walked
out of the Old Testament or just come down from the hills of the North West frontier. Orange robed and painted
fakirs wander around, as do lots of cows and even the occasional elephant. I
was last here nine years ago and my first visit was in 1989, and what is really
surprising is how little has changed over that time.
India is thought of in the west as the next economic
powerhouse where the cheaper well educated workers will soon be taking all our
jobs. Seeing the country as a traveler there is little evidence of all this,
just an increased prosperity for some sections of the population. Just as
everywhere in the world, everyone who can afford one now has a mobile phone,
with five million new subscribers being added every month. There are lots more new
cars on the road but they are easily outnumbered by scooters and motorbikes
which are much more affordable. This has added to the noise and stress levels
in towns as every scooter rider feels he (although sometimes she) has the right
to drive down the street as fast as he can with horn blaring. The onus is on
the pedestrians to get out of the way. In India every street supports a small
pack of dogs (as well as a couple of cows), but what is really new are people
having dogs as pets, mostly small breeds, as most Indians live in cramped
houses. Their owners walk them in the streets on tight leashes, and often carry
a big stick as well, to keep the rough street doggies away from their pooches.
India is a country that rejects rules and has an
aversion to change; which has made it a land of great liberties. A European
equivalent would be Italy.
Laws may exist on the statue book but people only heed the ones that suit them
or which they cannot get away with. Lax policing and a live and let live
attitude keeps the whole system running. For example, drivers can and do pull
out into the road, even major highways, without a signal or even bothering to
look in their mirror (if they have one). There is an expectation that the
traffic in the road will make way for them even if it risks an accident, and
I’ve seen lots of close calls. Usually the only admonishment from the other
drivers who have to swerve or brake will be a blast on the horn, because they
know that the next time they also want to pull out, they will do exactly the
same thing, and so life goes on - in a semi chaotic way.
When journalists write about the new India they are usually referring to
the shiny new offices and businesses parks on the outskirts of the cities.
These look like they have been dropped from somewhere in Europe
and are full of earnest young people for whom the good times really are
rolling. The middle classes have forsaken the trains and now get around country
on the start up airlines that are competing hard for their business. Some of
them (I particularly recommend Kingfisher Airlines) are really excellent.
Another showcase of the New India is the Delhi Metro. This is work in progress
with several lines being built that will by 2012 cover the whole city even
reaching the international airport, (which technically is in another state),
with most of the lines being built on cheaper elevated track. Most of this is
being paid for by Japanese money, and unusually most of the equipment is
imported rather than made in India.
And it is impressive, unlike everywhere else in Delhi, it shines, you could eat your dinner
off the floor in the stations and potted plants line the sides of the walls.
Constant announcements tell people not to walk across the tracks(!), spit or
throw rubbish and unusually for India,
people heed them. One of reasons may be because security is so tight, with
police with sub machine guns patrolling the trains and metal detector and bag
searches just to get onto the platforms.
Outside these showcases life in India goes on
much as it did when I first came here in 1989; this is particularly so in the
countryside where most Indians still live. At dawn, people still walk out into
the fields to do their ablutions; water comes from wells and bullock pull huge
carts filled with straw. Cooking is done on Indian fuel cells which are made of
cow dung mixed with straw and which are heaped in piles and sold on the side of
the road. Also on the roadsides are brickworks where the bricks are still made
by hand and fired in primitive kilns. The families who do this work live in the
most desperate poverty, their ‘houses’ are little more than primitive tents
made from rags and rubbish in the corner of the brickyard. One of the reasons
these people live on the job, is because they cannot leave, they are indentured
workers who work to pay off a past debt, sometimes from a previous generation,
in conditions of virtual slavery. In one region I saw another
agricultural/industrial process, the rendering down of sugar from sugar cane.
These primitive factories on the roadsides crush the cane bought in from the
surrounding fields with the ‘juice’ then boiled up in huge pans. Lines of these
factories belching black smoke, with workers ladling the hot sugar out of the
vats gives the impression of an early industrial scene, rather like the first
days of Coalbrookdale. Yet this is modern India.
Where India is particularly unchanging is
in anything in which the state is has any involvement, and as a hangover from
the socialist planning era, it’s involved in a great deal. Its interests range
from banks and insurance to (on a state level) running juice stands but by far its
biggest interest is running the railways. Apart from there no longer being any
steam engines around the railway system doesn’t seem to have changed at all
over the last eighteen years. The train carriages have a chunky, metal, built
to last feel to them, which is just as well as there doesn’t seem to been a
penny of new investment for decades. Booking a berth involves filling in a
cheap paper form then joining the queuing hoards so that someone can input your
details into a seventies era computer system. Indian railways are the largest
employer in the world with 1.6 million on the staff, and it looks just like a
giant job creation scheme. As elsewhere in government run India, there are lots
of ‘supervisors’ sitting around reading the paper and everyone knocks off for
lunch. Surprisingly, the whole system does work very well, even if everything
(even the journeys) usually happens very slowly.
Ambassador cars still line up outside the Lutyens Government buildings. These
cars are based on the 1948 Morris Oxford design and are still made in India today.
Although the President now has a BMW, the lower ranks will be motoring around
in their sixty year old cars for some time. One of reasons Ambassador have kept
on going is because they are strong enough to cope with India’s roads.
Road widening is now commonly seen as the poor roads are seen as a brake on economic
growth. Much of the digging work is done by (locally made) JCB’s, but a lot is
still done by labourers, usually women who excavate earth in baskets and carry
it away on their heads. What would these people do if they were all replaced by
machines? In many ways everyone has a vested interest in resisting change, as
doing these people out of their jobs who just mean more beggars living on the
streets of the cities.
For the tourist India can be overwhelming, and it
has certainly become a more stressful place to visit. Touts seem to be almost
everywhere and the traveler is bombarded by questions all the time. ’Do you
want a rickshaw?’ ‘Look in my shop?’ ‘What country?’ or simply ‘What do you
want?’ Even more irritating are the people who seem to think they know want you
want, so they give you orders like, ‘You need to go over there now’ or having
supposedly read your mind, tell you where the ticket office is, even as you
walk down the street minding your own business. Normally there is an ulterior
motive for all this free advice, usually a postcard or rickshaw sales pitch.
Add to all this, the children following you down the street shouting ‘Hello,
Hello’ and tourists often feel they are under siege.
Also the Indian tourist industry hasn’t worked out what foreign tourists really
want. So in a country awash with cheap labour, hotel walls are grubby, and
things often look like they haven’t had a good clean for years. Of course if
you pay out real money you can expect the best but for most Indians in the
tourist trade, if they think they can offer it to you cheaply, then everything
will be all right, no matter if every corner is cut. After all, it wouldn’t do
to interfere with all that newspaper reading time. In Nepal, they’ve
worked out the standards that tourists expect and consequently, overall, it
offers a much better travel experience. Not surprisingly, it’s a country that
allows foreigners to own a business, which pulls the standards up; in India
this is almost impossible.
So what’s the future for India? The economy is supposed to
be overheating and a downturn is expected. Inflation is on the increase and the
Congress party recently got hammered in state polls because of the price of
onions, which shows what really matters for most Indians. I think though, due
to strength of numbers alone the economy will continue to grow and people will
get richer in relative terms. I can’t imagine large parts of the country will
be like the Delhi
metro anytime soon; there are too many vested interests in keeping things the
same. But the cities will become even more frantic, with more traffic and
gridlock and the blare of the horns being heard on the other side of the world.
See it now.