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The New India

INDIA | Wednesday, 14 March 2007 | Views [9615] | Comments [3]

A street scene in Udaipur.

A street scene in Udaipur.

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.

In Delhi, 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.

Tags: Observations



Wonderful sight, very inspirational!

  Cuzzin E May 25, 2007 11:17 PM


A fairly accurate picture but quite exaggerated in some aspects.Lets understand that Country is an over populated country so one has accept overcrowding of streets and cities unless we have people being allowed to venture out in "shifts".Also due to the economic Boom (to what ever small measure as claimed by Graham)there would be an increase in Two Wheelers / 4 wheelers. I am from Bangalore, a City where there are 300 cars added on PER day.We should try and follow Singapore's example where I understand you have a 3-5 year waiting period to buy a Car.

He is right about the over population, Touts harassing Tourists, whether Indian or of a foreign race but then a little firmness dealing with the Touts could help OR try and be accompanied by a Local.

The part about the Railways or Airlines is exaggerated.The Railways and Airlines have vastly improved.See, if you go through a Travel agent, the Tickets would be delivered to your home and you could book online through a Credit Card and some Airlines follow ticketless travel.Obviously these services would be missing in small towns / villages but if cannot rough it out, STICK to cities.

As regards Cellphones,the other day I day I saw a pavement Fruit vendor using a Cell Phone.

Ambassadors are a rarity these days.However as Graham pointed out for these cars are excellent for Bad Roads.

To wrap up, I would like to state that it is a question of looking at the Glass of water which is HALF FULL or HALF EMPTY!!! Anyway it was nice to see the picture from a Foreign Tourist's eyes.

  Mark Sep 11, 2007 5:14 PM


Good article. Whatever Mr. Graham says is true especially about the traffic and the way people drive. Apart from that, I think next time he should try visiting the suburbs or the town areas of metropolitan cities like Mumbai instead of the various villages he descibes. I'm sure he will have a completely different perspective about the country then! ;-)

  Mr. Yank Sep 30, 2007 12:24 AM



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