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India Today: Behind the Haze of Wealth & Greed ...




If you are Indian, or of Indian descent, I must preface this post with a clear warning: you are not going to like what I have to say.

My criticisms may be very hard to stomach. But consider them as the hard words and loving advice of a good friend. Someone who's being honest with you and wants nothing from you. These criticisms apply to all of India except Kerala and the places I didn't visit, except that I have a feeling it applies to all of India, except as I mentioned before, Kerala.

Lastly, before anyone accuses me of Western Cultural Imperialism, let me say this: if this is what India and Indians want, then hey, who am I to tell them differently. Take what you like and leave the rest. In the end it doesn't really matter, as I get the sense that Indians, at least many upper class Indians, don't seem to care and the lower classes just don't know any better, what with Indian culture being so intense and pervasive on the sub-continent. But here goes, nonetheless.

India is a mess.

It's that simple, but it's also quite complicated. I'll start with what I think are India's four major problems - -the four most preventing India from becoming a developing nation - and then move to some of the ancillary ones.

First, pollution.

In my opinion the filth, squalor and all around pollution indicates a marked lack of respect for India by Indians. I don't know how cultural the filth is, but it's really beyond anything I have ever encountered. At times the smells, trash, refuse and excrement are like a garbage dump.

Right next door to the Taj Mahal was a pile of trash that smelled so bad, was so foul as to almost ruin the entire Taj experience. Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai to a lesser degree were so very polluted as to make me physically ill. Sinus infections, ear infection, bowels churning was an all to common experience in India. Dung, be it goat, cow or human fecal matter was common on the streets. In major tourist areas filth was everywhere, littering the sidewalks, the roadways, you name it.

Toilets in the middle of the road, men urinating and defecating anywhere, in broad daylight. Whole villages are plastic bag wastelands. Roadsides are choked by it. Air quality that can hardly be called quality. Far too much coal and far to few unleaded vehicles on the road. The measure should be how dangerous the air is for one's health, not how good it is. People casually throw trash in the streets, on the roads.

The only two cities that could be considered sanitary in my journey were Trivandrum - the capital of Kerala - and Calicut. I don't know why this is. But I can assure you that at some point this pollution will cut into India's productivity, if it already hasn't. The pollution will hobble India's growth path, if that indeed is what the country wants. (Which I personally doubt, as India is far too conservative a country, in the small 'c' sense.)

The second issue, infrastructure, can be divided into four subcategories: roads, rails and ports and the electrical grid.

The electrical grid is a joke. Load shedding is all too common, everywhere in India. Wide swaths of the country spend much of the day without the electricity they actually pay for. Without regular electricity, productivity, again, falls. The ports are a joke. Antiquated, out of date, hardly even appropriate for the mechanized world of container ports, more in line with the days of longshoremen and the like.

Roads are an equal disaster. I only saw one elevated highway that would be considered decent in Thailand, much less Western Europe or America. And I covered fully two thirds of the country during my visit. There are so few dual carriage way roads as to be laughable.

There are no traffic laws to speak of, and if there are, they are rarely obeyed, much less enforced. A drive that should take an hour takes three. A drive that should take three takes nine. The buses are at least thirty years old, if not older.

Everyone in India, or who travels in India raves about the railway system.

Rubbish. It's awful.

Now, when I was there in 2003 and then late 2004 it was decent. But in the last five years the traffic on the rails has grown so quickly that once again, it is threatening productivity. Waiting in line just to ask a question now takes thirty minutes. Routes are routinely sold out three and four days in advance now, leaving travelers stranded with little option except to take the decrepit and dangerous buses.

At least fifty million people use the trains a day in India. 50 million people! Not surprising that wai-tlists of 500 or more people are common now. The rails are affordable and comprehensive but they are overcrowded and what with budget airlines popping up in India - like sadhus in an ashram - the middle and lowers classes are left to deal with the overutilized rails and quality suffers. No one seems to give a shit. Seriously, I just never have the impression that the Indian government really cares. Too interested in buying weapons from Russia, Israel and the U.S., I guess.

The last major problem in India is an old problem and can be divided into two parts that've been two sides of the same coin since government was invented: bureaucracy and corruption.

It take triplicates to register into a hotel. To get a SIM card for one's phone is like wading into a jungle of red-tape and photocopies one is not likely to emerge from in a good mood, much less satisfied with customer service. Getting train tickets is a terrible ordeal, first you have to find the train number, which takes 30 minutes, then you have to fill in the form, which is far from easy, then you have to wait in line to try and make a reservation, which takes 30 minutes at least and if you made a single mistake on the form back you go to the end of the queue, or what passes for a queue in India.

The government is notoriously uninterested in the problems of the commoners, too busy fleecing the rich, or trying to get rich themselves in some way shape or form.

Take the trash for example. Civil rubbish collection authorities are too busy taking kickbacks from the wealthy to keep their areas clean that they don't have the time, manpower, money or interest in doing their job. Rural hospitals are perennially understaffed as doctors pocket the fees the government pays them, never show up at the rural hospitals and practice in the cities instead.

I could go on for quite some time about my perception of India and its problems, but in all seriousness, I don't think anyone in India really cares.

And that, to me, is the biggest problem.

India is too conservative a society to want to change in any way. Mumbai, India's financial capital is about as filthy, polluted and poor as the worst city imaginable in Vietnam, or Indonesia - and being more polluted than Medan, in Sumatra is no easy task. The biggest rats I have ever seen were in Medan!

One would expect a certain amount of, yes, I am going to use this word, backwardness, in a country that hasn't produced so many Nobel Laureates, nuclear physicists, imminent economists and entrepreneurs. But India has all these things and what have they brought back to India with them? Nothing. The rich still have their servants, the lower castes are still there to do the dirty work and so the country remains in stasis. It's a shame. Indians and India have many wonderful things to offer the world, but I'm far from sanguine that India will amount to much in my lifetime.

Now, have at it, call me a cultural imperialist, a spoiled child of the West and all that. But remember, I've been there. I've done it. And I've seen 50 other countries on this planet and none, not even Ethiopia, have as long and gargantuan a laundry list of problems as India does.

And the bottom line is, I don't think India really cares. Too complacent and too conservative.


Sean Paul Kelley is a travel writer, former radio host, and before that an asset manager for a Wall Street investment bank that is still (barely) alive. He recently left a fantastic job in Singapore working for Solar Winds, a software company based out of Austin to travel around the world for a year (or two). He founded The Agonist in 2002, which is still considered the top international affairs, culture and news destination for progressives. He is also the Global Correspondent for The Young Turks, on satellite radio and Air America. He blogs at The Huffington Post from time to time as well. He's traveled in more than 50 countries including Iran, Turkey, Oman, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, China, Nepal and India.

December 18, 2009

Conversation about this article

1: Arvinder Uppal  (Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.A.), December 18, 2009, 4:56 PM.

Absolutely phenomenal and accurate. An Indian citizen said to me once, as I objected to his throwing out a diaper in Sector 17 in Chandigarh, the city beautifu: "The entire India is a garbage dump!" Indians preach high morals and religious supermacy but have no basic courtesy even towards each other. The country's 'moral' values are a pretence and a farce. People in India have no respect towards the environment they live in. There are no trees left and in Delhi, since they are not allowed to cut trees, they pour melted rubber over the roots to help them die. Kudos to the writer for accurately writing about India. I am so tired about hearing how great India is doing, for when I visit the country, there are no public amenities to be found.

2: Meena (Canada), December 18, 2009, 6:11 PM.

This is the India of the majority who have left their stamp in all quarters. This holds up a mirror to their morals, values and human evolution.

3: Raj (Canada), December 18, 2009, 10:48 PM.

India was, is and will be a decadent society. The Mughals ruled it for many centuries and the British ruled it for two centuries. Neither one of them could change it, all efforts of the British to modernize it failed miserably, and then it took a nose-dive after it gained independence. The infrastructure that India is using 'till now was built by the British. The so called modernization is technological advancement, it will not be able to change the majority's economical, social, political and spiritual life for the coming centuries.

4: Kanwar Nijjer (Canada), December 19, 2009, 12:46 PM.

Well said. I firmly believe India would have been better off under British Administration. Our current politicians are corrupt and uneducated, with rare exceptions. The country seems like it's totally run on auto pilot.

5: Gurinder Singh Johal (Amritsar, Punjab), December 19, 2009, 8:40 PM.

Coruption is the mother of all evils. It is from top to bottom, there are few who work honestly in this country. In every government department, where thousands are working and getting salaries, there is mysteriously no output. An employee of electricity board will himself teach a consumer how to steal electricity, and then take a bribe for his services. There are municipalities where thousands are working but towns and cities are still filthy. I would divide Indian society into three categories: first, the poor who have no concern to keep clean because their main concern is food. Second is the lower middle class which is working hard to meet both ends meet. The middle class knows about the menace of filth and unsanitary conditions but is too preoccupied with keeping up with their 'status'. This class also feels the brunt of the corruption but won't do any thing about it through sheer lack of interest or civic sense. It is the wealthy who are not worried much about these problems because they have money to get anything or everything done for them. Due to these reasons, India has so many problems - like the unrest in Punjab in the eighties, the Naxalite movement, the Kashmir problem, the unrest in the Northeast of India, reservation protests by different caste groups, sectarian problems, etc. But the worst is the food which people eat in India - there is no one looking at health and safety issues or monitoring them at all.

6: Harman Singh (Philadelphia, U.S.A.), December 19, 2009, 10:01 PM.

People lack communal pride and are too busy trying to fend for themselves. How else could you reconcile the fact that Indian homes are cleaned by servants sometimes three times a day and and so much emphasis is placed on purity and cleanliness inside, but it is the same Indian who is also dumping the garbage from his home onto the street outside his own home. Indians need to learn to start taking pride in their country and work towards its betterment, instead of trying to derive false pride from surrogates like cricket and nuclear armaments.

7: Sukh Mann (Canada), December 22, 2009, 12:17 PM.

This is the real India - a very accurate account of the India I remember. It truly is a smelly, massive garbage dump.

8: Tosh (U.S.A.), December 23, 2009, 2:21 PM.

I don't disagree with the view expressed here, but, these same people who preach righteousness morph into the same highlighted habits as soon as they step off the airplane. Welcome back home!

9: Parashuraman Narayanan (Haryana, India), January 16, 2010, 7:42 AM.

I cannot dispute a single word of your criticism. Riddled with corruption as we are, to take a billion people above sub-Saharan levels of poverty is an impossible task. I am hopeful that things will slowly become better and better. There are 300 million mobile phone connections and 50 million internet connections in India already. In our cities, caste has vanished - [Editor: Are you kidding?] - and our biggest state (Uttar Pradesh) has an "untouchable" chief minister. Families with incomes over Rs One million have multiplied tenfold over the past 5 years.They have just started a pilot Wi-Max project in interior Rajasthan that could revolutionize rural development. In spite of all the challenges, I believe we can realize a just and good society one day, however far that may be. And I believe there are millions of Indians who think so too. So while what is evil and bad is undeniable, you cannot deny what is good and hopeful about India.

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