Indian Sunset

August 23, 2013


I've never seen you look like this without a reason

Another promise fallen through, another season passes by you

- Big Country

After a summer in India I learned a lot about the country, its culture, and its people. What before was a piece of the map that I had only read about now had faces, colors, and smells to fill in the blank space. With India’s omnipresence in today’s media it is hard not to have some preconceptions about the country. Until most recently that media coverage had centered on India’s growth and its prominent place in our future global society. Now, however, recent economic troubles have led to speculation that India’s continued growth and development are not a sure thing; that it won’t just happen magically. Hearing the media hype and seeing the reality makes me skeptical. Despite its potential, India has deep and persistent problems that have not been addressed nor is there much talk of addressing them in the near future, although perhaps as it slides towards an economic crisis the urgency of action will be called to attention.

Most rural families rely on farming yet they cannot afford modern equipment, nor are their plots of land big enough for this to even be a realistic option. Without that efficiency it is hard to make significant economic gains. A social society fractured by the caste system, even more so in rural areas, makes cooperation more complicated. There is education but prospects of moving beyond the village are scant. While the government speaks highly of food programs to help the poor the reality is that this support rarely reaches those who need it, while also encouraging a dependence on subsidies which is eating away at the government’s budget. Corruption, greed, and indifference result in others reaping the benefits destined to uplift the poor, leaving a malnourished class of society. Guaranteed labor jobs such as those to build roads merely result in government handouts to malnourished laborers who are incapable of building quality roads. The construction takes longer and the roads need to be repaired continuously, further slowing traffic and diminishing the effectiveness of the infrastructure. The same inefficiency plagues the government. With the largest affirmative action program in the world, many positions are merely entitlements, and once those poorly qualified employees are hired it is nearly impossible to fire them. A bloated government full of workers not hired on merit continues to be a drain on the nation’s resources.

The economic realities push many to flock to the cities, swelling the populations in makeshift slums, further straining what infrastructure and city services there are and degrading the environment. In the cities there are corporate jobs and the growing influence of western society. The juxtaposition of western society and deeply entrenched historical traditions leads to a volatile mix. The rising incidence of sexual assaults on women is evidence enough of this. The growing divide between a Hindu majority and a Muslim minority is another issue, already there is great segregation between the two in many cities. The riots in Gujarat some years back illustrate the gruesome potential of this conflict. Add in the issues with Pakistan and the potential for terrorist attacks and it is really something unique and perilous.

I’m not sure where India is headed in the next few years but it does have many things going for it. It has a sizeable skilled population and a decent education system. The English language history has helped it become competitive in sectors like IT and services. But the world is changing rapidly and a developing India means rising wages and erosion of some of the cost advantages that it holds. Protectionist policies from countries with battered economies, including the US, are another threat, as the backlash against outsourcing rises.

The most disturbing thing about India is that the government and its people are clearly capable of much more. The new and useful metro in New Delhi is a good example. This relatively quick and easy transportation system allows mobility around the city that is greatly needed for development. The smooth, multi-lane toll road connecting Delhi and Agra is another great example. The new airport in Delhi is one that rivals many western airports, and is the first thing that many visitors see of India, something akin to false advertising or promises unfulfilled once they leave its confines. Contrast this with the trash-filled and potholed streets of Bangalore, the home of many foreign companies, or the filthy crowded town of Agra, home to the Taj Mahal, India’s most famous attraction. Clearly the means and capabilities are there but the drive and forcefulness needed to propagate these improvements across the country seem to be lacking, for whatever reason. It’s hard to fix a broken system filled with entitlements, corruption, and personal interest. No one likes to have their potential monetary streams compromised today even if it might mean more money in the future. Money today is way more valuable than the promise of money in the future, especially as the Rupee slides lower and lower in the currency markets.

On my trip to Jaisalmer I took a photo which I think sums up India for those that haven’t been there. It is a picture of a cow standing in the middle of the street eating a cardboard ice cream box while peeing. This was on the main road between Jodhpur and Jaisalmer. All the traffic had to slow down and swerve around this cow, which didn’t seem to be bothered by any of the noise and commotion. The people didn’t seem to care either that they were being inconvenienced by this animal. Is this the same India that you read about that will develop into a future global power? Could that be a reality someday? How could a nation of 1.2 billion people be beholden to the fickle whims of an animal that the rest of the world eats for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Where is the future in that?