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Published: April 29th 2006
The miserable blogs continue - I can't find anything amusing to write about. Apologies if I'm starting to sound like a cross between Alf Garnett and V.S. Naipaul, but I'm only really apologising to Indian people; those many kind folk that have made us happy, welcome or more simply just interested, who perhaps don't deserve yet another diatribe on how awful they all are.
But Western reaction to India seems to make me more and more angry. Sitting in a Nepali tea house somewhere near Everest, I was reading Rohinton Mistry's
“A Fine Balance”, which portrays the narrow line between hope and despair, living and dying, of the Mumbai poor in the mid-1970s. A young European woman offered ...
“Oh, don’t show me that book, it’s awful. It’s so depressing”.
“Have you been in India?”
“Oh yes, many times. I love
At this point, tired and suffering from altitude sickness, I’d had enough of being nice to people.
“Don’t the poor bother you?”
Pause. “Yes, but, you know, after a while you just ...”
“Tune them out?”
“Yes, you tune them out. But there are so many people dying in this book. People dying everywhere. It’s so depressing.”
you think it reflects reality somewhat?”
“No, no, not at all. Yes there is poverty, but not like that. It’s just depressing. Have you read ‘Holy Cow?’
. That’s a great book.”
I declined to answer that question.
But as well as clutching my bible to my forehead and shouting to an unhearing world like the Christian preachers trying to save me from the hedonistic delights of Khao San Road in Bangkok, I have also been properly humbled. Amongst the many interesting characters sharing our two-day bus from Varanasi to Kathmandu was a young woman who had lived on a semi-council-approved community project in London. She described how a couple of non-capitalist entrepreneurs had created a space for people who wish to to express themselves, making use of modern facilities and the large pool of expertise offered by the community, all on a swap/trade basis - no money here. It all sounded very successful and wonderful, but sadly it has now been closed down as the area has been “repossessed” for the London Olympics.
Our particular hippie do-gooder, who seemed to be commited to and experienced at doing good rather than merely whining about it amidst some nice photos,
had been schooling orphans. For us she gave all the annoying little blighters a human face, pointing out they were still just children. If you treat them like children they will behave like children, which to a Westerner in India may be a welcome change.
I felt thoroughly shamed. Kim told of an encounter with a young lad, maybe ten years old, begging at the backside of the Taj Mahal. We bore the brunt of the usual “wan rupeeeee” mantra and after an hour or so, whilst I was braving flukes and sea monsters by wading in the river for a sunset shot, Kim managed to get the most persistent of the tykes to actually behave like a child, and if not quite a bond then a mutual interest grew between them.
This was exactly our young idealist’s point. These kids need no further disciplining than life has already given them. They just need to be kids - but they never can be.
Our overnight train from Pune to Ahmedabad was uneventful even though the relatively recent and catastrophic earthquakes and religious massacres in the state of Gujarat weren’t. As it was we experienced a 6.7 richter
shock whilst on the train a couple of hours away from the city, but we never felt it beneath the movement of the train. Two weeks prior Kashmiri separatists had bombed the station, injuring several but thankfully killing none. At Ahmedabad Kim experienced the full brunt of Indian bureaucracy as she tried to buy a ticket to Mt Abu, the train leaving an hour after we had arrived. After 50 minutes of running around, being directed to seven different people, seven different queues, seven different bored idiots behind glass windows, she still hadn’t managed it. We boarded the train without a ticket and the ticket inspector frowned and started to give us a lecture. He received the full force of my anger and left, sending his polite and efficient boss down to sort us out with minimal further hassle. How can a train system be so downright bad that you can’t buy a ticket for a local train in one hour?
Mt Abu is one of Rajasthan’s ‘chill out’ places, the slight elevation offering a relief from the desert climes and the relative lack of attractions offering relief from the touts and hawkers. The place was highly praised by
fellow travellers and guidebooks alike, but we guessed this must be symptomatic of how desperate people are to get away from the main tourist centres of Rajasthan. Eschewing the busy and obvious backpacker hangout we paid a bit more for a view over the lake, sharing our rather idyllic balcony with a group of young Indian tourists, who clearly wanted to talk with us but alas we shared no common language.
Escapism aside, Mt Abu’s Dilwara temple hosts one of the most amazing interiors
I have ever seen (although this photo of some marble elephants doesn’t really do it justice). It might only take half an hour to wander around, and the Jains don’t allow photos inside, but the extent of the exquisite marble carvings is truly breathtaking. Tilt your head back and the ceiling comes alive with the detailed deities and acolytes that perhaps only a manager such as Bill Shankley could command.
Some kind of hot bumpy bus trip, best forgotten, took us to Udaipur, India’s “most romantic city”, where we both promptly fell ill, Kim with a stomach bug that still persists now we are in Bangkok, and myself with a bad cold. This was hard -
we both needed support and being ill together proved somewhat that it is often better to be ill in isolation. After several days we recovered and started to explore the narrow cow-pat strewn alleys of Udaipur. Looking for romance, instead we found young boys hurling coloured paint at each other: The multicoloured slop swap
. We explored the palace and its environs but the highlight, save for the Holi festival, was a meal spent with two Qantas cabin crew, on top of a tall building overlooking the lake and the palace. The service was truly Raj, the food, the views and the company fantastic. The cost seemed excessive, but a quick calculation reassured us that this wonderful Indian food was less than half the price of the rather hit-and-miss local Indian restaurant around the corner from our house in Sheffield.
An Harry Potter style night bus took us to Jodphur, arriving at four in the morning for a six o clock connection for another hot and stuffy bus out west to Jaisalmer, whose inhabitants, many of the Rajput warrior caste, proudly like to tell you that “over there is Pakistan, and over there, and over there”. Thankfully the roads are good, in case
they need to swiftly send the bored military out for a border skirmish or two, something of a local sport in this region. We stopped for a roadside tea break about two hours prior to Jaisalmer and the Jaisalmer touts boarded the bus - I joked with them that soon they would be harrasing India-bound tourists in Heathrow Airport - “Please come to my guest house in Jaisalmer. Very very nice by golly. Here is my card” etc. (I actually never heard an Indian say “by golly” but somehow I felt this was my loss, not theirs).
We ignored the touts deciding that when in Jaisalmer you should do as most of the locals do and live inside the 17th century battlements. Those that have recently arrived from a western country will undoubtedly find the golden sandstone ramparts and medieval streets of Jaisalmer's imposing hill fort quite impressive. Kim was more taken than I, but despite a certain level of world-weariness I would occasionally stop on a street corner, lean on a cow and just think - "Wow, this really is
Illiteracy, poverty, caste-wars and almost barbaric medieval village customs aside, camel tours are the blight of
Western Rajasthan. No tourist need ever spend more than one hour on the back of a camel, unless they really are using it to get to the shops. The deserts around Jaisalmer are distinctly unimpressive, particularly if you've visited say, Moab, Mongolia, Morocco or Namibia. The rather paltry dunes are alive with crawling sand beetles (good) and traditionally dressed children, singing for their supper (bad). Vendors stagger across the sand selling bags full of Pepsi and Beer. There is one major redeeming feature though - once the sun drops there is silence - the peaceful, comforting, unavoidable, confronting, honest silence of the desert and an overnight trip is worth it just for this alone.
It is hard to get to Jaisalmer from the East and South without going through Jodphur, and since it was our second trip through we thought we should stop for at least a night. We are both glad we did, as once we had negotiated the hurdles of the rickshaw drivers and installed ourselves in a good guesthouse in the old city, we were able to really take in Jodhpur's staggering fortress, a truly impressive sight that humbles Edinburgh Castle, the most obvious place that
springs to mind of a similar nature.
Construction started in the 15th century, and the 36m high battlements spiral around the the steep escarpment on which the fort sits in a vice-like embrace. Touring the inside of the fort, which can easily occupy a full day, is enhanced by the mp3-based audio tour put in place by the forward looking Maharaja, who has realised his place in Indian society must change and is actively seeking to enhance India's heritage and tourist incomes through thoroughly modern means. I can't praise highly enough the efforts made to make touring Meherangarh a really interesting and fascinating experience, and I'm really glad to hear that the audio system is being exported to other major Indian sights such as a major museum in Delhi. Hopefully one day the same experience will be available in the Louvre, the Hermitage and other great treasures of the world, even perhaps Edinburgh Castle.
Some 400km further west, the Taj Mahal really is the most beautiful building in the world. There can be no comparison. For me the weight of expectation didn't diminish the building's loveliness, and our first view, silhouetted through the dawn mists with the sun
rising behind it was perhaps a highlight of our trip. Agra on the other hand is a dump, and the continual influx of very rich tourists has brought the worst out of many of the locals as they continue their daily struggle to survive.
The stunning view aside, our first day in Agra was inauspicious. We tried to head from the train station to the small area of cheap hotels just South of the Taj itself. Our rickshaw driver, clearly informed he wouldn't be getting any commision from us, dropped us in the wrong place. We didn't realise until after ten minutes walking with our heavy packs. Some helpful locals showed us where we were and we got in another rickshaw. This fellow drove us 30 minutes out of our way to a hotel where he would get commision. I started quite literally throwing my weight around, so he drove us 30 minutes back and finally dropped us at the right place. We went to a rooftop cafe for breakfast, which took more than an hour to be served. Meanwhile I left to scout a hotel room, at which point an agressive rooftop monkey slipped down and stole my
vegetable pakoras from a frightened Kim. Installed in a reasonable, if a bit smelly, hotel room we rested and then went for lunch. We tried a small place recommended in the guidebooks and run by some young lads, one of whom proceeded to tell us in a state of some distress that he had just split up with his girlfriend. Apparently he had proposed the day before and this had led to family uproar. He had hit his girlfriend who had hit him back harder, and now he was determined that she was a mad woman and he wanted nothing to do with her. All very interesting, but it wasn't helping my vegetable pakoras get cooked. After 75 minute of waiting the "chef" came out and said 'Sorry, we can't do vegetable pakoras.' We left in disgust.
Our sanity was retrieved by the friendly, if financially astute, owners of Shankar Vegis. They put the cricket on the television and opened a big bottle of Kingfisher beer. Their food was pretty good also, and we ate with them almost exclusively whilst in Agra. Although not keen to recommend rickshaw drivers as in the past their antics had rebounded badly on
Roughly 16th and 17th centurys.
the restaurant, we managed to persuade them to suggest a reliable guide to take us to Agra's other attractions. Some local rickshaw driver or tout now owes them his life, as had we not stopped there I would surely be languishing in an Indian prison, my hands having been found clasped firmly around some poor unfortunate's throat.
From Jodphur onwards monkeys and cricket had become our ubiquitous companions. The monkeys ruled the rooftops and cricket ruled the TV. In Agra I started to dream of monkeys playing cricket - monkeys batting and monkeys fielding, but never monkeys bowling. Oh no, a bowling monkey's action would seem far to unnatural. The Australians would get all worked up into a tizz again. Monkey cricket drug cheat - I would happily shout "No Ball" at that fellow.
The Taj is best seen at dawn, and it can't be anything but an experience you will share with many others, although fewer than the hordes that visit later in the afternoon. The heavy price of admission clearly disappears into someone's pocket - it certainly isn't spent on local infrastructure or improvements. You can also see the Taj for free from the backside -
for the more adventurous walk along the eastern wall to the river and take the local ferry, otherwise it is a long rickshaw trip to the nearest bridge. Sunrise can be seen from the rubbish strewn river plains behind the Red Fort. The hectic roadside life along Yamuna Kinara Road is pure India, challenging all your senses and no doubt a worthwhile tourist destination in itself for the brave seeking authenticity. Don't forget to visit the l'timad Ud- Daulah'. Known as "the Baby Taj," in any other city this tomb would be a major attraction, but here it is eclipsed by the grandeur and perfection of its big brother. After sunrise I spent a couple of pleasant hours there with no other tourists whatsoever. Bliss.
Incredibly for such a dense urban area, just past the East gate of the Taj between the road and the river are natural woodlands where people live a kind of village lifestyle. On our last evening I went in search of a sunset shot, aiming for a picturesque tower we had seen from the backside. Elderly gents sitting supping chai at stalls in the woods beckoned me to join them and I would have
loved to except I had little time - our train left in a couple of hours. I found the tower but there was no way to climb in. After a little searching I found a padlocked iron gate and whilst looking for an easy way over the local village children appeared, followed by their mothers. They knew what I wanted and asked for 400 rupees, a ridiculous amount. I said twenty, clearly and repeatedly, raising two fingers to reinforce the point. They opened the gate but as I walked to the tower I realised there was going to be a problem - the older women would at least pretend not to understand. The sun was dropping fast and I only grabbed three quick shots on the tripod before the light was smothered by India's industrial haze. I went back and offered my twenty rupees but the gate remained locked, a woman guarding it, arms folded. I sat down to pack up my camera and tripod just as one of the menfolk returned on a motorbike. He was let in, the situation explained and he approached me agressively. So I stood up. This made him pause, and then I agressively advanced
on him, forcing him backwards with my bulk. The top of his head barely reached my chest, and I probably hit the scales at double his weight. It wasn't going to be a fair fight. He backed off and I walked to the corner of the enclave where I was fairly sure I could climb the wall. On top I looked back and by now the man was pleading for forty rupees. I jumped over and pretended to walk off, as the pleading grew in intensity. Returning I gave them the forty rupees, but not without making it clear that I was unhappy with their attempts at extortion mixed with threats of violence. The thing was, when I arrived I wanted to help them - I wanted to give them some money for the kids, but life is such that this wasn't really possible without desperation and greed getting in the way.
About a hundred metres away through the woods I found a neglected crumbling archway standing on its own. In its heyday it would have been every bit as impressive as the gateways that guard the Taj but now it is forgotten. I set the camera up on
a tripod wanting to get myself in the picture for scale, but I needed the help of two teenage Indian girls nearby to press the button. They were smartly dressed in traditional style and I went to ask if they would help. They executed their task perfectly and started to leave when their mother arrived and demanded money. I stared at her and said "Why?" which one of the girls, clearly embarrased, translated. I held their mother's stare long enough to make the point and then gave them ten rupees baksheesh each. They were happy at the unexpected bonus but these girls were educated well enough to subconciously understand something of an implied social contract - India desperately needs more like them but this will not happen without major investment in education.
I've already prematurely ejaculated my thoughts on Varanasi in the previous Indian blog: A hardening of the heart in the land of the economic miracle.
Many travellers seem to love Varanasi but to me it seems overly busy and rather dirty. Again it had been bombed just prior to our arrival, this time the separatists claimed the lives of fourteen people. I also find it interesting that given the adverse news coverage of both Nepal and Sri Lanka,
Flash restaurant, Udaipur
We ate a fantatsic Indian meal on top of the tall building in the centre of this picture. The food, service and views were top quality, yet the price was half that of the Indian restaurant round the corner from our house in Sheffield.
North India, which I would argue is far more dangerous and threatening than either of its tiny neighbours, recieves very little adverse coverage. The place remains awash with tourists.
We found a pleasant oasis of calm in the heart of Varanasi, away from the amazing sights and smells of the Ghats. The food at Hotel Buddha was also pretty good, and try as we might we never found a place that bettered it. Apart from watching dozy tourists photograph people having a bath, we celebrated our last night in India by tackling a very dodgy drinking den. I think Kim may have been the only women to enter it this century, and the last. The reaction of the hardened local drinkers certainly suggested they had never even seen a woman before. One brave wag tried to talk to us, but his language and nerve failed and he soon retreated. We both returned the stares, and after a while most people minded their own business and we relaxed to enjoy the pleasant surroundings - I think it was a 'Baghdad' theme pub.
Our two day bus trip to Kathmandu with the highly recommended but typically useless Paul Travels was
Yet another temple from yet another rooftop restaurant
an experience that merits a blog in itself. Suffice to say "Lord of the Flies" could more accurately have been set on an Indian tourist bus rather than a deserted tropical Island. The highlight of the trip was an outgoing if rather scary looking young Israeli taking over a Nepali government roadblock, much to the great amusement of the onlooking Nepali troops. His experience in running a roadblock clearly showed.
We have crossed a lot of land borders on this trip, and border towns are generally not good places to hang around. Money-changers pester you, tricking you with sleight of hand - itinerant kids beg for money and rough looking characters stare at you menacingly. Throat-cutting seems a literal rather than an economic allusion. The interesting thing about this Indian border town is that it was all this and more, and of course it was no different to any other North Indian town we had visited. Lots of practice in Africa and South America took us through the officials in record time - it took some on the bus more than two hours to get through - and we stepped into Nepal to be immediately greeted by a nice
17th century in orange sandstone, rising out of the desert haze.
man who took us to our hotel without asking for any money in return. Despite the 9.00pm curfew we sat and drank a couple of bottles of Everest beer behind closed shutters. Suddenly my whole body relaxed - we were out of India.
Economic pontifications and random book reviews
Many first time visitors to India from the West are shocked by the dirt, squalor and poverty. Of course they expected it, but India seems to manage to "exceed expectations" for many. I guess after a year largely spent in "developing" countries we have become fairly hardened. Whilst lining up a shot of the brokendown facade of the Dharavi slum in Mumbai I completely ignored the young boy squatting on the wall I was leaning against, defecating openly onto the street. Including him would have made a vastly more powerful shot but some form of decency stopped me.
But I think the shock of witnessing India first hand would be nothing compared to the shock of understanding the realities that face most people in modern India. Indian politics and social issues are something I think very few westerners really try to understand in depth. Certainly before coming here I had
Taken from, guess what, another rooftop restaurant serving excellent Indian food.
little idea about India's last fifty years, but my explorations have only led to a greater sense of surprise and unease.
To be sure the vaguries of party politics in India are incomprehensible, even to most Indians. Whilst in the UK and US many lament a lack of choice between two parties that simply offer minor variations of the same agenda, in India there are so many parties and contenders it is almost impossible to count them. Even so, many Indians feel this purely represents a split based on individual power-bases and self-interest rather than any differing political ideology.
At the top of the pyramid you have two parties - the Indian Congress, the political descendents of Nehru and Gandhi, that took power after the bloody atrocities following the premature British withdrawal in 1947, a particularly unpleasant and nasty blot on Britain's colonial copybook, departing colonial masters who consigned millions to die in what can only be seen as a fit of pique; and the BJP, the Hindu nationalist party that in recent years has subscribed to fascist anti-muslim policies that have promoted violent massacres across the country. Most recently the swing has been against the more extreme
form of Hindu jingoism (communalism) leaving the country safely in the hands of the congress, who are happily selling it off piece by piece to multinational corporations with the experienced and able help of the IMF and the World Bank.
Don't worry, the Code Warriors will save us
I work in IT. I'm hardly a code warrior, but I have my occasional moments. I've worked with Indian programmers for most of my sixteen years in the job.
Most news reports in the west seem to be relating to the export boom in India's service sector, plus India's promising GDP growth. This touches a nerve in the West as western white collar workers are losing their jobs to cheaper, highly skilled, Indians. I noted in an Indian business magazine that average wages in IT range from 18,333 rupees per month for a junior (just short of 3000gbp per year) to 115556 rupees per month for senior management (around 18000 gbp per year). The latter figure is almost lower than the average starting salary for a new graduate trainee programmer in the UK.
What puzzles me is whether this minor economic boom, great for those involved in it and good
luck to them, can help drag India out of the economic and social quaqmire it is undoubtedly mired in. Enthusiastic western business magazines often imply that it can, or more commonly just ignore the issue. The Economist in December 2005 ran a typical article, enthusing about more massive investment from the likes of Microsoft, Intel and Dell. But it left the killer to the final two paragraphs.
According to the Economist there are now 700,000 Indians employed in IT and business process services, mostly banking. An geography professor and obvious Indiophile quoted to me 400,000 with 50,000 working in call centres, the incomes of these paying for on average another five jobs in the local 'supply chain'. All well and good.
The Economist continues - it is estimated the service export sector will grow to 2.3 million people by 2010. Even better, except that apparently only 1.05 million suitably qualified people will graduate in the intervening five years, leaving a shortfall of half a million people.
Now several things seem striking here. Firstly in those five years the country will add another 75 million people to its population - that's nearly another Germany. But more importantly perhaps,
India's universities are only pumping out 200,000 graduates per year capable of working in the export sector. This is a country of more than 1 billion people and only 200,000 per year leave university with a decent degree and the ability to speak English. Every year Britain graduates 220,000 people with Science degrees and an annual total of 540,000. Ironically Britain cannot employ all these graduates, so perhaps we should think of sending some to India. Oh no, we tried that once before, didn't we.
Ok, lets give India a chance here - English is not the national language. So to make a fairer comparison I tried to find the number of foreign language graduates from British universities. Based on scaling up numbers for Scotland I'm estimating around 18,000 people per year, or 0.03% of the population. India's 'competitive' graduates comprise 0.02% of the population - so at least the orders of magnitude are the same, even if it is not the most helpful comparison ever made.
Nonetheless, there is a striking disparity between the numbers of trained people and the numbers of people in India. As William Dalrymple sensitively describes in "City of Djinns", India has an
estimated 750,000 eunuchs. We were reassured by our geographical friend that at last the percentage growth rate of employment in export services has overtaken the percentage growth rate of the population - but this is hardly helpful when there is a scale factor of 1000 difference in the absolute numbers.
I don't know how India can go about solving its problems, but I'm quite sure that kow-towing to Western capitalism is not likely to be a fruitful route, even if it helps improve the lot of a small minority of the population.
The Age of Kali
Please don't let my naively idealistic view of the world put you off. I can't claim to have read many books about India - perhaps a dozen or so - but if you only read one then make it William Dalrymple's "The Age of Kali". This will give you a real-life picture of modern India that only a close and dedicated scrutiny of the western media would reveal.
Dalrymple is an "annoyingly talented" author who brings the benefits of a strong classical education to his sense of objectivity and decency. The reportage in Age of Kali covers ten years of travels around
Ve have ways of making you talk ...
No tourist should ever spend more than one hour on the back of one of these.
the sub-continent, and Dalrymple's real strength is his lack of bias. If he has any agenda it is simply that of a concerned human being, which is perhaps why his writing appeals to many Indians themselves, even though he is revealing some of the darker and less pleasant aspects of life in India.
I found it hard to believe what I was reading. In the unruly state of Bihar, caste massacres are organised by local politicians, warlords with private armies that have successfully piloted a rising course through the democratic system by forcing voters at gunpoint; politicians ruling state governments whilst languishing in jail on murder charges. Dalrymple describes the desperate situation of widows, young and old, forced to flee to the ashram's of Vrindavan in Utter Pradesh where they fall prey to exploitation by organised crime. He covers the armed student gangs in Lucknow, who murder each other purely because there seems to be no other alternatives, visits Rajasthan to cover the rape of a female public servant, forced to report illegal child-marriages to the government and hence incurring the wrath of a local politician. He covers the vicious caste-wars around the tourist city of Jodphur and the
Rajasthan desert ...
"Over there is Pakistan. And over there. And over there."
possible continuance of the practice of Sati, the ritual suicide of a wife following the death of her husband.
Turning to the more literate South, the "New India", in Bangalore he covers the largely symbolic but nonetheless violent protests of the lower castes against the icons of western prosperity and economic colonialism - KFC and Pizza Hut. He charts the rise of India's first modern celebrities in Mumbai, and in India's neighbours he visits the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, goes on the campaign trail with Imhran Khan in Pakistan, visits the warlords on the Afghan border and in Lahore he interviews witnesses to the savage massacres of the 1947 partition.
After reading the book my immediate thought was denial - most of these articles are more than ten years old, it cannot be like that now. But a quick browse through the Indian daily papers reveals that things may not have changed that much - students still die in gun battles with the police after university chiefs try to ban them for cheating in exams; groups of people are mysteriously executed on an almost daily basis, and of course whilst we have been here there have been
Rajasthan desert ...
It may look beautiful but there are more hawkers here than on Oxford Street.
two bomb attacks on major train stations plus of course a fairly large earthquake.
”The Great Indian Middle Class” Pavan K Varma
was trained in history and law and had a distinguished career in the Indian Foreign Service as well as writing works on Hindu history and culture. To mark the 50th anniversary of Indian Independence Penguin India commisioned this work, a study of the history and attitudes of middle-class India in the last half-century. The result, published in 1998, is a thought-provoking study of the role of the relatively rich in relation to the poor. In attempting to outline the key points here I would like to state that while much that is written is peculiar to Indian history and culture, much of what is documented reflects very strongly the state of many other modern societies, most particularly those in the West. I would strongly recommend it be read by all those who are interested in India, and the modern world in general.
Note - all figures given are from the time of publication of the book, unless otherwise stated.
Unlike the Dutch and French colonialists, the British chose to ease the burden of rule by training native Indians
to take charge of more minor administrative posts. Over time the number, power and influence of this largely English-speaking elite grew. The Independence movement, championed by Gandhi and guided by Nehru, appealed to the common man and its strength in numbers was in the end what gave it the force to remove the British. However the policies of this movement remained firmly in the control of a small, English-educated, elite. Understandably they tended to favour the rich over the poor.
Gandhi, arguably an astute pragmatist, favoured reform, not revolution. Nehru, more presciently perhaps, believed it necessary to change the very structure of Indian politics and power to include the masses. That he failed to do this before the end of British rule and during the transition to Inidan rule may be put down to the fact that he had rather enough on his plate simply managing the transition. The Indian Congress and Parliament simply adapted the much admired structure of Westminster.
Nehru also failed to achieve his own goals for India subsequent to Indepedence. Whilst the Indian parliament enacted much socially benevolent legislation aimed at integrating the poor more closely into society, the aims of the legislation were
"Beggar Idol", Jaisalmer fort
Beggars are often run by beggarmasters who take a cut of earnings but provide protection. The best beggars get the best locations, and I think this guy must be the top beggar in Jaisalmer. Children are often deliberately mutilated in order that the donors (or clients) be more impressed and offer more money. Check out this chaps hands, noting the pink colouring is not an affliction, simply the results of playing Holi a few days before.
distorted at state and local level, where the local power elites twisted the rules to their own benefit.
British Profesor R.H. Towney put it rather well:
The plutocracy consists of agreeable, astute, forcible, self-confident, and, when hard-pressed, unscrupulous people, who know pretty well on which side their bread is buttered, and intend that the supply of butter shall not run short.
Still Nehru, along with the legacy of Gandhi, provided the powerful Indian middle-class with a strong moral and ethical framework, combined with a romanticised view of India prior to British rule, in which to view their actions and those of others. Two major events brought this to an end; the loss of the war with China in 1963 and the death of Nehru in 1964. The former shook India's belief in itself. Many started to doubt Nehru's idealism and looked to a leader who would practise realpolitik. The latter, as well as removing the paternal icon that had watched over India since Independence, led to the rise of the more ruthless Indira Gandhi, Nehru's daughter. As she said of herself
My father was a saint who strayed into politics. I am a tough politician.
Whilst far from perfect, Nehru was seen to belong to a type of politician that saw ruling as a means to state progress. Resigning on a matter of principle was not unheard of. In the scramble to inherit Nehru's legacy India saw clearly for the first time a class
Entertaining tout, Jaisalmer
I paid two chaps to pose for photos, and with their earnings they bought me a cup of chai. He also played the sitar like a demon, and my presence drew more tourists in to listen, something he'd been trying to achieve all day. They may be poor but they ain't stupid.
of politician that would stop at nothing to achieve power purely for power's sake. Under Indira Gandhi the middle-class saw "the devolving of idealism" and "the legitimisation of corruption as an accepted and inevitable part of society." The paternalistic and interventionist state had failed in its stated socialist goals - "eliminating poverty and the promotion of equity and social justice"; this failure of policies that were irksome to many of the middle class raised two doubts; of the legitimacy of the state in such a role and of the actual social principles underlying that role.
Mrs Gandhi rose on the back of her aristocratic lineage, but after the crushing defeat of Pakistan in 1971 she became seen as the powerful leader India needed. Her policy of nationalising the banks in 1969 led to a great leap in the numbers of middle class as capital became available to large numbers of trader and entrepeneurs. A boom in SME's followed (small to medium sized enterprises). The bureacracy governing these small scale businesses grew in tandem, as lower-level bureaucrats took advantage of the new money supply to feather their own nests by enforcing suffocating and obstructive regulations that could only be bypassed
through bribes. The increasing acceptance of corruption reduced the need for these bureaucrats to hide their gains. The size of this "black economy" in India was very large compared to other developing nations - estimated at 50%!o(MISSING)f the recorded GDP.
Major famines in 1965 aqnd 1966 led to the "Green Revolution", an attempt to boost agricultural production through technology use. Aided by government subsidies the middle-level farmers adopted the new practices first, and became very successful. Some used surplus cash to diversify, creating a new-class of "bullock capitalists" clamouring to realise the benefits of being middle-class.
Further famines in 1972 and 1973 added to the costs of the 1971 war causing shortages and price rises, angering those that now had money and expected more from it. The 'traditional' middle-class was now idealogically rudderless and ill-equipped to deal with the agressive brashness of the new 'self-made' entrants. Mrs Gandhi's popularity fell, leading to the rise of a more moral and ethical opposition in the JP movement, which gained voluble support from the middle-class, up to a point:
In May 1974, union leader Georges Fernandes, under the broad banner of the JP movement, called for a country-wide railway strike. The strike was brutally crushed by Indira Gandhi. Over 20,000 strikers were arrested, large numbers were mercilessly beaten up and families of absentee workers were summarily thrown out of their railway quarters. The ruthelessness of the state machinery was widely known, but most of her middle-class countrymen, including those who accused her of authoritarianism, applauded Indira for her 'firmness' in dealing with the strike. They didn't want their own rights and privileges touched.
Similarly the middle-class applauded at Mrs Gandhi's crackdown on smugglers and other economic offenders, even though the middle-class
were the main buyers of these illicit goods.
On 12th June 1975 Justice Sinha of the Allahabad High Court set aside Mrs Gandhi's election to parliament in 1971 and barred her from elective office for six years, having found her guilty of electoral fraud. An appeal to the supreme court obtained a conditional stay - she could continue in office but not vote in Parliament. By now it was fashionable to compare Mrs Gandhi with Stalin and Hitler.
On 25th June Mrs Gandhi obtained Presidential permission for the imposition of emergency rule. Overnight India turned from democracy to dictatorship, with almost all Mrs Gandhi's prominent opponents arrested. Nationwide cencorship was imposed.
There was not even a hint of protest from India's educated classes: "they showed the strength of their ideological convictions by crawling when they had been asked to bend."
Middle-class India accepted the suspension of democracy with a readiness that transparently betrayed the sole reference point that animated it; its own narrow self interest.
Meanwhile Indira's second son, Sanjay Gandhi, with the support of much of the middle-class, determined to use the draconian powers of the Emergency to get ride of slums ("Beautification") and push through family planning through mandatory vivisection quotas enforced by petty officials able to use their new powers to settle scores and grudges. The already
bad lot of the poor had just gotten a lot worse.
Throughout the seventies and eighties the middle-class continued to consolidate their hold on the economy at a rate disproportionate to their numbers and to Indian economic growth as a whole. Powerfull competing interests recieved large increases in government subsidies to placate them, and the per capita pay increase of government employees was 2.5 times the national average.
Mrs Gandhi was assassinated in October 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards following the government storming of a Sikh temple at Amritsar in June. The assassination led to a large-scale massacre of Sikhs in Delhi (approximately 3000) that many believe was organised by Congress party and government supporters. Her much admired and thoroughly modern son, Rajiv, reluctantly took her place and India saw a young, technologically savvy leader who could take them into the modern age. However, bound by a corrupt system of vested interest he was destined to fail and lost the 1989 election following yet another bribery scandal.
In 1989 his successor V.P. Singh found it politically expedient to implement one key recommendation of the 1980 Mandal commision report which recommended reserving 27% of government jobs to 'backward'
castes. The reaction from the upper-castes was immediate and violent - some students even burned themselves to death in protest - contrast this with the lack of reaction to the suspension of democracy during The Emergency. Despite the protests the legislation went through, leading to the rise of 'intermediate' castes particularly in India's many rural areas. The Green Revolution had already empowered some of these castes, but government ceilings on the size of land-holdings had limited their economic progress, and more importantly the prevailing structures limited the progress of their offspring up the socio-economic scale. However the agressive and neo-affluent backward castes identified by Mandal had as little concern for social justice when it conflicted with their own needs as the outraged middle-class that opposed them - the vast numbers of oppressed peasantry comprising the Dalits (or 'scheduled' castes) and the most backward castes continued to live in absolute deprivation.
With increasing political awareness the Dalits challenged the ascendent backward castes leading to the creation of private armies to brutally surpress these uprisings - see the first chapter of William Dalrymple's "The Age Of Kali" for more information.
The two other principal recommendations of the Mandal commision -
Pedalo wars, Jaisalmer
Our plucky pedalo swan took superior numbers in a fleet of young Indian lads and won. Britannia rules the waves etc.
land reform and expanded eductational opportunities for the poor, were quietly forgotten, even by the loudest proponents of the reforms.
The truth is that under the garb of social justice the entire Mandal issue was an intra-middle-class struggle for the perks and perquisites that could be siezed from the state - the wave of caste consciousness that Mandal unleashed put on the backburner the real issues that need to be confronted - poverty, illiteracy, disease and exploitation.
Crucial to Varma's analysis is the understanding that, despite its wholehearted embracing of the "project of modernity", religous orthodoxy is still a fundamental driver within the Indian middle class. Unlike Christianity and Islam, Hinduism is a very personal, very individualistic religion - the worshipper finds his own bond between himself and his gods. This emphasis on the self as the centrepiece of worship can stunt the growth of a person's involvement with the community. An external admirer of Indian culture during Nehru's heyday was nonetheless moved to write that
an individual-to-individual callousness, despite India's belief in her own spiritualism, was always part of India.
Varma suggests that "honest introspection" will "endorse the truth of such comments." He gives the example of the pious Hindu bathing the Ganges totally oblivious to the filfth and garbage around him. His focus is purely with his own spiritual advancement. Similarly, the coffers of Hindu temples overflow with donations but few donors would see much 'spiritual merit' in using the same money to alleviate the suffering of the thousands of visibly poor around them. As V.S. Naipaul, in a pessimistic mood even for him, puts
In the high Hindu ideal of self-realisation there was no idea of a contract between man and man. It was Hinduism's greatest flaw.
A second aspect of Hinduism on which the author concentrates is the lack of a "strong and unambiguous single ethical centre." There is no concept of sin - morality is dependent on context - it is not to say Hinduism is amoral, more that it accepts a "moral relativism" which refuses to be pinned down by simplistic notions of "right and wrong". This absence of an "absolute moral code reinforces the bias for the individual over the community". Family networks are strong, far stronger than in the West, but a closer examination reveals these are simply an extension of self as opposed to an integration or responsibility to the community as a whole.
The author notes purists will "protest such uncharitable generalisations" and then a detailed analysis is given which is beyond the understanding of someone who has not studied Hinduism at some depth.
Varma contends that since 1947 the numbers of Indian poor have risen but the middle-classes ability to notice them has dropped. They are simply "part of the accepted landscape". In Surah, India's diamond capital, the plague virus resurfaced amongst the filfth of the city (the city has now started to clean
Monkeys rule the rooftops ...
Keep an eye on your food - always eat with a big stick handy.
itself up, but only due to the single-minded crusade of a junior government employee). "In Aligah, a well know centre of education and learning, only 6%!o(MISSING)f the city's water can be drunk, the sewage system has collapsed and over 34%!o(MISSING)f the population defecate in the open". Examples of free-market capitalism are rife, where those with access to money illegally buy up farm-land to develop mills and warehouses, shopping malls spring up in the midst of slums, brand new cars and motorbikes are driven down potholed unsurfaced roads strewn with rubbish and faeces, and high-heeled office workers stride amongst the filfth to and from their middle-class houses. Pakaj Misha in "Butter Chicken in Ludhiana" describes small town middle class India, with enclaves of modern houses surrounded by gigantic mounds of garbage, weeds, unpaved roads unusable in the monsoons and leaking pipes, but also satellite dishes, brand new cars and expensive architectures -
No, it wasn't for lack of money that such appalling civic conditions prevail.
The biggest electricity thieves in urban India are not the poor in the slums, but the middle class. Similarly, of the 1500 tonnes of uncollected garbage generated daily in Delhi, much is from the middle-class who generate 5 times the amount of waste per person
Jodphur blue ...
The blue colouring was originally to kill bugs I think, now to attract tourist.
as the poor. Moreover, most of the waste from the poor is biodegradable. In Ahmedabad, where there is a critical water shortage, the middle-class consume ten-times their normal entitlement.
It is important to note that, well placed as the middle-class are relative to the poor, the mechanisms for the rise of many have been of an aggresive and self-centred nature. There is a feeling of Darwinianism in India, of survival of the fittest, and this is noticeable to the longer-term visitor who is prepared to sit and talk with those they meet. Paradoxically for a people whose spirituality is person-centric rather than community-centric, this feeling of isolation, compounded by the increase in nuclear families and habitation in the modern urban sprawl, has led to the seeking of religion as a refuge from loneliness and despair. The growth in popularity of religion has also been aided by the prevalence of cynicism and corruption in the everyday dealings needed to survive and progress.
These factors have led to the urban middle-class voter becoming prey to "communal" politics, a kind of religous extremism or fundamentalism. This has been compared by one Indian commentator to the rise of Nazism in Germany where
the middle classes "disenchanted with the effete politics of the Weimar Republic turned to the National Socialists to secure for them kinder, kirke and kuche (children, church and kitchen)." This will seem alarmist or extreme to many but it cannot be denied that India has a disturbing recent record of religously inspired and directed mass-slaughter on both small and large scales.
Democracy has strong roots in India, but most are disillusioned with the political process and the transparently self-serving shenanigans of the political classes. "What India needs is a dictator" is an oft-heard sentiment. However, understandably perhaps, few in the middle-classes themselves try to change things, feeling it is a waste of time. Hence the sector of society that professes the "greatest affinity to democracy" opts to remain largely outside the political process.
Perhaps more important than the quite reasonable disgust with the politics is the feeling that democracy no longer serves middle-class interests. There are far more poor than rich, and each poor person has a vote. The relatively recent rise of ruthless and violent criminals to high positions of power on the back of the votes of the poor is well-documented. It is therefore a reasonable
It may look cute ...
but it'll have your vegetable pakoras faster than you can say daramasala.
assessment that if an alternative to democracy that better fitted middle-class interests were available the middle-class would opt for it.
Democracy is about empowering the largest number of people; self-interest is generally about the restriction of such empowerment.
Varma also considers the appeal of the West within the Indian ego. For many with a less formidable intellect than Nehru "looking up" to the West has strengthened "the sense of racial inferiority bequeathed by the colonial experience." (Perhaps this is on the wain, many modern young Indians we met professed great pride in their institutions and associated prowess; however this need to assert pedigree could also be taken as an indication of underlying insecurity.)
In modern India, Varma continues, the appeal to the West for blessing is evident in almost every area of achievement. He cites academia, where the elite must study in the West to enhance their marketability; and architecture: what of any worth has been built in Delhi since the age of Lutyens, the colonial British architect responsible for the designing and building of New Delhi (although perhaps you could say the same about the London of the last fifty years). The malaise spreads to music, children's toys, art and fashion.
Varma continues by examining many of these areas in some detail to
give examples, and then conducts an interesting history and overview of middle-class sexuality which paints something of a bleak picture. There are some rays of hope however as more women are educated and gradually assert their identity and "opposition to the male-dominated assumptions of the past".
"Driven by the twin engines of material desire and the ceasless competition to fulfill these wants, the Indian middle class appears to be close to a collective neurosis." Between 1984 and 1994 suicides doubled. Divorce rates have increased dramatically, doubling between 1995 and 1998. Stress-related diseases are now common place, and children are showing stress-related symptoms. A child's career is planned before it can even count to ten. "Schools have become competitive arenas. Somewhere along the way the fun and abandon of being young has been lost." Whilst the rise in GDP has benefitted the middle class disproportionately, the author asserts that levels of happiness are dramatically lower than thirty years ago (welcome to the "free" market).
In mid-1991 the Indian Government, guided by finance minister Dr Manmohan Singh (now Prime Minister I believe) announced a package of economic reforms designed to reduce beeauracratic state controls and more closely integrate India's economy
with the rest of the World. Suddenly the exact size of the Indian middle-classs became of major import to the many multinational corporations (MNCs) queueing to reach this large, or so they thought, new market.
Several extensive surveys were done which optimistically segmented the Indian population into avid consumers without really looking closely at their actual purchasing power. The National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) puts the "consuming class" at 150 million people, the "climbers" at 275 million people and the "aspirants" at another 275 million. The same survey, however, concluded that only 4.1% of the population (37 million) had an annual income greater than 40,000 rupees (less than 900 USD). Statistics relating to ownership of consumer goods, TVs and cars showed India to be dramatically lagging other developing nations e.g Mexico, Brazil, South Korea and China.
Nonetheless the MNCs invested optimistically, leading to a situation by 1997 where stacks of white goods clogged Indian shop shelves, unaffordable and unsold. Profit margins crashed, automobile production targets were scaled back - in 1998 even tiny Taiwan produced nearly double the number of cars as India, whilst Mexico and Brazil were five and seven times larger respectively. Somewhere along
the way the marketeers and analysts have forgotten something of the history and makeup of India - such a country cannot change overnight.
The economic liberalization did lift one burden from the middle-class psyche - suddenly it was ok to want, desire and indeed buy these products from the developed world - after all you were helping the economy and the country - consumer purchases was now one of the important indices of economic development.
And indeed quality of life as measured through the availability of modern conveniences increase dramatically - credit card spending and television ownership two key flanks in the assault on the Indian consumer - the one providing aspiration, the other the means. Children of course are amongst the most easily influenced.
The economic reforms generated a new air of optimism. People were doing deals, going on holidays, foreign exchange coffers were filled and the earlier hypocrisy towards money was gone.
These were the symptoms of the the great middle class illusion that the opening up of the Indian economy and the multiple consumer choices that it presented would somehow miraculously refire the economic engines of the country and sweep it along, in one dynamic surge, towards prosperity, progress and the ready availability of Pringles wafers.
It was easy to forget that every day more than 250 million Indians went to bed hungry. 290 million Indian people were illiterate. Every third human being in the world without a safe and adequate water supply is Indian. 53%!o(MISSING)f
all Indian children under 5 are malnourished and underweight, beating Ethiopia's 48%. Urban India alone comprises the worlds third largest country by population and yet more than half of city-dwellers have no access to sanitation facilities - but then this is better than the 97% of rural dwellers, numbering some 700 million. In 1998 the Government admitted 39% of India lived below the poverty line.
Clearly the statistics relating to India's poverty can go on and on, but statistics sanitise the reality of this deprivation. Varma says quite plainly that there is no doubt as to the need for these new economic policies, only a debate as to the exact content and direction. He is more concerned about analysing the impact on the perceptions of the middle-class. The feeling is, as reported by the Times of India, that liberalization has increased the tendency of the relatively wealthy to ignore the sufferings of the poor. At the height of the euphoria over the new dynamism, a major Indian weekly ran a story documenting the abject suffering and starvation in one of India's poorest villages. The reaction - "So what's new - there have always been starving Indians. Why make an
issue of them, especially now as the country is trying to project its best image as a buoyant market and an attractive destination for foreign investment."
"But, myopic social aspirants aside, the question remains" he continues -
Can the wealthy part of India really succeed by secession from the poor? Can economic growth be sustained without addressing the core issues of life in India today?
. Many experts and economists think not. Trickledown will simply take too long, and secession is essentially impossible in a democracy where the overwhelming number of voters are poor. I can envisage India descending into the state of some African countries, where the rich can only survive by employing massive personal security and armed guards.
The tiger economies of East Asia have often been held up as a model for Indians to aspire to. However these economies were initially driven by agricultural reforms and growth, whereas in India the debate about how to progress continues as if the agricultural sector and rural India doesn't exist. India's investment in education also lags dramatically - in 1998 South Korea invested $130 USD per person, Malaysia $128 USD, India $9 USD,Pakistan $3 USD and Bangladesh $2. In 1998 the World Competitiveness Report of 49 countries ranked India 39th to South Korea's 24th - and there can be few countries on Earth so naturally blessed
with resources as India. In India's manufacturing sectors value-added per worker was a tenth that of Japan and a quarter that of Singapore. In factors like "people" and "management" India ranked 47th (of 49) and 39th respectively - both seemingly contributing little to making India competitive. (In 2005 India ranked 50th on an expanded list of 117, one place behind China and ahead of Brazil, Turkey, Argentina and Russia, but still well behind the East Asian economies and "Western" democracies that populate the top quarter of the list. Nonetheless this would seem to be a definite improvement in competitiveness.)
If 39%!l(MISSING)ive below the poverty line, another 35 to 40%!l(MISSING)ive not far above it.
This extent of poverty prevents three fifths of our population from becoming full human beings endowed with literacy, numeracy and basic skills.
Despite continuing GDP growth the percentage of both urban and rural poor continues to rise, not fall. Ambitious growth projections of 7%!G(MISSING)DP year on year (thought unsustainable by many economists without serious investment in agriculture and education) would give an Indian middle class comprising some 500 million people by 2025. However contrasting with this encouraging figure is the fact that this still leaves an estimated 750 million people living below this elevation, a great many of which will be acutely poor by
Varma continues by studying concerns over social welfare that are being raised in "the very Mecca of capitalism, the USA." He points out that whilst corporate chiefs argue that their only responsibility is to ensure profitablity and growth to their shareholders, the most common incomes in America have actually been dropping in real terms, whilst the income gap between rich and poor has been steadily widening (until very recently it seems, as in the last four years modal incomes for white collar workers have also dropped with experts theorising this may be the effect of offshoring these jobs, particularly to India). This trend has not gone unnoticed in the U.S. and major capitalist media organisations have at least paid lip-service to the issues of social responsibility. As Klaus Schwab, the philanthropist head of the World Economic Forum summarises:
It becomes apparent that the head-on mega competition that is part and parcel of globalization leads to winner-take-all situations; those who come out on top win big and the losers lose even bigger. The gap between those able to ride the wave of globalization ... and those left behind is getting wider at the national, corporate and individual levels
Many forget that the laws that "govern the impact of economic policies are not like the laws of physics." Columnist William Pfaff writes "Economic behaviour is embedded in a social and political context whose complexities and potentialities are certainly subject to scientific analysis but not to comprehensive and scientifically objective conclusions." Another American columnist more bluntly assesses
the state of modern America:
A culture provides the values of community and caring; if the society does not supply them, the market certainly will not.
Depending on the variables used estimates say the Indian middle class numbers between 100 and 200 million people. Of these only 12 million are assessed for tax and only 4 million pay tax. Only about 2%!o(MISSING)f urban India pays taxes. 70%!o(MISSING)f India's top 1500 companies pay no tax. Varma's list of statistics relating to tax evasion is lengthy.
In 1991 central tax reserves contributed only 11.5%!o(MISSING)f India's GDP compared with 20%!i(MISSING)n Malaysia, 18.9%!i(MISSING)n Thailand, 15.6%!i(MISSING)n South Korea, 34.1%!i(MISSING)n the UK and 38%!i(MISSING)n France. According to World Bank estimates around the same period the unaccounted, untaxed money owned by Indians in external tax havens was of the order of $100 billion USD, more than the total national debt at that time (readers of Chomsky will be familiar with this destructive modern phenomenon, India being by no means the only country that suffers such serious capital flight). It is estimated $11 billion to $13 billion USD leaves the country per year through import/export tax scams. The "black" market is still estimated to by 35%!o(MISSING)f GDP.
"How to rescue society from the clutches of its
"Live your dreams ..."
"I want to be the deputy to the deputy to the deputy to the assistant in charge of ticket issuing, "Women, Elderly and Tourists", Jodhpur East." In fact this man was very very nice, but his expression reminded me of an advert making fun of Indian Bureaucracy.
own better endowed citizens is a central issue of governability" wrote Srivatsa Krishna in April 96. Even the World Bank agrees in the challenge facing India:
India must promote growth and invest more in making people healthier and better educated and spend more on the physical infrastructure which underpins a country's growth at the local and national level.
"But can the middle class overcome its own self-interest and allow, nay force, its governments to govern for the long-term?" There is some hope, and Varma lists many such initiatives taken at corporate, local and individual leves. However, in the vastness of such a country, these hardly seem enough. Relative to its size NGO activity is one of the lowest in the world, and NGO's can never, in any country, make up the shortfall that governments should be covering.
The key issue that will determine the emergence of India in the 21st century as a united, democratic, stable and prosperous country - in comformity with the "great power" vision of its middle and elite classes - will be the ability of middle class Indians to forge a national concensus, a strategy of progress and development that involves all Indians. Unless this concensus develops, and subsumes the narrow, short-sighted agenda of the privileged as it exists today, no policy of economic renewal will succeed within a sustainable timeframe.
As I said it is a very thought provoking book, for which this lengthy summary doesn't really do justice. The book is essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand more of modern India, and I would say important reading for anyone who wishes to understand more about the modern world in general.
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