Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Dispatch from India

4:30 PM, Indira Gandhi International Airport, Delhi: It has been a marathon trip, but exhaustion does not prevent us from eagerly observing all we can. The initial impression is disappointing: The airport is tired, decrepit, even filthy. The customs folks sit at wooden desks, the signs looking hand-lettered, the paint peeling. The baggage area is chaotic; there is a sad-looking duty-free shop, with a sign saying it is an enterprise of the Government of India. I wonder why the duty-free operation is adjacent to the baggage-return area, without any apparent barriers separating the two, but there is no one to ask.

The trip into town brings back childhood memories. The incessant honking of the little three-wheeled taxis, which appear to navigate the chaotic traffic using a kind of sonar. The jumble of vehicles of different types and speeds, all sharing the same lanes. The makeshift stalls visible in the dusk, all along the roads, and the swarms of pedestrians. A man single-handedly pulling a large cart piled high with some kind of produce, as buses, trucks, cars and scooters swerve to avoid him. I wonder how far he has come, on foot, pulling a load more suited to a team of oxen, to try to sell his wares in the big city.

We have come to spend the holiday with our extended family here. We stay at the house of cousins who are away. They are privileged people, especially by local standards. Their house is large, nicely laid out, with most of the modern amenities, clean water being the most important. Just outside their gates is a different world. Down the street is a row of shanties, half-hidden behind crumbling walls that have not been repaired in 50 years. Dung fires smolder, and laundry hangs from lines strung throughout a jumble of walls and poles. A street repair crew shovels gravel by hand; two young men hand-crank a tar mixer. The work site is not marked; scooters, pedestrians, and a couple of cows somehow make their way around the workers. It is hard to discern what they are accomplishing--the road looks as though it could benefit from far more repair than this crew can possibly effect.

We take a trip into the center of the city to explore, perhaps shop. There have been changes in 20 years--large concrete overpasses here and there, a few modern buildings, some of them on a grand scale. But mostly, it looks the same. The streets crooked, the signs as well; the fruit vendors parked randomly along major roads; the endless streams of people in their stained tunics and flimsy sandals. Many of the stands and stalls are nothing more than a cloth spread on the ground, covered with wares for sale: fabrics, clothing, household implements, food. Some of the stands are attended by three or four people--far more than needed to carry on their business. A lot of the people sit for hours, nursing chai in their little clay cups. There is probably little else for them to do.

The old arcade at Connaught Place, the central market, a holdover from British times, is soot-stained, the columns coated with tobacco and pan spittle, everything finished in a layer of dust. In the center, the old park is gone, replaced by a massive construction site. They are building the terminus of a modern subway system, which they hope will relieve the unbearable traffic jams. The crowds are dense, but here, many of the people are unmistakeably middle-class, judging by their clothes and demeanor. They do not have the grim, beaten look of the poor. It is Christmas Eve, here in this non-Christian land, and someone must be doing a brisk business selling red Santa caps, because they are everywhere.

Delhi doesn’t have a single large slum. The shanties and hovels infiltrate all over the city, crammed into the corners between larger neighborhoods. The people build right on the dirt, using recycled board, brick and metal. It is unlikely any of them hold title to the land--they are squatters, one step above homelessness. Bony women, in their bright saris and shifts, pick their way gingerly through the filth and clutter and pools of muddy water, or worse. Here and there, children play cricket on improvised pitches, but as many children wander through the traffic, begging. They mingle with the maimed and the lepers, some of whom bleed from lesions that cover their limbs. This city is booming and modernizing, but over all there is the miasma of deep and intractable suffering.

Back at the house: we find ourselves subject to rotating blackouts. The phones work only fitfully. We are taken care of by domestic staff, who are dedicated and hard working. But it begs the question: how is it that this is the best work they can find? They are lucky compared with many in their villages or in the tenements from which they commute. Those villages remain mired in the 16th century. How can that be?

There has been much breathless coverage in the West, about India’s economic boom, and its rivalry with China. Americans are afraid of all the jobs they are losing to India. Indians are proud of the new industries which are springing up, taking those jobs. We see reports of gleaming new industrial parks in places like Bangalore. But the reports do not talk about the dysfunctional infrastructure surrounding those compounds, nor about the need for the companies to build their own power supplies because they, too, are subject to rolling blackouts. Most important, the reports rarely touch on the most important question: Is the growth and modernization going to touch the lives of the desperate poor in India? If not, how is that acceptable? What needs to happen for these people to have a future?

Next: Outside the city, signs of hope...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This sounds a lot more grim than what we see in the press, especially when you hear about all the high-tech companies going there. Are you being too pessimistic?

January 02, 2006 5:31 AM  
Blogger Carlos Zapato said...

I don't think I am making any predictions, just observations with some questions to follow. If India keeps growing at 7% and can get its population growth under control, it will eventually become a great country. If the benchmark is China, as it is for many, the race looks pretty bleak for India. But of course only time will tell.

Hopefully you will read my next couple of reports and then you can ask again...

January 02, 2006 9:47 PM  

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