“India Shining?”

I caught my first look at the real India soon after landing at Delhi, and was somewhat confused by what I saw. Instead of a magnificent hub of commerce that showcased India’s new-found wealth, we were greeted by a dull, crumbling concrete room packed with hundreds of people struggling to get through customs. As my family, dazed and disoriented, dove into the mob, I quickly realized that the India portrayed by business and political magazines, an India unified in shedding the vices of old and creating a new economic power simply did not exist. I must admit that my expectations were somewhat high. After reading a half-dozen articles concerning the outsourcing of US jobs to India, I expected to witness a country that would be ready to compete with America’s economic monolith within my lifetime. Even the Encyclopedia Britannica offered a glowing description, “Economically and socially, India has made great strides since independence: It has a well-developed infrastructure…” Looking around me, I quickly gathered that the article was obviously written by somebody who had never been to the country.
Right out of the airport, I experienced India’s “well-developed infrastructure” from the back of a Land Rover that was probably a great deal older than me. Soaring from the airport to our hotel along a poorly paved, actively disintegrating “road”, it became apparent that India has no traffic laws of any kind. A couple minutes with the window down, and one’s eyes burn from the thick clouds of exhaust that hover above the road. Turn signals are simply not used, and people have learned to use the horn in their place. As a result, many drivers of the open air tuk-tuks have gone nearly deaf and suffer from horrible lung problems, and nobody cares. Through the weeks, I came to see the chaos on these crumbling streets; the overcrowding, the flagrant disregard for the environment, and most of all the lack of an effort to solve these problems, as the embodiment of all the things that threaten to tear India apart.
Indeed, the problems I’ve seen on the roads are just tip of the iceberg that is shearing off the bow of Indian society. Sexism is omnipresent here; I was once mortified as I saw a man, surrounded by a dozen people, beating his wife on the street, and nobody intervened. The mob just watched on in some sort of morbid pleasure, as if it was his right to bash his wife’s head against the road. While the Hindu caste system has been abolished long ago, the wound it left on Indian society is still spurting blood; India’s greatest problem today lies in its stratification, a direct result of the obsolete castes. 30% of the country is technically impoverished, and in a country where the GDP per capita is less than $500, that means something. The rich on the other hand, don’t seem to care; in the caste system, they were supposed to be aloof, as they had done great things in their past lives, and the untouchables had been adulterers and murderers. I’m guessing this attitude carries over into modern times. India’s new middle class, based in the IT industry, also seems to be actively walling itself off from the impoverished masses inside compounds, such as the “International Technology Center” we visited. India’s infamously bureaucratic government has not done much to aid the situation either, but in a country where the streets remind one of “Road Warrior”, I don’t think the people should really be expecting great things from their leaders.
India was the first truly non-Western culture our family has experienced. Despite all of the problems we encountered trying to adapt to a totally different lifestyle, living in India was among the most educational experiences I’ve ever had. By seeing the problems of Indian society, I have come to appreciate just how fortunate I am to be living in the US, a country without great social division, with a relatively effective government, a stable political situation, and a GDP per capita more than 70 times higher than India. We in America are truly lucky, being born into the 2% of the world population controlling more than a quarter of the world’s collective GDP. At the same time, I also realized that Indian society needs reforms on the level with late 19th century Japan if it is to thrive in the modern world. Infrastructure needs development, it seems sexism is depriving many women from entering the workforce, and above all, the castes, as ingrained as they are, must be shed entirely. Only with a dynamic, effective reform can India truly live up to the expectations of the American business journals.