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.