Indian Dysfunction

People often compare India and China, the two being the billion plus population nations that are on the fast track of development and wealth. Now, of course, as anyone who has visited the two countries knows, the level of development in the two countries, at least in the most visible areas, is not at all comparable–China appears to be decades ahead. In this post, I want to identify certain aspects of modern India that appear to be simply broken. As I said in my post about Varanasi (2009.02.24)–how do they live this way??

Filth. Sometimes it feels like different cultures and societies have different attitudes toward cleanliness. It’s not only about wealth and the availability of sanitation services, but the tolerance that people develop to clutter and piles of garbage. No country is dirtier than India.

Alley in Varanasi

Why, oh why, is India so dirty? Some of it is that they have a certain acceptance of organic waste–such as animal dung, which is used for fuel–but nowadays much of the garbage is the standard consumer waste, largely plastic, that one sees everywhere else. Other countries have their dirty moments, but none come close to India. In Pushkar, Rajasthan, the holy lake became so polluted that it reached the tipping point. In a matter of days, hundreds and hundreds of huge fish died all at once, causing a stench so severe that it was difficult to pass within 50 meters of it. It had to be completely emptied out and they’re still trying to figure out how to refill it.

Children playing in the slums of Bombay and Madras

Cows eating garbage outside Madurai, Tamil Nadu

Scams and theft. This might be somewhat controversial, but there is no doubt that India has a higher rate of scams and theft (albeit non-violent) than the vast majority of other countries in the world. It is definitely not poverty alone–plenty of poor countries in the world pose no risk for the traveler in this regard and the worst Indian perpetrators are not the worst off (the actually poor are generally, as everywhere, extremely honest). Perhaps it’s the sense of competition that comes from living in such a crowded country (although the same could be said about China), or perhaps there is some cultural force at work. The absolute worst story we’ve heard, and probably the most famous, is that of an Agra restaurant that deliberately poisoned its customers in order to collect a commission from the clinic that treated them (eventually resulting in a death). We’ve been told by a fellow traveler that rickshaws immediately come to the assistance of the injured in order to collect clinic commissions. There are definitely some depraved, industrial-sized schemes in China–such as adulterated baby formula–but scams in India seem far more common.

A public safety campaign

Bureaucracy. I blame the British for this one. The level of (quite useless) bureaucracy in India is comical. Our best example of this was the time we left behind an item on a train car, which was somewhat useful to us but of almost no resale value. Immediately recognizing that we had left it on our berth with our bedding, we tried to find the laundry section or lost and found to try to recover it. We ended up in the office of the railway police, writing down a bizarrely formal letter that was dictated to us (“Dear Sirs…”) and included such useful pieces of information as our parents’ names and professions. This letter was then translated into Hindi. Anyone who has been in the backroom of an Indian office has seen the ridiculously dusty binders, piles and bags of forms and other documents that accumulate, for no use at all.

Form for buying train tickets. As I described in my post of 2009.03.05, buying train tickets in India can be bizarrely complicated, with long lines and byzantine quotas and concessions.

Infrastructure and logistics. Of course India is a third world country, but it is in many respects quite a modern one, and so some of the things that cannot be taken for granted are astonishing. Power routinely cuts out in some of India’s biggest cities, including such supposed gems of modernity as Bangalore. In one of the busiest train systems in the world, the Bombay suburban rail, there are said to be up to 3500 deaths a year. Parcels sent by mail must be sewn up in fabric and then sealed with wax, for security. One feels that, in other countries, these kinds of problems would be solved–in India, such faulty systems seem to continue year after year.

Commuting in Bombay

Mail service

Miscellaneous. I’m not sure how to categorize the rest of these items, but they are things that, in other countries, simply would not be.

A body floating in the Ganges, Varanasi. I understand that the Ganges is a holy river, but should people really be bathing in and drinking water into which dead bodies (some with infectious diseases) are tossed?

Again holy, but should cows really be free to roam downtown Bombay? Even rickshaws aren’t allowed!

Dhobi Ghat, Bombay. In a city as modern and wealthy (in many respects) as Bombay, it is bewildering that it is still more efficient to have an entire village of people doing laundry by hand than to use washing machines.

Women-only car, Bombay suburban rail. Many countries have a sexual harrassment problem, but we’ve definitely heard more stories of unwanted touching (both man on woman and man on man) from India than elsewhere.

No other country has electrical wiring like India.

2 thoughts on “Indian Dysfunction

  1. Comparisons with China inevitably lead to weighing up Indian style democracy and the Chinese system. My conclusions were another blow to the fixed ideas I'd held when I left home….
    As a Dutch traveler we hiked with in Coorg told me 'traveling might make you more aware – but it does not always make you more optimistic'

  2. China has only one political party. India has 100’s. Indian judiciary is free from Government, so are press. Yes India has problems. India lives in different centuries at same time. Vijay Chowk in Delhi is equivalent to Tiananmen Square. Any Indian can go to Vijay Chowk and shout against Politicians Including President and Prime Minister nothing will happen. Can a Chinese do that in Tiananmen. A final question, have you ever visited rural China, far from coastal cities and areas?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *