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A Different Way of Life

Posted on November 08th 2014

If any of my readers have visited the Indian subcontinent you’ll have witnessed many of the experiences I am about to relate; but for me a 66 year old virgin on my first passage to Northern India, I found the visit an unforgettable experience, best described as an assault to all my senses.

Lavatories, or rather the lack of them, is not a subject that I normally bring up in my blogs but I make no excuses for raising this indelicate subject today. India has a population of 1.2 billion people, yes 1.2 billion, and growing. Yet, only half of them have access to a toilet. As many people who own a mobile phone are obliged to use the open air for their natural ablutions.

This is just one of India’s many conundrums. It is now claimed that 250miilion Indians will be classified as middle class by 2015 yet 30% of the population live below the poverty line.

The appalling conditions are clear for all to see and yet there appears to be no shame. Ironically, Indian families are fanatical about keeping their make-do half-brick houses and shacks, what can only be described by western standards as hovels, spotlessly clean. Indian children are all given free school uniforms and it is wonderful to see beautifully turned out boys and girls emerging from under a shabby tarpaulin shelter that is their home to make their way to school. They smile, wave and appear perfectly happy.

Such is the power and promise of this Continent. Wherever you venture in the teeming cities you witness haphazard building works with wooden scaffolding and an absence of modern building equipment. Every building plot hosts acres of itinerant workers living under canvas bivouacs or sleeping in the open air, cooking chapattis and throwing their litter around them that accumulates in enormous, stinking heaps, scavenged over by packs of stray dogs, random cattle and goats.

Anarchy also rules the roads. The method of driving is simple: blow your horn as loud as possible and keep in front of the vehicle ahead irrespective of personal danger. Rickshaw bicycle riders vie with Tuk Tuk taxis; these are three wheeled affairs powered by a scooter engine and are meant to carry two passengers but frequently you see up to six people crammed under the little canvas roofed vehicles or hanging onto the sides clutching babies. Ox drawn and hand carts mix it with motor cyclists who in turn battle with small cars, trucks and overloaded buses. Everyone owns a driving licence but very few have passed a driving test. Depending on how many rupees you have bribed the licensing authority you get a car, van or full blown lorry licence. It is that easy. Cars overtake around blind corners and drive the wrong way down the very few dual carriageways that exist. Traffic lights are a rarity as are road markings and hazard warnings. Traffic management is not a concept that’s caught on. Occasionally you might see a vulnerable police official in the middle of a chaotic road junction crammed with a melee of vehicles, blowing his whistle in vain. It is not surprising that India has the highest road fatalities of any country in the world and that figure is rising at over 20% per annum. 39% of fatalities are pedestrians, cyclists and bikers. Many don’t wear crash helmets and seat belts are an alien concept.

India’s road system is expanding and there are expected to be 5 million cars on their roads by 2015, 9 million by 2020 and an astonishing 611 million by 2050. It is hard to comprehend such numbers. One thing is certain that without radical change the 150,000 annual road death fatalities will continue to grow exponentially.

To well-ordered westerners used to being mollycoddled and directed by the state on how to cross the road and avoid all manner of accidents during our daily lives these statistics seem incomprehensible. Yet, life works. Unemployment across India is just 4% and the seething population goes about its daily routines like any other country whether you work in a bazar, factory, office or toil in the vast agricultural plains like an 18 century European farmer. In the country you’ll see few tractors but plenty of camels, oxen and asses being put to work. Modern equipment appears in short supply and it is common to see the maize being threshed by hand and women carrying enormous bundles of produce on their heads.

A visit to India without commenting on the British legacy is of course impossible. It is evident in the architecture of the broad boulevards, bungalows and buildings of the Government district of New Delhi laid out by Sir Edwin Lutyens, commenced in 1911 and inaugurated in 1931. Wherever you go in the major cities you witness the evidence of English gothic architecture on a grand scale, some fading, others preserved but the British principles of law, education and democracy hold good, it is the world’s largest democracy and the spoken word remains Hindu and English.

The Indian railway system is testament to British engineering prowess and the immense hard work of droves of Indian unskilled workers. As early as 1929 there was over 40000 miles of railway spanning India’s vast continent carrying 623 million people annually. Today the railway remains the most important transport system in the country and is one of the largest rail networks in the world carrying over 23 million people every day across 70,000 mile of track.

How tiny Britain managed to administer this vast continent is a wonder but it could not have been achieved without the willing patronage, and no doubt coercion, of the Maharajas and their Princely States. The wealth India generated for the Empire was astonishing from the early days of the British East India Company through the Raj period (Hindu for ‘rule’) right up until when independence was granted in 1947. The British modernisation of Indian agriculture through the installation of irrigation systems helped develop the profitable cash crops of sugarcane, jute, cotton, coffee and tea which in turn contributed to financing Britain’s own industrial revolution. The 1861 census reveals there were 126,000 British nationals in India, over 80,000 of them soldiers. It doesn’t seem a lot.

I apologise for returning to the subject of lavatories; but their lack of them seems a metaphor for a country plunging into the 21st century. A country that holds so much potential but has what appears to be insurmountable infrastructure and cultural problems to overcome to keep pace with the economic changes afoot. I leave you with these thoughts to demonstrate some of the issues they face: 90% of marriages are still arranged and marrying outside your caste is seen as social suicide irrespective of how wealthy you may be. It makes our old English class system seem positively quaint by comparison.