Friday, December 28, 2012

India # 47 Reflections on India Five Weeks Later

Last week I was in Idaho Falls with things to catch up on but what drew my energy was not work but decorating the large window into my office with fabrics and photos from India.  In my last days in India I bought fabrics, turbans and two statues I wanted to display for our staff and visitors, along with photos of flowers and spices.  My first abiding impression of India is of its colors.     


When the Benedictine monk Bede Griffiths landed in Bombay in l955 (“to find the other half of my soul,” he said) this was his first impression:  “I was fascinated with the spectacle of this world of immeasurable beauty and vitality. It was not the beauty of nature which struck me but the beauty of the human nature…the ‘human form divine.’…. It was not the poverty and the misery which struck me so much as the sheer beauty and vitality of the people.  On all sides was a swarming mass of humanity, children running about quite naked, women in saris, men with turbans, everywhere displaying the beauty of the human form...They have the natural spontaneous beauty of flowers and animals, and their dress is as varied and colourful as that of a flower-garden.”  This may be romantic but after living there for 35 years it remained his impression and it was mine as well.

Griffiths had another notion that the East would counter “the violent aggression of the West,” with its exploitation of nature through science and technology, with an Eastern influence that emphasized spiritual and less materialistic values. This proved to be idealistic.

Griffiths died shortly after the Indian economy shifted into high gear under its present Prime Minister, Mahmoud Singh, in l991.  The middle class has grown, poverty has been reduced and India has been propelled into prominence and self-confidence.  However prosperity has left a still-deeply unequal society, rampant corrupt and environmental decline.  Griffiths took hope from the Hindu religion’s deep connection to nature, for example through millions of local gods who protect particular places.  But forests have been razed against local protest and rivers are filled with pollution with little effective resistance.  Hindu’s may have a deeper love for and connection to nature than Christians but growth and material well-being have trumped such values.

Hearing a conversation between myself and a hotel owner in Jaipur bemoaning all this the owner’s nephew told us in no uncertain terms, “Indians are entitled to the same aspirations as everyone else.”  Indeed they do.  However India occupies one-third of the U. S. land mass with four times more people.  The British depleted India in ways that have not been replenished—its water system and the strength of its guilds and villages. 

I came to India with an image of it remarkably like the photo above of garbage piled on the banks of a small river running through Bangalore.  My impression was based on what I had read, particularly about Mumbai. This is not immediately apparent when you live there, however.  I experienced instead the vitality and necessity by which people live.  Traffic may have been oppressive but it moved with skill and a long-suffering patience Americans could never tolerate.  People are on the move, proud and individually hopeful.

And yet the river is a sewer and the 300 lakes around Bangalore have become polluted by garbage dumped into old, nearby quarries.  The New York Times wrote that “The Garden City,” as Bangalore had long been called, has become “The Garbage City.”   As it became India’s Silicon Valley, its government did not develop a parallel sanitation system.  High tech companies created garbage with no place to go.

It might have been otherwise—or at least tolerable--had state and federal governments been more transparent and trustworthy.  For example, a good portion of the garbage collection business is controlled by companies whose interest is in monopoly control, not keeping the streets clean, but this went undeterred, according to the Times of India. 


The picture above is from Agra, not Bangalore, but disregard for the authorities seems to hold true in both places: people dump their garbage precisely where they are told not to. 

Hyper-Democracy and Corruption

India is the world’s largest democracy under a British parliamentary system and, in many ways, more democratic than the United States.  When citizens marched on the office of one cabinet minister in September he welcomed them by saying “Agitation is the music of democracy.”  If that is true, India is the most musical place in the democratic world, as I noted in my last post about the riots in Delhi.

Much of the agitation today is over corruption which is loudly lamented but often quite open and accepted.  The Hindu “Festival of Light,” celebrated in mid-November, is said to be an auspicious time to buy things.  It is also an auspicious time to give presents to people who have some control over your business.  A newspaper in Jaipur visited government offices on the biggest day of the festival to see presents being delivered to police officers, building inspectors and regulators of all kinds openly.  “We are grateful to them and know they have a hard job,” was the unabashed justification of those who came bearing gifts. 

Many people run for public office with an expectation that they will be able to direct business or other favors toward their friends and family. 

The Big Question:  China or India?

Some in the West are counting on India to outstrip China because India enjoys greater freedom and a more open economy.  A new study by the Organization for Cooperation and Development disputes this.  Looking ahead to 2060, it expects a seven-fold increase in the per-capital income of both China and India.  It expects China to pass the U. S. no later than 2030.  Both countries will grow almost twice as fast as Europe, the U. S. and other developed countries.

 However it says that in 2060 China’s per-capita income will be 25 percent greater than that in the U. S. while India’s will be just half of the U. S.  It expects relative economic inequalities to remain in India but less so in China.  This is not the outcome we might have envisioned.  Nor does it tell us how the natural world will absorb all this growth. 

I ask a retired university ecology professor if he was optimistic or pessimistic about India’s ecosystem.  He said he was optimistic and cited the dramatic growth of organic rice production.  There is indeed a lot of ingenious, sustainable development in India and substantial state-directed investment in alternative energy.  We hope the professor is right.   





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