About Me

I ramble about a number of things - but travel experiences, movies and music feature prominently. See my label cloud for a better idea. All comnments and opinions on this blog are my own, and do not in any way reflect the opinions/position of my employer (past/current/future).

25 November 2005

Reflections: India - Kolkata (formerly Calcutta)

It is freezing outside in Frankfurt - its a nice 1 degree Celsius, which is a full degree warmer than the temperature in London a few hours back! That said, Frankfurt was covered in snow - a very picturesque sight, which can't be said of London - it was just cold, no snow. And it is all a great change from India, where despite the fact that it is winter, the average temperature was in the 20s. So, despite the fact that India has over 9 million broadband connections (more on that later), I stayed off the information highway for my stay - so this will be a rather long post ....

It is very weird to be considered huge - not because of the results of overindulgence of good food, but because I am apparently very tall. I suppose, in Indian standards, I am - the average height for an Indian seems to be about 1.65m and there have been many instances where I had to watch my head lest I bump into something - I pity the really tall people (like Sean)...

It is very interesting when confronted with opinions from two ends of the cultural spectrum, and I am not talking only about arranged marriages. India is a very conservative nation, values imposed by Victorian England, values which will probably be retained for a long time into the future. As an example, a major talking point in the newspapers has been a comment by a south Indian actress (as opposed to a Bollywood actress) who said that there was nothing wrong with "safe pre-marital sex". That quote is apparently about 2 weeks old, but since then, there has been numerous protests, demonstrations by politicians and others on how the comment was degrading to the women of India, how it was degrading the moral fibre of the nation etc. Anyone who has supported her has been similarly labeled, even if all they said was that she had a constitutional right to freedom of speech. But its not really pre-marital; sex that was the issue - but rather that sex was raised as a topic in the first place! But the cultural differences do not end there - there are many more - and it has been quite an experience trying to remember all the differences.

India is all about numbers - 1 billion + being the most significant of these numbers. Because of the huge population, even small percentages have huge impacts. This has both good and bad; but IMO, the trend is more towards the bad than the good.

Pollution - of all types - is bad. With the number of people, there is just not enough resources being allocated to maintaining a healthy environment. And the general health of Indians is probably very much worse off than many other developing countries in the world. And much of the air pollution is due to the old car models - and the transport networks in India (both rail and road) are clogged to the extreme. And while we are on transport - driving in India is a nightmare - not that I attempted - just being on the road is scary enough! No one cares about the rules of the road (despite slogans of "obey the rules of the road" on the bumper of basically every vehicle) and with the huge load of traffic on the roads, many roads are crumbling making the whole situation even worse.

What is making the whole situation worse is corruption - and I am not talking of only bribes! The issue of bribes is definitely a factor and is not just with the cops. Take education for example - because of the huge numbers (again) there is a huge demand for places in tertiary education institutions (for example this past weekend, there was a nationwide exam for the very prestigious Indian Institute of Management, with about 1200 places - more than 100 000 people wrote the entrance exams). However, many of the places often go to people who have paid bribes rather than on academic merit (if you don't have a first you can often forget about applying for most tertiary academic programs).

But higher education does not necessarily have huge financial rewards. One of my cousins' wife (that does not entirely sound right) has a PhD in geography (or something in that area) and is only a high school teacher. She is not the only teacher in the school with a PhD! Another cousin has a MA in Bengali literature (Bengali being the language of the region) and is a primary school teacher. And the quality of school education itself has deterioated with the proliferation of different school boards with differing standards. Virtually every child goes to private tuition, and apparently most teachers do the private tuition, hence they prefer not to teach everything in class! Its a vicious cycle.

But there is a worse form of corruption that I hope never to see in South Africa, or anywhere else in the world for that matter. This is the issue of selling and using fake or partially fake goods - and I am not talking of fake jeans - but of medicines, spices (remember the Sudan dye saga in SA), fuel and in fact just about everything. In fact it has become so bad, that anti corruption agents that are trying to stop these practices are being killed. Again, in the past week, one such person was killed while doing a surprise inspection on a petrol station.

As for the good about numbers - its the potential for real mass market low cost goods. India already has one of the lowest telecom rates in the world, and cost of living is really low - although the standard is definitely not high. There are more than 100 cable TV stations in India, most making profits. Low cost flights are now as cheap as trains and the carriers are still making profits (a three day trip from Kolkata to Kuala Lampur/Singapore/Bangkok with accomodation at a 3 star hotel, B&B, flights and taxes cost about 14 000 rupees or about 2 000 rand). And where else can you have a gameshow like "Who wants to be a millionaire" (although its really 20 million Indian rupees which is about 2.4 million Rand) playing 5 days a week? Cost of basic necessities, including public transport, if exchange rates are taken into account, are really low and you can easily live very well on about 100 rupees a day (about 15 rand).

However, as one person (yet another cousin) pointed out to me - that is rather misleading, because most people also earn very little in comparison. Most salaries are considered to be ok if the are in the region of 2000 rupees (about 500 Rand) a month! But then culture has a lot to do with it - after all many families are still living together - thus sharing expenses and incomes.

6 years ago I realised that I would never be able to live and work in India on a permanent basis - my latest visit has just strengthened my views. It is for that reason that there is such a huge emigration of Indians - but again its all about the numbers - the number of Indians outside India is still a very small percentage of the total number of Indians living in India ...