By Rachel

I always enjoy visiting India – mostly because it’s fun seeing all my family that is there – but this time around we also travelled around for a couple weeks and got to see places I hadn’t been before. While I love and appreciate the culture, food and work ethic of many people, I cannot help always being frustrated while I’m there.  Here are my top frustrations:

1)      Litter – it truly bothers me how much people litter and have no respect for keeping their country clean. Aside from just being ugly and stinky – it’s also extremely unsanitary to have rotting trash everywhere and probably one of the contributing factors to the range of diseases present. Having been to other developing nations where the litter and general trash everywhere isn’t a problem (or at least not as big), it makes me mad at the people. While there may be a lack of infrastructure to properly collect trash, this exists in other places as well. The difference is in the attitudes of people – if people were to actually dispose of trash properly, maybe there would be a bigger case to get that infrastructure. Even when there are trash cans two feet away, people still don’t use them! I managed to spend a month in India without littering once – because I tried not to – if I had trash and there wasn’t a garbage can nearby, I’d put it in my pocket or leave it in the car until I found a proper place to dispose of it. Now, who knows where the trash goes after it’s in the bin – maybe it ends up on the street or in some field anyway – but at least I respect the land and the community enough to try.

2)      Beggars, especially children – it killed me to refuse a child that looks hungry a few rupees that are easy enough for me to spare. But I do buy into the notion that giving them money is doing nothing to help them in the long run and actually ends up hurting them. What I cannot resolve though is what about in the short run? In the immediate present, my 10 rupees may buy the kid some food – or it’ll just go to their parents and who knows what they need it for. But regardless, poverty is a huge problem in India – I’m not sure how people get used to it or why this great class inequality seems to be accepted. While there are some government programs in place – these are wrought by corruption or simple lack of funding. Which again goes back to infrastructure – how is a government supposed to get tax revenue when it has no stable means to account for the income of its people. As far as private donations, and this is probably over generalizing and unfair, but it seems like many of the charitable organizations are funded by foreign aid, expats, NRIs (non-resident Indians) or Indians returning home from developed countries rather than Indian people themselves. Again, I haven’t looked too much into this statement, but I have this general feeling that the ideas of hands-on community service and charitable giving definitely seem less pervasive than in the West, even in families or communities that can afford it. This I can excuse to a certain extent; community service is drilled into our heads throughout school – we have organizations in our schools completely dedicated to community service and Service Days, etc. But we also have the luxury of free time and developing hobbies outside of school – something that many Indian students do not have as they are so focused on having to be one of the best in an incredible competitive environment. Maybe it’s hard as an adult to suddenly ‘grow’ these values if you weren’t raised with them?

3)      Corruption – I feel like this is one of the main reasons that India will have serious problems moving forward from we are currently. Actually, let me rephrase that… without substantially reducing or eliminating corruption at ALL levels of government, India will NEVER progress to becoming a ‘developed’ nation, despite the abundance of intellectual capital, entrepreneurial spirit and creative promise. Just to go through a few examples and the effects they have:

  1. Traffic sucks in India – there is little regard for traffic laws, lights, pedestrians, etc. I think one of the largest contributors to this is the lack of enforcement. When you do get pulled over in India by a traffic cop, it’s the norm to just pay the cop a couple hundred rupees to avoid a ticket. This leads to a lack of revenue to the government which hinders its ability to pay its workers a decent salary (so the worker would have less of an incentive to take a bribe) or build better infrastructure and provide public services. In addition, it fosters an attitude of not having to follow the rules if the penalty is so minor.
  2.  There are plenty of inspectors to help make sure people are doing things correctly – land inspectors, building inspectors, health inspectors, etc. Again, however, if someone is in violation of some standard, just pay the inspector a bribe and go on and forget that the violation may cause a health or safety issue. HS&E standards (Health, Safety and Environment)? Who needs them?!
  3. Then there’s my favorite (sarcastically) – the politicians. These examples sicken and anger me. Let’s take the former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP – a state in India), Mayawati (resigned after she lost her election in March 2012). Mayawati is a member of the BSP party that represents the Scheduled Castes (Dalits) or the ‘untouchables’ of India who have the noble goal of eliminating the caste system in India. She was the first Dalit female Chief Minister of UP, a great accomplishment. Not only this, she’s somewhat of a Cinderella story, coming from humble beginnings but well educated. All the makings of a leader that understood the problems of the poorest people in India and was finally in the position to do something about them.  And I think she did actually do some good – she provided bikes to girls in lower classes of UP so they may get to and from school… I think I heard something about providing money for food (though by the time this gets through all the corrupt middlemen taking their slice, this is greatly reduced)… built parks to honor Dalit icons to help improve attitudes and respect for this caste… I’m sure there’s other stuff, but doing a quick Google search just leads to stories about lies and corruption so I can’t really find a list. But, she’s almost openly as corrupt as you can get. My dad told me a story of one of his business associates having to pay several lakh (100,000 Rs = 1 lakh Rs = $2000) in ‘donations’ to her campaign (which really just goes to her personal wealth) in order to get the appropriate permits and approvals to do business. This is pretty commonplace, by the way – I really don’t think you can do business in parts of India without paying large amounts in bribes, aka ‘donations’. She’s apparently amassed a large, personal wealth this way. And the parks to honor the Dalits? I get that this is important – to provide respect to a caste that has been severely ignored. But it’s excessive. There is a park in Noida close to my parent’s house that cost over 685 crore rupees to construct – it has statues of famous Dalit leaders, including Mayawati herself – I think it’s even named after her (though this may be an informal name?) and statues of elephants, the icons of the party. But to put this in perspective – 685 crore rupees amounts to $137,000,000. Most of which is public money. And she apparently had five parks like this built, for a total of 2500 crore rupees. A whopping 500 MILLION DOLLARS! If I had to guess, this money could have been put to better use instead of funding a memorial that is basically just propaganda for the party and for herself. I get that every country has greedy, corrupt politicians – but it’s so prevalent and accepted and all it does is hinder investment into the country for the benefit of a few greedy people and detriment to those who need the most aid. If a community project gets funding, it would be nice if most of the money actually went to the project instead of a chain of people taking their own piece of the pie before passing it down to the next (for example, claiming that you spent money feeding 100 people, where you actually only fed 30 and made up 70 and pocketed it).
  4. General lack of infrastructure and information – while this has definitely gotten better in big cities, smaller cities and villages still struggle to get clean water, food, transportation and medical facilities. But again, all of this takes money to provide and knowing the source and the destination for this money is crucial. How do you collect revenue from people whose incomes or sales taxes it is difficult to track? How do you ensure aid gets to people that have no identification or means to be counted?

The good news is that India is on its way to setting up a Unique ID number for people based on fingerprints and retinal scans. The program is being implemented first in villages to provide an identity for those that were previously untraceable. So what good will this do? Instead of having to line up and get the aid the government tries to provide, only to have much of it embezzled by those providing it (fake identities, ghost people, etc.), the UID would enable someone to perhaps open a bank account and the money could go directly to them. Or it would hold people accountable to show who they actually provided aid to rather than blindly trusting some reported number. It will also help prevent fraud during election processes. This is currently a voluntary program, and as of March 2012, they have enrolled about 12% of India’s population but are continually enrolling people. Critics of this program claim privacy issues (a biometric retinal and fingerprint scan is too invasive), high costs, and other potential problems with enrollment – to these critics, I’m guessing many of whom are corrupt themselves and would lose out if this is effective, I say screw you. The government is finally able to take a major step to put in place what most developed countries already have (social security numbers, drivers licenses, immigrant fingerprints/retinal scans, etc.) – it may have some flaws in execution initially, but the good far outweighs the bad.

I’ve now gone on for about three pages in MS Word and am a bit all over the place – time to wrap it up! I realize that much of this is negative but that doesn’t accurately depict my feelings toward India. There are so many movements now to stop corruption, to clean up India, to provide better education to everyone, to move to greener energy – the country has made huge strides in the last 10-15 years as it has emerged as a country to be counted and reckoned with. It still has a slew of problems – I haven’t really even touched on pollution, lack of quality education, women’s rights, population control, religious feuds, etc. – but there is so much potential and talent in the people of India (especially its youth), with baby steps and a few giant leaps here and there, India will only grow stronger and better.

By Samir

Because we had family in India, and were able to stay several days without having to worry about food, shelter, transportation, etc., India felt like a great transition from our stable, professional lives to nomadic lives. We were able to do some traveling on our own in India and see some incredible places, while also being able to relax and let go. We didn’t do any of our own laundry (one of many perks). It was also fun for me since nearly every relative kept asking me what I wanted to eat for the next meal, so I always got great food!

When people we meet ask us what we liked most about India, I say the desert sunset with the camels near Jaisalmer and the tranquility of Udaipur (both in the state of Rajasthan). At first Rachel was agreeing, but lately she’s begun to say that she enjoyed the peaceful, quaint town of Munnar the most (in the state of Kerala) and seeing the vast swaths of hillsides blanketed by thousands of small tea trees. Either way, we both agree that there is much more to India than just visiting the communities where our families live. We would love to come back to India and continue to explore and see many more sights.