Matt Gillow reports from Delhi on the challenges facing India if it wants to become a global power.
India: vibrant, colourful and intense. The sub-continent rouses the imagination and causes havoc with the senses and our stomachs. It casts would-be travellers far out of their comfort zone, and is one of the fastest growing economies on the planet.
But if things continue as they are, India will never be a world “superpower,” and the primary reason for its inhibition is the factor which sets it apart: its unique and extraordinary culture.
In July 2013, the population of India was estimated at 1.25 billion people. This is four times the population of the United States, and according to UN estimates, India’s population will have overtaken China’s by 2028. In Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata (Calcutta), India has three of the world’s top ten “mega cities.” To the older generation, this failure to control the irrepressible population figures is blamed on the government, particularly as attempts to slow population growth date back to the government’s controversial attempt at a mass-sterilisation campaign in the 1970s; it is still rising at an alarming rate (though around four million women a year are still subjected to sterilisation.)
The effects of the massive population growth have taken a huge toll on the environment, as anybody who has visited India (particularly Rajasthan) will know – a 2013 study by the World Health Organization’s Global Burden of Disease (GBD) stated that outdoor air pollution was the fifth most prominent killer in India. The air that school children in India breathe is four times more toxic than the required safety limit. Living in Delhi for a week is the equivalent on your lungs as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day –no wonder Delhi has recently surpassed Beijing as the most polluted city in the world.
But it is no surprise – India’s crazy streets have become dominated by taxi ranks and tuk-tuk drivers, to the extent that in Northern India these are virtually the only vehicles you will see on the road; and the Delhi government’s recent trial – attempting to alternate the days in which vehicles are allowed to drive (based on what number your licence plate ends in) are ridiculous – to persist with this would be to shut down the primary means of income for a good number of India’s urban millions. Despite the original attempts at the scheme proving to have some effect on easing congestion and lowering pollution, to continue with it would be an economic disaster – and indeed to enforce the plan would accrue tremendous cost.
And the public transport, though multitudinous and seemingly infinite in options, can actually act as a deterrent for foreigners and the tourist industry. Streets and public transport contrast glaringly with the efficiency and cleanliness of Scandinavia, and even serve to put British public transport on a pedestal. A lack of fixed rates, as well as the hundreds of scam tactics employed by drivers throughout India can be off-putting and indeed intimidating for many. Whilst obviously millions of Indians are genuine, friendly people, it seems that all anybody wants to do is sell you something – and this attitude towards tourists does nothing but help to reinforce negative and unfair stereotypes.
The political state is no better; in the UK, the public were shocked and appalled by the expenses scandals that rocked the tabloids a few years ago, but this level of corruption is seen at every level of Indian government – though the current president Modi is adored for his apparent lawfulness. Bribes are taken by government officials on trains, by police officers, and although politicians may not take bribes, the nature of party politics is such that opposition parties are only concerned with their own power. The main opposition party, National Congress, often blocks the majority of Modi’s policies in the name of the party, whether they would be beneficial to the country or not – creating perhaps one of the most binding constraints on social and economic progress.
Perhaps the most striking thing about India is the reaction to foreigners – in my time travelling through Rajasthan, my friends and I were bombarded with requests for photographs with strangers on the street. Locals point out westerners and exclaim in surprise to those around them; indeed, tourists (and still, to a great extent, women) are segregated tremendously. Locals pay prices for public services and attractions far below the rate which a tourist would pay. At the entrance to the Taj Mahal, there is one line for locals, one line for foreigners, and one line for women.
Perhaps such social issues date back to British colonisation and Victorian ideals, though to a greater extent the blame can be placed on Hindu teachings (evidenced in these shocking teachings regarding women in the Laws of Manu) and the long-standing and unbending caste system. Women are treated as second-class citizens, but in today’s world, as many women in India are becoming financially independent, this is old-fashioned and disconcerting. The shocking figures of the gender pay gap in India emphasise the issue at hand, and the disgusting gang-rapes in areas such as Delhi and Mumbai that have recently hit the headlines show that India has a long way to go in terms of establishing gender equality.
All is not lost. But to many, the situation may seem irretrievable – to fight against the striking and ever-growing pollution, not only must laws be placed, but an entire socio-economic system and way of thinking must be changed – and whether this is wholly a good thing is certainly up for debate. One thing is clear, however; if India’s pollution is not tackled, and the cultural views towards women and tourists not changed, it will be a long time before the exotic sub-continent can be considered a global superpower, whether its economy is rising meteorically or not.