Longing For A Better India

Objective: Visit India for five days to join my family in celebrating my cousin’s wedding to a guy who runs a tech outsourcing start-up. Use a rapid multi-city tour to get a glimpse of how India has evolved during the past decade. The results of my survey of a small corner of northwest India are below.

GUJARAT, India — I suppose the baby girl urinating inches from my foot on the sidewalk outside Ahmadabad’s airport was the perfect introduction to modern India — ¬†14 years older than I last saw it.

India is a country trying to sail the tide of industrialization to match the glamor of the Western world while drowning in traditions that render it incredibly dirty compared to Western standards. Known for being ravaged by Persians than the Brits, Indians can now only blame themselves for any developmental delays.

Traditions such as graft and bartering began to show themselves within 30 minutes of landing in India. Bringing your car into the airport to pick someone up isn’t free, even if you aren’t parking. ¬†Somewhere along the line, my uncle lost his entry ticket and the attendant at the exit wanted to charge him the highest cost possible as a penalty. After some argument from my uncle, the attendant said he would call it even if my uncle paid for a couple of hours and dropped a little extra into the attendant’s pocket.

With that mess out of the way, it was onto driving back at about 4 a.m. My uncle blazed through the empty highways at alarming speeds, which turned out to be nothing compared to the crazy driving of people across Gujarat and southwestern Rajasthan that I would witness during the next five days.

Here the mantra is that if you see space, take it without worrying for anyone but yourself. That gives way to the darting, dodging and weaving of trailers, buses, jeeps, rikshas, tiny little cars, pedestrians, motorcycles and scooters.

The last two groups dominate the roadways. Crashes are avoided only by the width of a finger, and yet I witnessed not a single crash scene nor did I see more than a couple of broken down vehicles.

Cows, dogs, horses, camels, sheep and pigs are sacred. They roam the roads as they wish. Sometimes drivers egg them on with their horns, but more often than not, they swerve around them like they would any vehicle.

Lanes are a concept rather than a reality — except on one new freeway that has giant bilingual signs that emphasize the importance of utilizing lanes.

Driving on the wrong side of the road and driving without a seatbelt are not penalized the majority of the time by the traffic officers waving around large wooden sticks at traffic circles. Instead, I witnessed first-hand how they prey on out-of-state vehicles, taxis and rikshas who they think might not have the right papers. Then, they accept a bribe, noting that going to court to fight a ticket would cost much more.

Most officers either carry sticks or rifles. Some military officers either have AK-47s or bayonets. I would like to know why India doesn’t like handguns.

With officers few and far between, the roads are largely regulated by what Americans might consider the excessive use of horns. In India, the lack of crashes provides evidence that it might be more brilliant than annoying. Poor road conditions and those horns can drive someone insane, but the Indians seem unaffected. Honking is so common that where an American truck might have a rearside message saying “call this number to comment on my driving,” Indian trucks say something to the effect of “honk please before passing.”

Emergency vehicles are a rare sight and people honk at police jeeps like they do any car. My mom doesn’t even know what the 911-equivalent is here.

Off the roadways, they’ve turned what looks as if it should be a soccer pitch into a so-called party plot. Something like a scene of a concert stage area at a county fair, the grassy plot seems great for a city short on clean public parks.

Street vendors are as abundant as those wandering cows and dogs. And just about everywhere you can imagine, people take over open space and pop up on businesses. How they make money as they barter along the way is an open question.

While everyone has cell phones and are unafraid to talk on them while driving, few seem to be walking around with iPods. Perhaps, they need their ears open to hear the horns or I am just overexposed to iPods on a college campus.

At stores and restaurants, forget about credit cards. Luckily, there’s no 99 cents tacked onto the end of every price. But it seems like a great market to exploit for giants like Reliance, Virgin or Tata if they can figure out how to convince shopowners that accepting credit would boost their bottom lines. By the way, nearly every ad you will see in Ahmadabad belongs to cell phone giants Airtel or Vodafone. State-owned BSNL is conspicuously absent.

At temples, my gripe is that their security screenings have become as daunting as airport security screenings because they are marred by different applications of what should be the same religious rules. It’s funny when temples ask you take off your dirty shoes so you appear clean in front of gods, but then don’t offer you a place to immediately wash your hands.

I’m all for respecting gods, but religion is something so personal that I’m always against rules that takes away from that. People should be allowed to do what they want — outside of maybe bringing guns into a temple — rather being herded around like sheep (sheep herders do exist in India and they also block roads).

Maybe the reason for making the lead-up to temples look like prison is that so many Indians will do anything to get close to their gods. We blame people for treating Brad Pitt like a god. Why is it Indians don’t get more blame for treating gods like Brad Pitt?

The temple-goers are also guilty like most Indians here of the small offense of trash-cutting and the more serious problem of trash burning. Refuse collection barely exists. Where trash isn’t burned, it’s thrown onto sidewalks for the cows and their animal brothers and sisters to sift through.

Some rikshas have converted to CNG. For the most part though, the area is worse than the Los Angeles basin in terms of visible air pollution.

Water and hot water only still only comes at certain times of day at four of the five places we stayed. Proper drainage in bathrooms is often nonexistent. I’m not even sure that even one in four people in Ahmadabad use toilet paper.

Whether it’s along freeways or along the steps leading to a mountain-top temple, India seems to be a country full of entrepreneurs. Whereever there’s room to open up a shop, someone has.¬† In Udaipur, tour guides hop into your car and take you around the city. That tour includes a palace that seems way to high in the air to need holes for military gunners to shoot through.

Our driver from Ahmadabad to Udaipur was part of that entrepreneurial industry as well. Since no one cane drive around easily, car rentals are rare. Instead, these professional drivers ferry you around for less than 10 rupees per kilometer. (It takes 52 rupees to equal $1.) They eat and sleep at the same places as you, paying their own dime.

Most portions of the long-haul trip feel like the drive through California’s Central Valley toward either Las Vegas or Northern California.

Despite the thatched huts and the how-are-those-still-standing shanties seen along roadways, India’s clearly going richer slowly. Sexy condos are taking shape, and my other uncle’s two-story apartment is supposedly worth $250,000 despite being a dump in a trashy location.

Like everywhere else, there’s the 1 percent, the 53 percent and the 99 percent.

Hyderabad, Mumbai, Delhi and Calcutta — all very technologically advanced cities — might be further along in development and dropping tainted traditions than the corner I visited. When I return to India, I hope those cities have found ways to properly dispose of trash, found proper homes for animals so they aren’t eating plastic on the streets and made driving a little less frenetic.

One thing I especially hope for is a country as large and talented as India can find ways to ensure public safety with a legitimate police force and innovative use of technology.

I found it disturbing that I was refused entry to the airport for my departure because I hadn’t printed out my itinerary or a boarding pass. I usually just keep things electronically on my phone.

At Ahmadabad, a mumbling police officer who garnered little respect from me despite his big-old rifle wouldn’t let me get past him until an airline agent came out to deliver me a hard-copy of my travel plans. That ordeal past me, my journey began back to the clean air of Los Angeles.

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