FOLLOW-UP: This article provoked a spirited response from those that agreed and disagreed with my views. I wrote a follow-up to it addressing questions and concerns brought up in the comments here. Please read it before commenting on this page.
I hate India. Having traveled more than my share of the world, India is the country I liked least, most wanted to leave, and least recommend to others. It is a place that is infinitely more beautiful in photos than reality, frustrated me at every turn, and did little to endear itself. After four months in the country I intend to never return, here’s why:
1. INDIA IS POOR BY CHOICE
Unlike most poor countries, India has ample arable land, capital, and education. Herein lies the biggest paradox of India: it’s home to one of the world’s largest populations of college educated people, yet it is also home to 1/3 of the world’s poor (almost 70% of the country lives on less than $2 a day). While these world-class engineers, scientists and industry leaders are fully capable of developing and funding solutions to India’s major problems: health, sanitation and infrastructure; they don’t. The development of India would make the rich astronomically richer as it has in China, but the wealthy Indians ignore the crises of their neighbors to their own detriment.
How can you ignore the plight of your neighbors and the poverty all around you?
Instead of education being the solution, often the educated people are the problem. Physicians that are paid to provide free medical care will demand under-the-table payments from suffering patients. Some projects have been approved and funded several times over decades, only to have all the money disappear. How bad is it? One Indian person explained to me how you could have any job you paid for, when I asked if I could become a policeman he said, “It’d probably cost you 20,000 rupees (~$400 USD), but you’d make it back in bribes.”
This is as far as we could go, unless we paid a little “baksheesh” (bribe money). This is representative of India’s issues, having six officers to control where tourists take photos, instead of working on infrastructure, cleaning streets, or fighting corruption.
Here are some corruption examples from the BBC: In 2010 India hosted the Commonwealth Games, after “irregularities” in bidding and contracts the games cost India $4.1 billion instead of the $270 million estimated. Condominiums funded to be built for war widows ended up owned by senior government officials including three owned by the Governor’s family. A minister charged with auctioning off telecom licenses is said to have sold the licenses for $40 billion less than they were worth for personal gain, but that’s tiny in comparison with the “coalgate” scandal this year in which the government is said to have lost up to $210 billion in selling coal fields to top industrialists and giving them undue benefits (Businessweek).
It’s easy to turn a blind eye when you’re benefiting from it, but how do you morally accept such a situation?
Couldn’t be bothered to run a pipe underground or behind the reflection pool at the Taj Mahal, India’s most iconic sight. Just couldn’t be bothered…
3. PEOPLE JUST DON’T CARE
I couldn’t believe it until I experienced it, even when I was there, day after day, I couldn’t believe it. People don’t just litter as they walk along the sidewalk, they dump their household trash in front of their house. It became normal to find hotels didn’t change their sheets, even if they were stained or even if we asked. Cows, arguably people’s most expensive possession, just wander the streets. As traffic grinds to a halt the officer charged with controlling intersections can often be found on his phone or drinking chai (tea). It’s not uncommon to find offices full of people doing nothing, even refusing to sell you the very thing that only they are allowed to sell. Never have I ever seen anything like it.
Sadly though I understand why this is. Success in India is based on caste and family, it is about as far from a meritocracy as it gets. Traditionally caste would dicate your profession and who you could marry, essentially your whole life was pre-ordained by caste. While officially castes no longer exist, overcoming tradition is hard to do, as official proclamations do nothing to break the cycle of division by caste. Looking beyond caste, progress is further stifled by corrupt and haphazard application of the law. If someone has a good idea it can be knocked off by someone more connected or able to pay bribes. Combining how the caste system disincentives work and the corrupt systems choke innovation, there is really no reason to care, people are just not rewarded for doing more…
What does this result in?
In most developing countries livestock are carefully tended as they are an investment. In India though people let these very expensive animals roam and scavenge.
4. LIVING CONDITIONS OF MOST INDIANS IS DEPLORABLE
While needs have been identified, solutions developed and funds allocated, necessary improvement projects just don’t get finished. Trash isn’t collected, and even worse, raw sewage is poured directly into the same rivers that drinking water is pumped from. 625 million Indians do not have access to a toilet of any kind (CNN). It does not need to be this way, if money that was allocated to solving these problems made it to projects, more people would be employed and less of these problems would be so acute.
Why would Indians not want to improve their country?
The majority of Indians’ home is more like this slum outside Delhi than Bollywood images.
5. INDIA IS A SYSTEMIC FAILURE
People are looking out for number one…themselves. This is the problem with corruption, unchecked it grows until it is the system. Those who do not participate only harm themselves. Transparency International found that 50% of people had to pay a bribe to get a job done in a public office; Indians I spoke to estimated that 50% of the country is lying if they say they haven’t paid a bribe. It will take a true soul-searching and change in the society to overcome these systemic failures.
A typical trash strewn waterway. The same people that dump their trash here use the river to bathe, wash clothes, and as a toilet. Then they pump the water out and use it for drinking water.
While much of the world is caught up in the BRICs hypothesis made famous by Goldman Sachs, the author of that report makes it clear that these countries are tied together due to phenomenal growth rates, not end states. Too many people in the world think India is just another China, but to paraphrase the words of an Indian academic who wrote a comprehensive comparison of India and China, which began with the idea that the world overestimated China and underestimated India, but was lead to realize the world may underestimate China’s will to develop and overestimates India’s. (Superpower? by Raghav Bahl)
What to do about India then?
We should do absolutely nothing to change India. They are welcome to have a country however they choose. Well-intentioned foreigners is not what India needs, it needs change to come from within, not from the outside. Indians are not oblivious to their country’s problems, nor the methods that other countries have used to successfully overcome similar situations. It is up to them to move forward.
For me though the answer is even clearer, I don’t plan on returning to India.
What are your thoughts? Have you been to India? Are you planning on going? Please share your opinion in the comments.