India has fascinated me for years. The imagery, the history, the development potentials had led me to build a specific idea of what India is. Never afraid to be disappointed by reality, I decided this year to realise my last big travelling dream and head to the subcontinent to explore the place for myself. I spent two weeks there, yet it took me a month with some procrastination and a lot of thinking to write down my thoughts on the trip.
Given the undeniably bad reputation India has when it comes to the treatment of women, I opted for an organised tour with a Canadian travel operator I had used before*. The two-week tour would take my fellow travellers and me from Delhi to the village of Tordi, to the (salmon) pink city of Jaipur, to Agra, and from there to Alimpura, Orccha, Varanasi and then back to Delhi.
So, when I arrived in Delhi with a very early morning flight, I was both excited and apprehensive. I had arranged for a pick-up but I was still afraid I could end up alone searching for a means of transport in what in my mind was still a foreign and inhospitable environment.
Luckily, a young, grinning man was there looking for me. While we were waiting for our female driver from the Women on Wheels programme, a police officer approached us and talked menacingly in Hindi to my young companion. Then he turned to me to confirm that he was indeed there to take me to my hotel. This was a first taste of the strict security measures that I would experience in the country: metal detectors everywhere, even in coffee shops, police with bamboo sticks, reserve forces and private guards. By the end of the trip I would automatically open my bag for inspection and lift my arms for a pat down whenever I would see a woman in uniform. To my surprise, the security checks didn’t alarm me. On the contrary, they rather reinforced a sense of security in a country that has experienced numerous small and big-scale terrorist attacks in the past. Some of these measures nevertheless, especially the face control in fancy chain coffee shops and hipster bars, seemed rather to be in place to protect the tourists and the middle class from the unwanted presence of the very poor.
And those poor were everywhere, sleeping under the bridges, selling souvenirs, street food and water, working in construction or just begging. However, even among the poor there were differences, often visible by their clothes – even a poor man could afford a well-ironed shirt in contrast to the acutely poor and homeless with their dirty and torn garments. The notion that poverty has shades and scales was never more obvious to me. The only place where poor people would only come to work but never stay was the fancy part of a city, such as the Lutyens Bungalow Zone in New Delhi with its luxurious, colonial-era bungalows which are now given to government officials. That was also the only place where well-maintained and clean pavements would go on for miles, green spaces were abundant and people were not driving like they were taking part in some short of kamikaze race. A bit further away from there, one could also find hipster joints and big malls. It was like a segregated paradise in the middle of an urban wilderness.
Poles apart from the colonial-era New Delhi was the Mughal-era Old Delhi, a trash-, dung- and rat-infested district, bejewelled with beautiful religious monuments. Be it big mosques or Sikh temples, that part of the city best reflects the rest of Northern India, with its vibrant, crazy, polluted and multicultural streets. People of different faiths live side by side, courteously giving their neighbours space to express their beliefs, be it for the call to prayer or for the narration of the Gita. At the same time, there is a very real division among them, according to caste, religion, origin, social class, sex, age.
It was also in Old Delhi where I encountered one of the most heart-breaking spectacles an architecture admirer could encounter, the destruction of beautiful old buildings with the addition of new rooms built with cheap materials and little regard for the aesthetic result. The owners, poor people with need for space, did this out of necessity of course. However, the local authorities seem to be doing little to preserve the cultural heritage of these neighbourhoods.
That was not the only instance where Indian people’s relationship with the urban space seemed to have a negative undertone. The most famous example is the terrible state of public infrastructure, in terms of maintenance and cleanliness. India’s problem, in reality, is not the huge garbage piles themselves, but people’s attitude towards them. The average Indian will feel the need to maintain their appearance pristine, their children spotless and their house in excellent condition. But the moment they step out of their house, they will absent-mindedly throw their trash on the pavement. They will ignore the smell of the rotting pile of organic matter and trash on the unpaved sidewalk used by schoolchildren and food street vendors. They will not even think that they and their family will have to pass by it a few times per day. They do not see it as a public health hazard and the aesthetic equivalent of a Damien Hirst installation. And this is not a poor vs rich, or a city vs countryside issue, but it affects every corner, river and district of the nation.
That shows a very problematic relation with not only public space, but public property in general. As much as the individual is to blame, even more blame should be carried by all the governments, previous and current. Public services quality is notoriously low, to the point that even poor people are scrapping together money to send their children to private schools or get treatment in private hospitals. Pavements and bus stop seats are non-existent and wherever they exist, they are broken and overall poorly maintained. Streets are bumpy to the point that during our long drives they lulled me to sleep several times. There are no dustbins and the garbage collection system seems completely disorganised, with scavengers playing an important, often unofficial role in waste management.
One striking example are train stations. While we were waiting for our train, we saw a woman trying to clean the station with only a broom and no a dust pan. After a few minutes, a train entered the station and dumped the toilet’s content on the rails while the passengers were boarding it. In Agra we saw an old woman who had to dip up to her knees in dirty waters to cross the street (during a monsoon season with low rainfall). Even one of the hottest places in Delhi, Hauz Khas village, seemed to lack a concrete plan for the maximization of its development potentials. In the cities we visited, the tourism gains are huge but there is no sign of reinvestment in large-scale urban infrastructure, apart from the Jaipur and Delhi metro. There seem to be no incentives or penalties to urge the common shop owner to contribute to the beautification of the city – be it by not dumping their trash right outside their store or by painting its façade. Overall, no city in India seems to have a desire to improve aesthetically its buildings and public spaces, which again, it could be rightfully argued that it is not a priority in a developing country.
However, at some point – maybe after launching a mission to Mars – it should be considered as such. It is not only a question of appealing more to tourists, though cities with huge revenues from tourism should definitely consider seeking ways to convince tourists to stay for longer than a day. Well-maintained and pleasant public spaces improve the quality of life of all the citizens and could even help convince high-skilled Indians to stay in the country instead of moving to New York and Paris.
Now, the good news is that there is a nation-wide campaign going on, earnestly named “Clean India”. In all honesty, cleaning India seems impossible, but large-scale awareness campaign and targeted investment hygiene infrastructure is definitely a good start. One thing is for sure, if “Clean India” brings substantial results, it can become the crown jewel of Narendra Modi’s next electoral campaign due to how visible and acute the problem is. Incentives!
Unfortunately, this particular relationship with public space extends to animals. Animals are not killed. Yet they are abused. Unspayed cows are abandoned on the streets once they can no longer produce milk, with the hope that they will survive by eating trash. Even cows with owners are left free in the city during the day. There are also packs of dogs roaming the streets, posing a treat to public health. Yet those who want and can afford a pet often choose to get a pure breed. I even saw a Saint Bernard, well-groomed and well-nourished I must admit, in that climate. There are a few animals shelters and many people take very good care of their domestic animals. However, some people’s attitude towards animals was disheartening, mainly due to their apathy when witnessing animal abuse.
* The operator was G Adventures and the tour was Essential India. The tour was very well designed and the CEO phenomenal. Disclaimer: I have neither received nor offered any type of financial incentives by the company to say nice things about their tour; I just thought it would be helpful to other travellers to share my positive experience with them.