Thursday, January 12, 2006

Reflections on an India Trip

A few weeks back I returned from a long India trip. I spent most of my time in Pune and Chennai, and a few days in other cities. This trip also included working for a while at my company’s development center in Pune. Here are some reflections on this trip.

There is a great sense of optimism and also a certain sense of confidence among people belonging to the educated urban middle and upper middle classes, especially among the young. It is wonderful – and very exciting – to see the Indian economy grow so rapidly and so many new opportunities open up for young people. There is an unmistakable sense of vibrancy and excitement, signs of which are visible all around – at least in the larger cities. I could see it clearly in my office in Pune. Our Pune development center has grown rapidly over the last 4 - 5 years and now has about 700 people. In our California office on the other hand about 70% - 80% of the development team has been laid off over the last 4 years.

Unfortunately it appears to me that this wave of prosperity has bypassed the poor. The yawning gap between the rich and the poor does not seem to be getting any narrower. The lack of concern that many among the upwardly mobile appear to display for those less fortunate seems shocking. Impoverished kids begging at traffic intersections are as common as ever. And otherwise decent human beings sitting in their cars don’t seem to have a problem dismissing them as “lazy, unwilling to work for a living”. In Chennai I once handed over a Rs.10 note to a little beggar girl, having run out of coins. A heart rendering scene ensued. Possibly being unaccustomed to getting notes rather than coins, three/four beggars converged on the poor girl and the biggest (strongest) one made off with the money. All this happened just outside an elegant Raymond’s clothing store. Incidents such as these make me think that the inequality gap in India may actually be widening. However a more dispassionate consideration indicates that this may not necessarily be the case. After all a very wide gap – accompanied by extreme bigotry and a demeaning attitude towards castes/classes considered lower than one’s own – has been a hallmark of Indian society for centuries. For instance, in Pune under the Peshwa rulers, untouchables were not allowed within the city gates between around 3pm and 9am lest their long shadows during dawn and dusk pollute upper-caste inhabitants. A strong sense of social superiority/inferiority is nothing new in India. There is some statistical as well as anecdotal evidence suggesting that the poverty situation in India – though very bad – is indeed getting better. There are also many signs that we Indians do care about our fellow citizens much more than we did in the past – witness the bourgeoning of NGOs, and the vast amounts of money and effort put into tsunami relief activities. On the whole I am left with ambivalent thoughts on this topic. Appalling inequality is visible everywhere, although outright bigotry is clearly much less than what is known to have existed in the past. Data also exists showing a steady fall in poverty levels. But is the current rate of poverty decline the best that can be achieved ? And even if the poverty rate is indeed declining reasonably speedily, is the inequality gap growing ?

Being a part of Asha for Education I got a chance to visit a couple of projects. One was Doorstep School. I visited about five schools that they run at construction sites and slum areas in Pune. It was truly a learning experience. It is inspiring to see so many of these kids in their ramshackle makeshift classrooms with bright smiles on their faces and bursting with energy. The dedication of the teachers, especially Mrs. Paranjpe who heads the organization in Pune, is very impressive. It was very interesting talking to Mrs. Paranjpe. She said that many years ago when she decided to plunge into social work she believed that she – and others like her – would be able to bring about real change. But now she has lost hope of that happening in the foreseeable future. She does believe that her work has value but thinks that real change will come about only a generation or two down the road – not in her lifetime. I guess that for people on the outside – like me – it is very easy to be optimistic, but for people who have invested a large part of their lives in social work and who had once set out brimming with idealism, social change appears to be excruciatingly slow. Here is a site-visit report I wrote based on my visit to Doorstep School, Pune. I also visited a school that is trying to get some Asha funding. It is a residential school in Wagholi near Pune for kids belonging mainly to Denotified and Nomadic Tribes (DNTs and NTs). I was completely unaware of DNTs before visiting this school. They are among the most backward and neglected people in India. I found the story of the Denotified Tribes (Vimukta Jatis) shocking. In 1871 the British Raj passed the first of many Criminal Tribes Acts, which allowed entire tribes to be “notified” as criminal. The consequences which followed such a designation can easily be imagined. In 1952 the progressive government of independent India repealed the Criminal Tribes Acts, thereby “de-notifying” these tribes. However in a decidedly non-progressive step the government enacted a series of Habitual Offenders Acts, which renewed many of the provisions of the Criminal Tribes Acts, and which were eventually abolished only in the 90s. Even though they are severely oppressed, many DNTs are still not classified as Scheduled Castes or Tribes (SC/ST) in many states and so do not enjoy some of the resulting protections such as the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. For more on DNTs see here, here or here.

I had a wonderful visit to the Red Fort while in Delhi for a short while. While all forts, like say the Agra fort are very interesting for their intrinsic historical value, what is unique about the Red Fort is the immense political symbolism that it continues to retain to this day. It was of course the center of Mughal power from the 17th century onward. It also played a vital role in the anti-British uprising of 1857 and its harsh suppression. This chapter of fort’s history can be seen in the form of British built barracks inside its walls and in the signs that the Indian Army has left of its continuous presence there till 2003. Since 1947 as we all know, on Independence Day the Prime Minister of India unfurls the national flag and addresses the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort. In Pakistan certain elements – including some in the Pakistan Army – talk even today of hoisting the flag of Islam on the Red Fort.

Two thing that I found very amusing was the passion generated by Saurav Ganguly’s exclusion/inclusion in the Indian cricket team, and the fascination with Sania Mirza. News about Saurav and Sania are all over the media. I actually saw a media report about where Saurav’s wife had gone shopping. Sania – with her recent success and with fatwas hanging over her – certainly makes for interesting and inspiring news. But her fans should remember that she is only a 19 year old girl. She should be allowed to grow, both as a player and as a person, perhaps making some mistakes (and learning from them) along the way.

I really enjoyed traveling through Pune Airport. This airport is also home to an Indian Air Force base. From the passenger terminal one can see the magnificent Su-30 MKIs of No. 20 Squadron and the Jaguars of No. 6 Squadron taking off and landing. Passengers are required to walk a short distance on the tarmac to board their aircraft, and if one is lucky enough while walking down the tarmac, one can see (and hear) a Su-30 MKI barreling down the runway for takeoff just a short distance away. Surely one of the most beautiful sights in the world, if you ask me. Here's a picture of a couple of Su-30 MKIs over Pune.


Blogger Kerim Friedman said...

Thanks for the link to my DNT post. You can find more information on one DNT community in Gujarat here.

January 12, 2006 10:21 AM  
Blogger Siddhartha Shome said...

Thanks for your comment. I greatly appreciate your and Shashwati's work, and the Budhan Theatre. Look forward to seeing "Hooch And Hamlet In Chharanagar" when it is released.

January 12, 2006 4:40 PM  
Blogger Sangita said...

Impressive pics of the planes

January 19, 2006 6:36 AM  

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