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Sunday, 5 September 2010

India, it's a dump

One of the questions I always get asked in interviews by journalists trying to ferret out some drama to my journey is “What was the worst part of the trip?” I have vowed that from now on I will always answer that question with these 4 words. “India, it’s a dump.” And here’s why:

A university professor I shared a platform with at a talk I gave is worried about the next generation of Indians, and told me that any bright Indian student wouldn’t for a minute dream of becoming a teacher. There is no sense in which it’s a valued profession, one your overbearing Indian mother could be proud of, and it’s badly paid. There’s no appreciation that serving India’s future generation is noble and worthy, he said. Being a doctor is respected, not because of the altruism of the profession, helping to heal the sick, but because it’s a good earner.

I’ve met very few Indians interested in community, or making their country better. For instance among the 300 young volunteers that come daily to help at the orphanages and projects of Calcutta, there is rarely a single Indian youth.

So as the clever Indian 20-somethings seek out their MBA programmes and the lucrative corporate jobs in the booming economy that follows graduation, there is no chance their skills will liven the next generation of kids from poorer classes.

Of all the developing countries I’ve been to, the divide between rich and poor here is the most obscene I’ve ever seen - reminiscent of feudal Europe of the middle ages. It isn’t just that large wealth is in the hands of a tiny number of super rich, it’s that there is a whole strata of wealthy middle class, that live unfazed and accepting of the squalor of poverty around them, which I find so troubling. They use the flimsiest excuses to justify their disengagement, waving their responsibility to help because these people are “drug addicts” or “prostitutes”, and that “Begging is the easiest job in the world” and “shouldn’t be encouraged”.

Having tried cleaning windscreens at traffic lights during college, which is only one step up from begging, I can tell you it’s not an easy job, and it should be discouraged by helping people out of poverty so they have alternatives to prostitution and drugs to medicate the nihilism.

Despite the far left spectrum of Indian politics, (Communist, Maoist, Marxist, even a healthy quorum of Leninists!), the door that government provides as a mechanism for creating a fairer society is firmly shut here. When I’ve asked about politicians motivated by ideals, the reaction is laughter. Either the voters are fools for believing the politicians are truly altruistic, or the politicians are fools for thinking they can make a difference. The system is so weighted toward corruption that any good intentions are undermined as you climb the political ladder. Consequently power and moral authority are mutually exclusive.

So who could blame anyone for not wanting to be a low paid school teacher, or joining the Stagno-cratic Civil Service, the IAS (Indian Administration Service), working in the strangled atmosphere where initiation and change is cause for constructive dismissal. Forget about the dismal pay, even a motivated ideologue would have their initiative put down at every opportunity, and soon realise they are serving as the active arm of the politicians self interest and greed, often visibly in conflict with the needs of the population.

But where has the change-activism and idealism of Ghandi’s era gone? I’ve looked for it here and apart from a few very unique individuals, the only sign I found were amongst the activists fighting for Bhopal justice, a cause so scandalously unfair even Indians can’t stand by and watch it evaporate. But things here are so screwed up I’d expect to see young idealistic university students marching against corruption? Where are the political agitators calling for a week-long baksheesh strike? The only idealism of the next generation is BMWism.

Perhaps it would help if the media were more worried about the corruption in the affairs-of-state than in the IPL Cricket League? Where are the journalistic exposés of corrupt governance? They wouldn’t be hard to dig up. Sadly the media is co-opted into the corruption, according to a retired media sales executive I met, who told me how news media is funded not by sales, but almost exclusively by advertisers with an agenda they expect to see reflected in the news' content. Editorial lines are constrained by the business motives of the News Barron owners.

I could tell you about the astounding intellect of engineering under-graduates, and the fox-like savvy of street kids, but to romanticise Indian’s ingenuity is no more helpful that eulogising over “beautiful colours”, vibrancy, and spicy food in the tourist brochures. It doesn’t compensate for the national lack of compassion. Perhaps it's is caused by the host of tragic tales in India that seem to touch everybody’s lives. Whether it's the tailor in Pushkar who lost his job and his home over a clerical error and never got it back, my lawyer who spent 3 years bed ridden with an illness, or my paraglider guru who was locked up for 2 years by the Air Force he served in, to "cool his heels". It’s a country that dishes out cruelty with casual indifference. The result is a population that is tolerant, but psychologically vaccinated against compassion, and ready to dish out more indifference to the next generation. So in an environment immune from sympathy the only sensible option left is to isolate yourself from the hardship and the ugliness of poverty by personal wealth acquisition. A good survival-of-the-fittest strategy which, after all, is what the developed nations have been doing to poor countries since the start of globalisation in the colonial era.

But it’s an ugly strategy, which deserves to be criticised. India has made me squirm on all levels; The piss-stinking streets that assails my nostrils, as much as the blinkered world-view of the allegedly educated Mercedes-Benz yuppies. While national pride is worn so ardently on the uniform of police officers, they conduct traffic yards from naked street kids playing in sewerage. Like the Emperor’s New Clothes, no one dares to say that this country has much more to be ashamed of than it has to be proud of. During 15 years of travelling, to over 50 countries, I’ve never been to a country that has so reviled me that I hope I will never to see it again.

But still I believe in India. It’s ripe for reform. Out of the Greed is Good, Reagan and Thatcher era, the new social enterprise political ideals of Clinton and Blair were born. India is on the cusp of finding its own “third way”. One that will create a fairer future by building better and compulsory education for all, and a wider culture of social mobility that will eventually kill, or at least reduce, the wealth divide.

In both India and the West, business pass money politicians. But there’s a big difference between aligning yourself with a political leader you believe in, compared with buying them off with cash and hookers. What if Indian businesses, lead by Indians with experience of working in the West, start to support change leaders? With open and transparent campaign contributions? In the CEO of a construction firm sponsoring me, and other senior managers I’ve met who have returned from time working in the West, I see an irritation with the system. At their fingertips they have the resources, imagination and maybe the inclination to stage a coup.

What if a young new leader found a voice with their clean funding on a platform or education and reform. Imagine that candidate coming to office. They’d have the energising authority to reform every corner of Indian politics and welfare. It would kick start a rebuilding of faith in the system. Their first action might be to implement ISO9000 in every IAS office followed by a 300% pay rise for every civil servant, easily paid for by sacking 75% of them. Surely being asleep on the job, reading the paper, or taking 4 hour lunch breaks are sackable offences, even in the IAS, so it shouldn’t be too hard finding grounds to reduce the staff to a quarter. If necessary pension them off to avoid a riot. But this breed of politicians could make the IAS, and above all the education system, accountable and attractive alternatives to business for smart young minds. Good pay, good career trajectories, and autonomy for those with talent and clean hands. The frou frou dinner parties of Indian homes would resonate with “Your son is teacher Mrs Singh?! Well we must introduce him to our daughter, she works for the government you know!”

I’ve made many friends here, people that have given me their love and support through possibly the toughest time of my life, and it’s hard to think how they will interpret the contradiction that I’ve found Indians uncompassionate after they have taken me into their hearts, offered me companionship to warm my soul, beds to sleep in and food to burp. To them I say thank you for your friendship, I value it deeply and though I may not show it, I'll keep you close to my heart, always. Please don’t be offended that I don’t like your country, instead come and visit me in England. Now that’s a dump...


  1. Andy, I am deeply saddened by so outright rejection of my country.Its to harsh to claim that out of all the countries you have been to India is the worst. Pls don't let us make believe that everything is hunky dory elsewhere.
    Anyways Take Care.

  2. Andy, as always eloquently expressed. As you know, I agree with you on this 100%. Every person I've ever met here, including Indians, expats and my own Indian born and raised husband, see the romantic side of India and are indifferent to its troubles/struggles and sadly sit idly by and accept it as, 'well, this is India.'

    And though you suffered great challenges here -- and at a level that not one of us can truly relate to -- I am happy that life brought you this way. It was a pleasure meeting you and being a part of your mission. I wish you all the best in moving forward and putting India behind you. I will keep plugging away here, little by little, doing my part in helping it realize its potential, even though I'd rather be just about any place but here.

  3. From Revitej Mago, a good friend and one of the business leaders I talked about in the blog:

    Dear Andy,

    Hi, How are you doing? I hope things are going much more smoothly for you. The other day I was just wondring how you were doing and I just happened to read your Blog. Really don't know what to say about your impression that you are carrying about here. I mean yes you had a very harrowing time here and that things always did manage to get the better of you at times but then hey that's how India is. Politicians are corrupt, streets are dirty, people are hungry and there is so much more that can be done to improve this country that though claims to be the motherland of civilization and many other things and yet has been a slave for a good part of last 2000 years. All the while when the world was making progress and busy making lives of humankind better and more comfertable, India was fighting for survival. We became self sufficient for food only 40 years ago. and a nuclear power 6 years after that.

    You see the human mind can work only if the stomach is full and without food even the greatest of armies can't move. Even Napolean said so Himself. You can imagin that Europe was able to be self sufficent and provide food for itself a good 3 to 4hundred years ago and yet it took what like another 250 years to Discover the power of atom. Yet we did it in so less time. But that's not the point I am trying to make. The point that I am trying to make is that the world has a good lead of 200 years of developments on us but we are trying to get there and trust me when I say this being the second most populated nation does not make things easier for us.

    So I request you to please think of all these things before you judge my country and motherland and come to a conclusion that "India-It's a Dump"



  4. Thankyou for your well expressed insight...

  5. I think Andy's right in his opinion in many ways. Even though India's economy is booming none of the money seems to be filtering down to the poor and needy. India recently hosted the commonwealth games in the brand new stadium complex where 50 people died in the making but most of the seats were empty as the average indian couldn't afford to go and india doesn't even have many athletes due to the non existing funding for sports in general. Perhaps the money would have been better used in helping all the other more urgent areas,rather than trying to make india look like it's some kind of international player in the sports world.


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