There is nowhere quite like India to make you appreciate living life in the present tense. Cherishing the moment, and worrying not what tomorrow might bring.
This appears to be the case at all levels of Indian society (in general, sweeping terms) and plays out 1.2 billion times a day in the words, actions and exploits of the second most populated country on the planet. It is also why writing this post whilst I am still in India seems apt.
It is currently Tuesday 13th September, and I am at Chennai airport awaiting my flight to Bangkok. My mission here for the past 9 days has been to partake in discussions about CARE’s future role in India, and to visit CARE projects in rural communities.
On this very same day, 5 years ago, I walked into CARE’s offices in London and started work that would take me to various countries in Asia, but none so bombarding on the senses, and so dichotomous in every aspect, as India.
As I sit here in a dim lit airport café, reflecting, sipping a small paper cup of sickly sweet tea, I am not sure whether my words will serve any specific objective, nor will arrive at any as they are formed. Some would argue that predicament itself fits well when writing about a country which has an eco-system of life that seems to come with no rulebook…
Lou and I have travelled around India twice before, and come home beaming with colourful memories and snapshots of what we have seen, heard, absorbed. We’ve stayed in sumptuous colonial hotels and merchant’s houses, fine dined on thalis and kormas (the real ones) and stayed in remote villages.
We’ve marvelled at how the poorest in society here live, but always with a feeling of being far removed, detached, unable to know actually what to think about such things, and ill equipped to do anything about it, save probably unsuspectingly over-tipping our share of bell boys, taxi drivers and waiters along the way.
On our travels here we have met old and young, rich and poor, taken heart-stopping journeys in the yellow and green auto-rickshaws of the city, and in the battered old buses streaking along the country’s A, B, C (and Z!) roads. We’ve embraced the open spaces of India’s countryside, marvelled at the mud-huts, the fishing boats, the mangrove forests and the ocean.
All these images have followed us back to our lives at home, been framed behind glass and put on walls, referenced over dinner with friends. What I learnt on this, my first work oriented trip to India – if anything at all – was more an appreciation not of how the country’s scale affects me as a visitor, but how society here is influenced and shaped by it.
The according figures for India are mesmerising.
There are 32 states (our UK equivalent of counties) in India. In the one state of Tamil Nadu, where I am now, there are a further 32 districts, overall comprising near enough 100 million people. There are several other states in India which house over 100 million. Delhi and Mumbai now hold 25 million people between them.
India’s economic development has been phenomenal over the past decade. Last year it hit 9%. Export and import figures achieved over the summer talked of “ten of billions” of dollars worth of exponential growth. Across several industries, the gravitational pull of the commercial world is finding itself hooked on the investment potential of a burgeoning middle class, with money to spend.
There are 24 official national languages registered here, and an additional 700+ dialects spoken. The country embraces a host of religions, and still conducts much of its way of life through the caste system.
Unfortunately, as is well known, scale and growth of this kind and this pace can reinforce negative social and environmental issues. Behind the big investor glitz and the Bollywood glamour, there exists a sea of troubled souls and troubling statistics.
Whilst some government welfare reform measures are making progress, the recent anti-corruption campaign, which attracted so much public support, points to just one of the many barriers to a more inclusive and equitable form of growth here, and underscores just why the country is still home to around 350 million people who are living in poverty (by which we take the World Bank measure of someone living on less that $2 earnings a day).
All of this is merely words and numbers on a page. What of the reality?
When I was in Delhi last week there was a bomb blast at the High Court on Wednesday, an earthquake on Thursday and, on Friday, monsoon flooding which played havoc with the city’s poorly equipped drainage systems, and left thousands of commuters at a standstill for over 3 hours. I was met with a series of mere shoulder shrugs from colleagues when reference was made to each of these incidents.
Today, I heard that 1 million people in the state of Orissa have been declared homeless after recent flooding there. That said, you would have been hard pressed to find this story mentioned in the news – instead, the front pages this morning carried pictures of an Indian celebrity announcing her pregnancy.
In each of these cases – be they man made emergencies, or environmental disasters – the net affect on the person sat next to me right now in this café is difficult to quantify.
Imagine how you would feel reading any of these stories in the UK press if, in fact, our country had a population nearly 20 times the one we have now, spread over a landmass bigger than that of Western Europe? How does one begin to form a reaction as a single constituent?
Perhaps India is just too big to comprehend. Certainly it is from afar.
Up close, and in spending time over the past week with colleagues here – colleagues who understand communities, and issues of vulnerability, because in many cases they themselves are actually from the very same communities – I’ve had an opportunity to see a perspective on scale, and poverty, through a different lens. And I have come away with more of a sense of how CARE’s work in India does, and can, remain relevant within such a complex and intricate social tapestry.
Visiting project work yesterday, we witnessed how CARE is able to mobilise women’s groups into collective action (in this case it was by training groups on the merits of certain financial services designed for their needs) and of the importance of bringing other stakeholders along – such as companies and government – to be a part of a bigger, institutional, conversation about accessing financial services.
The 50 women yesterday go back today to their constituencies of hundreds and thousands of community members, and pass on the very same message. Social movements work like this, and CARE has become a shrewd practitioner of such things. The difference out here though is that the opportunities to bring about systemic change in this way are tantalizing because of the proportions with which you are dealing.
There will always remain barriers to making change in this way. However, in India, what is exciting is just how this constituency building approach can play to the very heartbeat of a culture which is all about the aggregation of interests, inputs, and energies.
Yesterday, we also witnessed a man and his wife knocked down off their motorbike by a swerving car. In an instant, a crowd of people appeared from nowhere at the scene. “People want to help,” replied our driver, when we asked him what everyone was doing, “in such situations they will make sure the couple on the bike are looked after, but they will also help the driver not be discriminated against. He will likely have to compensate the couple, but the crowd will help make it a fair conclusion.”
As the Indian Tourist Association advertisement proudly claims on the billboard in front of me: “Incredible India”. This country is moving with the times and, in some ways, India is the times. 350 million people will still wake up here tomorrow wondering what their day holds but, what I take back with me to Vietnam, is a sense of how, when applied well, solidarity in numbers can be a very powerful thing.