Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Is This Development? Part 2

Answer: an apartment complex in Bangalore, India

All my life, going to India has meant roughing it: bucket baths, dust and dirt, foul smells, and Asian (squat) toilets. I’ve learned to deal with it, reassured by the fact that it’s only for a couple of weeks every couple of years. That was before Peace Corps.

This trip to India, I stepped in the shower in the Puttaparthi ashram and was pleasantly surprised. It was a cold shower, as expected, but it was a shower with water pressure. On previous trips, I avoided showering. That first spasm as the frigid water hit my back always made me reluctant to take more than a quick cowboy shower once a day. This time, I was so happy to have a nice shower in the sweat-inducing humidity of Indian summers that I gladly hopped into the bath, two, three times a day.

The next thing to watch out for in India is diarrhea. Every time I visit, I face several grueling bouts with the D-monster. This time, nothing. You can bet that I sure as hell bragged about it the stomach of steel that Paraguay has given me. Besides, “After two years of diarrhea, I’ve suffered enough!”

Then there are the mosquitoes. Normally they can’t get enough of me and my sweet foreign blood. But this time, they took hardly a bite; a few nibbles yes, but nothing major. I think the Paraguayan mosquitoes have already sucked me dry.

The last source of discomfort is the roads. I’ve always hated Indian roads. Road markings are a recent innovation of the past 5 years in India. When I was a kid, cars would interweave in and out across the width of the road, while herders crossed with their goats and cows. Add to that poor road conditions, and it made for one bumpy ride! This time, I couldn’t help but admire the expansion of the road from Bangalore to Puttaparthi. Now it’s paved with asphalt. Not only that, but unlike in the U.S., it’s being laid by hand. In Paraguay, they set cobblestone roads without machines, but they do it badly. The roads in Bangalore were smooth. In fact, they were the nicest I’ve ever seen in India. I exclaimed to my mother, “Mom, that was the smoothest ride I’ve gone on in the past two years!” Never in my life did I think that India would be a step up from anything. But after Paraguay, it sure was!

Back to development though, it’s not just that I’ve changed over the past two years, it’s that India has changed. I stopped by a new grocery store outside of the ashram and was overwhelmed by the variety of foods. There were crackers and juice boxes, olives and pasta, organic rice and whole-wheat bread. I kept on hearing that you can now get everything in India, that it is no longer the place of limited international fare that it was while I was growing up, but I didn’t believe it until I saw it. Of course, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Where are they getting all this food from? I know they don’t produce Barrilla pasta locally.”

I didn’t know whether to be delighted or frightened. An increase in packaged, processed foods is a boon to the customer providing more variety in consumption and more convenience for the ever-growing members of the working middle-class. However, it also carries the risk of undermining a food culture based on hot, home-cooked food and local ingredients. A quarter of the world’s farmers are Indian. However, as India has begun the shift to mechanized farming, fewer and fewer Indians farm in lieu of earning higher incomes from blue-collar jobs. The sad fact is that many former farmers continue to work for the food industry, but in the service of country-wide food distribution. They spend the majority of the year, away from their families, away from the villages where they grew up, working long hours driving trucks. Because they spend so much of their time away from their wives, they frequent prostitutes. Hence, the “development” of the food industry has not only dramatically increased energy costs, it has also increased the incidence of STDs, including HIV/AIDS.

In the documentary Food Inc., Indian seed-activist Vandana Shiva discusses her struggle with the American corporation Monsanto. Monsanto sued Indian farmers for copyright infringement. If Monsanto won, they would essentially be forbidding farmers from saving their seeds (to replant the following year) as they had done for generations, because the farmers would have no choice but to buy their terminator seeds (cannot reproduce and hence the farmer has to buy new ones each year) instead. Shiva organized the farmers and won the court case in favor of the farmers.

After Puttaparthi, we visited my cousin in Bangalore. He and his wife both work as computer specialists in Whitefield, one of the many emerging Silicon Valleys in India. When we arrived at his place, I was astounded. Looking out his window, I forgot that we were in India. The apartment complex looked like any found in Northern Virginia (another Silicon Valley filled with Indian computer programmers), complete with Indian women wearing salwar kameez going for an evening stroll with their husbands. As my cousin showed us the community pool, the club house with ping pong and pool tables, the gym, the playground, and the central plaza, my amazement grew. “Are we really in India?” The apartment complex represented luxuries before unheard of in India.

The apartment itself was spacious, more spacious than the typical, one-floor, two to three-bedroom apartment found in India, the kind where my mom and her entire twenty-plus-person extended family was raised. There could not have been contrast between that and this two-floor, three-bedroom apartment for four-and-a-half people (my 5-year-old cousin included). The décor was a vast improvement over the flats of my mom’s generation and my childhood. “How can people in India live like people in the U.S.?” I wondered. It made sense though, as Bangalore is filled with young, educated Indian men and women joining the ranks of the middle-class by workings at American IT companies located in Whitefield.

Again, however, I had misgivings. My first thought looking at the beautiful wooden cabinets and dressers was “Oh God, where are they getting all the wood to furnish these apartments?” Logging, especially illegal logging, has all but demolished the Amazon and the Bosque Atlántico de Alto Paraná to furnish houses in Brazil, Argentina, and the U.S. And we’re talking 500-700 million people, total. Imagine supplying wooden furniture to the 1 billion residents of India. That’s a lot of wood.

Is this development or are countries simply inheriting our sins? In no way am I negating the economic progress India has made over the past decade or advocating that it deny its citizens luxuries and commodities enjoyed by the rest of the development world, i.e. rich countries, including the U.S. I just that hope India takes care to ensure that their new development is green and embraces their culture. I believe that the reason India is thriving while the U.S. is flailing is because it is using its cultural advantages, its well-educated citizens, its world-class technical and engineering institutes, and its peoples’ work ethic to shape its development. I hope that India succeeds where the U.S., Europe, and so many other countries have failed, finite development that relies on limited fossil fuels and scarce natural resources and is driven my homogeneity. India is anything but homogenous, being a country characterized, above all, by its incredible amount of diversity. In the battle between newer technologies and culturally-appropriate ones, between American corporations and Indian farmers, between McDonalds and MTR, I hope that India succeeds in carving a path of sustainable development for itself that makes use of its rich, cultural heritage, while at the same time elevating it.

Pictures of my cousin's apartment complex:

My uncle's farm:

Small-scale Indian farms:

I took practically the same picture in Paraguay!

The picture from Paraguay:

Narmada Ghats:

More photos from India

1 comment:

mgalrani said...

What you saw was one of the better parts of country. India as you say is diverse, you will find people living in most palatial, ultra-luxurious places and then there are people who hardly have home to stay in. In villages they still have huts, or homes without toilets, but as the diversity demands there may be better of villages. The village where my wife belongs, has some new shops, but it still the same as many years back, small lanes (sometimes stinky), power cuts amounting to 12 hrs or so each day... I am myself amazed as diversity I see when I travel to that village and come back to places like bangalore/noida. But yes now India has almost everything (in metros) which you get in another country subject to your financial capacity.