March towards the future

in Warszawa, Poland
1495 words, 8 minutes to read

A little competition. India vs. Poland. Who’s more developed? Who’s developing more quickly? In Poland we’ve been catching up for the last quarter of a century, and in many ways we still are. It’s always intriguing to see another country on their way to improved living standards and relations with the rest of the world. How’s India doing then?

A little disclaimer first: it’s always tricky to opine about a developing country, because it’s all too easy to sound condescending and locals reading it might easily feel offended. I obviously intend neither, and I’m trying my best to mark only the items that are objectively going well, or not, and aren’t merely distinct approaches of another culture. If I’m missing out on any information, please do let me know.

The good and the bad

Internet access works fine. The mobile one at least. Almost everywhere we’ve been, including Kerala’s backwaters, we had a solid 4G signal. Only in the wildlife sanctuaries of Wayanad and Munnar did it degrade to Edge or disappear completely. Wi-Fi, on the other hand, was disappointing. At every single accommodation we’ve been to, from homestays to upscale hotels, it was slow, unreliable and often unavailable for hours at a time. A surprising state of matters in a country that prides itself in offering high-tech services to the rest of the world.

Getting SIM cards is a story in itself. India lives under a constant threat of terror attacks and it shows in security measures at public areas, as well as in bureaucracy. To get a regular, prepaid SIM we needed to fill in lengthy forms, attach our photos and provide the name of a local Indian person vouching for us. Then to get the numbers activated, we had to call the operator, type our passport numbers, birth dates, and afterwards still wait for another 24 hours for activation. This has been the most trouble I’ve gone through ever, anywhere, to get on a mobile network.

Compare that with SIM card vending machines at London Heathrow Airport. Perhaps in today’s times subscriber registration is a must for mobile operators, but I’m sure it can be streamlined. Competition is usually a good trigger for fixing one’s processes, so maybe India just needs a couple more operators?

I wrote extensively about the quality of roads, so just in summary it bears repeating, that it’s mostly decent. Straight, solid asphalt, both on the major national highways as well as on local interstate roads. Only the very rural ones were bumpy and we drove those merely twice when reaching our accommodation in the mountains of Wayanad and Munnar.

Road construction works are a pain when present. It’s great to see the country upgrading its infrastructure, but it’s being done with little concern for the flow of traffic. On the highway between Pollachi and Coimbatore there’s some 20km of roadworks, where the bypasses lead through raw gravel on the side. It’s messy, it’s dirty and moving even slower than the regular, chaotic traffic.

Speaking of traffic, wild driving is treated as a given in India and other Asian countries. That’s an area where the country could also improve. In mathematical terms, a road network is simply a system optimized for throughput—highest when the flow is organized. There’s some good research on the topic already, and I’ll risk putting forward a theory, that if Indians were to drive more orderly, they’d have quicker and shorter commutes.

Public bikes station. Oddly, none of them had bikes.

Public bikes station. Oddly, none of them had bikes.

Ecology is big on the agenda. Yes, there’s lots and lots of litter everywhere and that won’t change until mentality improves. But there are laws already in power that actively reduce the environmental footprint of the country’s billion human beings. In most shops the grocery bags we received were cotton instead of plastic, and we always had to pay for them. Bigger cities, like Bengaluru, show the beginnings of sorting and recycling trash. Many restaurants serve water in refillable containers instead of plastic bottles. And many individuals carry their own, refillable water bottles.

Creative recycling

Creative recycling

CFLs and LED lights are dominating. We saw a sizable wind farm between Udumalpet and Pollachi in Tamil Nadu. Many homes heat their water with solar thermal collectors. I haven’t spotted any solar batteries, but with all the sunlight India’s getting I’m sure they’re already in use. In short, progress is tangible, even if there’s still a lot to do for the environment.

Energy supply is perhaps still a bit fragile. While we were in Chameleon Beach Lodge in Kerala, power went out one day and stayed off for the better part of the afternoon. We haven’t experienced outages elsewhere, but a lot of buildings have visible power generators attached.

Payments became a hot topic last November, when the government announced a sudden “demonetization”, from one day to the next invalidating all IDR 500 and 1,000 notes, replacing them with new 500 and 2,000 ones and for months curtailing the amount people were allowed to pay out of ATMs. We’re lucky we arrived just after these measures were lifted.

Many places accept credit cards. Most of the accommodation we used and perhaps half of the restaurants we’ve been to. Sometimes the place would accept cards, but not “international” ones. I’m always puzzled why global companies, like Visa or MasterCard don’t work harder to make sure that a piece of plastic with their name on it isn’t accepted everywhere. They certainly have the muscle to bully local banks and authorities into making their card payment systems origin-agnostic.

ATMs were a similar story. Widely available, even in small towns. Some of them would accept our cards, some of them wouldn’t. Sometimes we found “no cash” signs on them and had to look elsewhere. All of them had a hard limit of paying out only IDR 10,000 at once, which most of the time was plenty. Half of the ATMs added a fixed surcharge of IDR 200 for international cards, independent of the amount we paid out.

Street food, uhm, hygiene?

Street food, uhm, hygiene?

Finally, the toilets. Sanitation in India is a topic big enough that it even has its own TED Talks. All our accommodation had decent facilities (otherwise we wouldn’t have stayed there obviously), but in many, many public places, restaurants and others, there was no toilet paper. There was the “bum gun”, if lucky, or just a bucket and a jug if not. I’m not even sure how to effectively use the latter and I know for a fact that the locals aren’t too good at it either, because most of these toilets had floors flooded with water.

Even if I did use my (left, obviously) hand to wash myself, going to the washroom afterwards there often was no soap. No way for me to make sure my hands are clean. (We had our anti-bacterial gel, but what do the locals have?) And often times these were places serving food, which is why one eats in India with their right hand only.

Toilet paper is expensive. Perhaps twice as much as in Poland. I’m not sure if that’s simply because of low demand, hence lack of scale to drive costs down, or because of any other reasons. At the very least I’d expect to have soap available in washrooms, and perhaps it’s time to phase out the water guns in toilets too. Our girls had a reasonable, but unanswered question: how does one skillfully clean oneself, while wearing a massive saree? Humanly impossible with only two hands. Go figure.

The ugly

Internet, roads, payments, toilets… all standard stuff to compare between developing and developed countries. We applied reason and common sense to analyze these. But there were times when logic went out the window and we encountered things that one wouldn’t think were possible in a modern country—or at least one aspiring to modernity.

Like groups of “cow vigilantes” lynching people on the suspicion of them having beef at home. Or a married couple getting burned alive on allegations of sorcery. Or women seeing their husbands killed because they were from castes considered unacceptable. What the…? Seriously?

To be fair, in each of these cases the law stands firmly on the side of the victims and authorities are actively prosecuting the perpetrators. Things are improving, especially as people’s mentality (again, that word) improves. It’s just the barbaric, savage nature of these acts that blows my mind. On the one hand, India wants to be the hub of modernity, on the other hand—that. Food for thought for our Indian friends, there’s serious cleaning to do here.

A bright outlook

All in all, the country’s looking good. Indians show that they know where they’re falling short of modern, civilized standards, and they’re working actively to catch up. Some of the changes are easier to introduce—like green energy sources—others take time—like getting people to care about litter. Eventually, it’ll all get better and the next time we visit, I expect to see a difference.