This past January I was fortunate enough to spend a month in India as a Fulbright Scholar. The month long stay was spent visiting historic sites, public and private schools, attending academic lectures and generally observing and mingling with Indian society.
As you can see (and probably already know) the subcontinent of India is vast and has a varied geography. I did not realize however, until I returned to the US, that India is roughly 1/3 the size of the US, making the population of about 1 billion greater than our 350 million people. Geographic features have tended to encourage dense settlement along the coasts and throughout the river valleys. I knew of this contrast before I arrived in India, but I was truly unprepared for the contrast in standard of living I would see throughout the month.
I met so many different people. They weren ’t just ethnically different – their ideas varied, their ambitions varied and their stations in life varied too!
Much of the study tour centered on studying the variety of religions that are found throughout the subcontinent. About 80% of Indians practice Hinduism and about 12 % practice Islam. Other religions include Jain, Sikh and Christian.
I struggled to process all that I saw in one month. In particular, I struggled to understand the intense social disparity I saw. This frame shows a rock scene in a very typical Bollywood style. This theatrical dance and music dominates daily life. It can be seen in the theaters and on TV at every turn. Feature films and music videos account for a huge commercial enterprise throughout India. India currently produces twice the number of movies that are produced in Hollywood.
In each of the major cities we visited, elegant luxury shopping centers were easy to find. They were filled with European and American higher end labels of everything from purses to jeans. These types of malls were very busy and very pricey!
Luxury hotels were also easy to find. Their rates were competitive with our luxury rates and they were filled with businessmen as well as tourists.
Sprinkled throughout each of the cites were many high end neighborhoods. Hi rise apartments, palatial estates, chic neighborhoods and gated communities can be found quite easily.
A significant part of the Fulbright was spent visiting universities and primary schools. It was no surprise that private universities, high schools, and elementary schools shared the same best practices we have come to embrace. Religious sponsored schools also provide educational opportunities. But as we traveled beyond the cocoon woven by money, we came to see another side to India. Those images are seared in my memory, and have left me with more questions than answers regarding the state of affairs in modern India.
But the glitzy malls, lush hotels, toney neighborhoods and beautiful people are not what are etched into my heart. On the contrary, I still struggle to reconcile the India I hear described in the daily media, an economic powerhouse, the fastest growing economy in Asia, the democratic darling of Asia and the Asian Juggernaut. These descriptions defy what my mind processed in that month long visit that was one of the most difficult journeys I have taken. For most Indians, life is spent on the streets,
Food is prepared, cooked and consumed on the streets.
Services are rendered on the streets.
For most Indians, shopping is done, not in malls, but in compact stalls along the streets.
Foods are displayed colorfully on village as well as city streets.
But more disturbing, people live on the streets. In each of the cities we visited, there were many, many people living in boxes, rolled up rags laying on the streets, households such as this set up in cardboard boxes or lean to shacks. Men slept on medians of busy highways in the middle of the day.
We made our way to the Sunderban near the Bangladesh border. It seems to be less crowded and for that reason alone, poverty seemed a bit easier to deal with.
Despite the press to the contrary, much of India is simple, low tech, and extremely poor. Here you see a common sight. Amid the busy street traffic is a cow claiming his right of way along side of cars, traucks, and bicycles.
Differences in educational opportunity in India today are very dramatic. The public educational system throughout the country is struggling. Underfunded and overcrowded, public schools struggle to provide education for its youth beyond primary grades. At the same time, private boarding schools like this offer a respectable education to some young children but deny the opportunity to many others.
Study halls, comfortable beds and adequate meals are available to some.
But in public schools, most children work with antiquated materials
They attend class in very crowded and dilapidated rooms. This public school was on the outskirts of Kolkata. Students were participating in special science programs sponsored by a local NGO.
Further out side Kolkata, nearer the Bangladesh borders, its much more likely to see children gathered outside a one room school and writing in dirt rather than on paper.
See The Dying Fields http://www.pbs.org/wideangle/dyingfields
Economic opportunity also varies dramatically in contemporary India. Most Americans are familiar with outsourcing and call centers.
Business is booming as we are told daily.
Less lucrative but promising opportunities even exist for millions living in the Dharavi Slums of Mumbai where we ’re told recycling is a multi million dollar industry.
Hidden Apartheid: Caste Discrimination Against India ’s Untouchables www.chrgi.org
Worst states : Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal
We had the opportunity to visit a remote village in a region called the Sunderbans and meet with a group of women who had been extended a microloan for a series of startup businesses. They hoped to be financially stable within a year or two based on the small sewing industry and investments they were making.
This young woman has been working to complete school, manage the loan, and recruit family and village members to join in. Profits had been reinvested in some of the innovations you see here: better homes, environmentally safe clay stoves, and solar powered heaters for poultry.
Two years earlier, the region had been devastated by a cyclone and most of the region ’s homes and farmlands were destroyed salt water flooding. This is a result of deforestation of mangroves where wood has been cut down for fuel and lumber.
The region has been attempting to regenerate the soil. There are multiple reasons for lack of adequate food. Climate, lack of water, debt, lack of government subsidies and corporate sabotage have all contributed.
Wealth is creating a dual standard of cultural expectations that are widening the gap between the haves and the have nots in Indians. Outside private schools and in middle class Indian neighborhoods signs like this promote the “ideal” modern Indian women.
Glitzy malls cater to the modern miss.
But life for women in villages is very different. Child brides become mothers at any early age. Children of child brides frequently go unreported.
For many women, a life of responsibility begins early. Children comfort their children.
For most Indian women, life continues to be hard.
Women scavenge for recyclable material to sell for subsistence.
Daughters comfort their mothers,
And we are left to wonder whether all Indians will ever see their fair share of the country ’s new prosperity.
The Paradox of Contemporary India Nancy Maguire Teacher, Cornwall High School Participant, Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad http://www.cornwallschools.com/webpages/nmaguire
In cities and Dalit villages, most households survive on less than a dollar a day. Over 199 Dalits die from inhaling toxic gases or drowning in excrement each year. Only 20% of Dalits have access to water. Only 10% of Dalit households have access to sanitation facilities.
Despite India ’s vibrant economic growth, a recent Oxford Study on Poverty and Human Development found that the 8 poorest states in India contain more poor people than 26 of the poorest African nations combined. India has a poverty rate of 55% “Changing Poverty’s Parameters, NY Times, August 12, 2010
It is true that the United Nations is working with NGO ’s to provide microloans designed to help enterprising villagers become independent.
Article 7 of the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child require that all children are to be registered immediately after birth. But according to UNICEF, an estimated 26 million children are born and about half of them go unregistered.