Before I begin, I must first say that during a recent visit to France, it was a pleasant surprise to see that India’s image is fast changing in the West. When I left France in the early 1970s to settle in India, my family and friends considered it a shocking decision. To leave France, a ‘developed’ country and emigrate to the end of the world to a ‘land of misery’ populated ‘by elephants and cobras’ was unimaginable!
Here is my list of the 10 things I still can’t ‘digest’ about India:
1. Power cuts:
While typing this article, the electricity board cut off the power supply. The reason — a storm last night which lasted for 15 to 20 minutes. ‘As a precautionary measure’ the officials very compassionately disconnected vast areas from the network in the night and the following morning.
Being in rural Tamil Nadu, these officials want to protect us from broken wires due to fallen trees (it could electrocute passersby, they say). While I appreciate their reasoning, I was surprised to see that during the cyclonic rains in New Orleans last year, though thousands perished, electricity was not switched off. Indian officials will tell you that the US is a rich and developed country, not comparable to India. Where is the connection?
2. Indian babus:
One could write volumes on the famous babus of India. They run one of the largest bureaucracies in the world, but have not been able to change their mindset.
A particularly bothersome aspect is that their laws often come from antiquated rules and regulations that nobody knows of. The consequence is what we call red-tapism, though for them it is ‘implementing the letter, the law of the land’. But what about its spirit? In any case, the law has always to ‘follow its own course’.
A few years ago, a diligent minister found hundreds such laws and regulations dating back to the British. In the era of modern technology and communications, this is preposterous.
Another aspect that irritates me about the bureaucracy is that babus never respond to letters. Probably they consider themselves to be the government’s servants, not ‘civil’ servants and therefore find no need to reply to ordinary citizens.
3. No access to historical documents:
Though a better understanding of the history of the subcontinent could be one of the keys to disentangle difficult problems such as the Kashmir issue, today nobody can access primary sources. They are locked away in the vaults of the Nehru Memorial Library or the almirahs of South Block.
All those who have tried to access historical documents since India’s independence will tell you that till the end of babudom, one bureaucrat or another will ensure that you do not access the dusty files. Without fail, you will be courteously informed that India’s security and integrity will be endangered if these precious documents are opened to the public. It is sad that Indians are not entitled to study their past (though they can always visit archives in the West to know more about India!)
4. Discrimination against the white tourist:
Something particularly irritating for a ‘white man’ is that wherever he goes in India, he has to pay a special rate. Whether he visits the Taj Mahal where the ‘white’ tourist has to cough up Rs 750 to see the mausoleum, or a national museum, or even hotels or airlines, there is a true racial discrimination.
Rates are often ten times higher for those who have a ‘white’ or ‘yellow’ (Japanese) skin. Those who have made these rules do not understand that this policy harms India’s image.
The desire to make a quick buck from the so-called rich tourists leaves a bitter taste in the mouth of the visitors who in any case would have spent their budget during the stay in India. To my knowledge, India must be the only nation in the world implementing these separate rates.
5. Paranoia about maps:
Another strange thing in India is the paranoia about maps. Several years ago I visited the Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh. One day I was invited to the office of a local tahsildar. To my astonishment, the poor babu did not have a map of the area under his jurisdiction. He only had a vague sketch of the district. When I expressed surprise, he explained that maps were ‘classified’ and only the army was authorised to use them.
Is it not foolish to believe that the Chinese do not possess detailed maps of Arunachal? And what about Google Earth which is now available the world over?
One can only be surprised by this ‘official’ paranoia about maps. India is today a great power; technological advancements have occurred in the world during the past decades and will undoubtedly continue to occur and India has no choice but to accept them and make the best use of them.
A year ago, the Union Cabinet approved a new National Map Policy, but unfortunately, the mindset of the implementers remains the same.
6. And photographs:
The paranoia is not about maps alone, it extends to photos, particularly of the sites under the Archeological Survey of India. A friend told me of her nightmarish experience while doing research in Chennai and the number of forms she had to fill to take some photos in a museum. Though one pays in hard currency, one has still to justify why one needs a particular photo. The poor researcher is looked upon as someone trying to ‘steal’ the national patrimony.
In contrast, a few weeks earlier, I visited the Louvre museum in Paris which receives tens of thousands of visitors every day. All of them were happily clicking away at statues, paintings, art artefacts (it is only prohibited to photograph the Mona Lisa for security reasons) and amongst them, a great number of Indians, perhaps the most frenetic clickers. This is understandable, as they have to compensate for their frustration at home!
A French television crew told me about their adventure while trying to shoot in a fort once occupied by Rajaji (C Rajagopalachari). Before leaving Paris, they had planned a short sequence at the fort. They dutifully applied to the Indian embassy for permission. After paying a hefty Rs 5,000 they were given a stamped and signed permission. When they arrived on the spot, the local official told them: “No way, as your permission does specifically mention it, you are not authorised to shoot with a stand. You have to go to Chennai (150 km away) and get the permission duly modified. No problem, it will take you a day only!” They left disgusted, the fort will not appear in their film.
The topic of politicians is an easy one. Everything appalling and more can be said of them and one will still remain below the truth. In their defense, they are part of a system which is uniquely based on votes.
To win votes, one needs money and all compromises are permissible to get the required funds ‘to serve the people’. It is true the world over, but here like in many other domains India excels.
8. Neglect for the environment:
Another frustrating aspect for me is the lack of care for the environment (though it has been recently improving). While Indians are the most conscious people as far as personal hygiene goes, there is very little civic awareness or concern for the environment.
Education could help (for example for disposal of garbage or plastic bags), but it is often government policies such as free electricity for farmers, incentives for asbestos sheets (one of the most carcinogenic material) or chemical pesticides which harm the environment the most.
9. Traffic: I hate the Indian traffic (with its absence of rules).
Each time I return from a visit abroad, it is a terrible shock. It is difficult to comprehend how there are not more casualties on the road. A friend explained to me that the multitude of gods in India probably protect their flock. The fact is that there are no law enforcement authorities (most of the police force is busy with VIP duty).
In France and elsewhere if the cops were not around, very few would follow the traffic rules. Extremely severe punishment for breaking traffic rules has a strong dissuasive effect. Here in India, you can always get away with a few rupees.
10. Corruption: It is better to not comment.
Please allow me to add a last point: the number of ‘holidays’ taken for a myriad of family ‘problems’, (marriages, engagements, funerals, etc.), cultural, local or religious festivals (of all faiths: India is secular), then you have bandhs, hartals, riots, strikes (India is the only place in the world where the government sometimes calls for a strike), etc… The worst are ‘French leaves’, absolutely unknown in France.
Apart from the above, India is an incredible place and I have never regretted, even for one day, to have settled here.