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This is New Delhi - next stop: Hell

or why the Indians can't play cricket

Imagine a huge garbage tip, swarming with people, riddled with some of the world's most dangerous superbugs, enveloped in a thick cloud of dust and smoke, and so noisy with the continuous cacophany of vehicle engines and honking horns that your brain becomes numbed. Yet here and there studded with exquisite jewels! That's Delhi. It could be almost any other major city in India. How do the beautiful people of India put up with this nightmare in a country that's about to explode, if its Government keeps carrying on in the same old sorrowful way?

Traffic and smog in Delhi
Traffic and smog in Delhi


Some westerners find a holiday in India a life-changing experience. Indeed it is! But for those who cannot resist this country's lure, the "experience" gradually alters its character with each successive visit. India, my birthplace, is a country I have returned to again and again, but, despite its tremendous diversity, amazing history, countless incomparable attractions, fabulous people and tucker to fire up the senses, I'm now becoming weary and less adventurous and inclined to think that the downside far outweighs the positive things. I would probably advise independent travellers to think twice before going, and to avoid setting foot in the capital, New Delhi (apart from the airport, which is the gateway to Rajasthan). While some areas of Delhi are much more pleasant than others, the city has few touristy features that don't have superior counterparts in other Indian cities - like Jaipur, for instance.

My last visit to Delhi, in October-November 2011, was my eighth encounter with this madhouse, and my ninth visit to India - tenth, if you include my entry into the world in the southern city of Coimbatore. Why keep on returning? Well, for a long time India was my and my wife's favourite country for travelling in - and maybe it still is - for many reasons, and Delhi was normally our preferred port of entry, not least because we have a number of delightful longstanding friends living in the region, mainly accumulated by my wife during a relatively long sojourn in 1990-91.

According to Demographia.com (2011) Delhi comprises the world's second largest continuous urban area, with a population of 22.6 million - about the same as the population of Australia. It is by no means the least habitable capital city in the whole world, but, along with some other Indian cities, notably Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata, it is a keen contender for the title "Sludgepit of Asia". In my experience only Manila would give it a hard time in the asian capitals horror stakes. (However, I'm unfamiliar with the main cities of Pakistan and China, excepting Hong Kong and Shanghai both of which seem much more livable.) Strange, though, that one of my favourite modern cities, Singapore, is not that far behind Delhi in shortage of living space - and only a 5-hour flight away.

Delhi's redeeming features include the relatively plush government buildings zone and one or two impressive modern constructions, such as the metro and the recently overhauled international airport terminal (IGA) - a dreadful place prior to 2007. Of the older buildings, the exquisite Jama Masjid is India's largest mosque, but only on account of its massive courtyard; internally it does not compare to many other mosques in India and throughout the world. Short term visitors to the city, on absurdly expensive organised tours or staying in one of the hugely overpriced 5-star hotels, will barely get a glimpse of the "real" Delhi. They'll be taken to a few of the attractions mainly in the administrative area of the capital, plus some of the historical sites, before being whisked off to Agra, Jaipur and the Rajastan circuit. Unless they venture out on their own they will most likely overlook the guts of the city where most people actually live and work. (But having said that, it must be admitted that Australia, with its complete absence of architectural history other than a few old wooden shacks, has absolutely nothing to compare with any of Delhi's fine old buildings.)

You have to go into the side streets and alleys and preferably stay with or visit ordinary people in their homes. Then you will experience the shocking conditions in which even most middle class folk live - teachers, lecturers, nurses, police, managers... Their homes, mostly reached on foot or by bicycle along muddy (or dusty, depending on season) garbage-strewn back-alleys, are mainly tiny, spartan, without air conditioning and made unsafe by crumbling brickwork and botchy electric wiring, with peeling paint and hideous plumbing adding to the mess. And that's before you venture into the toilet (if any). Don't ever ask!

I have never understood how most of the residents of Delhi and other Indian cities remain so serene, friendly and generous of heart in the midst of such bedlam and grunge and the unremitting stress of making ends meet. Does the answer perhaps lie in their religion and ancient culture, perhaps even in their genes, or do they simply suffer from a sense of suppressed hopelessness, resigning themselves to the fact that nothing in their lives is going to change, so they might as well make the most of it and live together as harmoniously as possible? As modern communications technology increasingly advances their horizons you'd think their expectations would follow suit and that one day they will suddenly become conscious of their plight. What then?

It seems that many metropolitan Indians have already taken a step forward. Since my previous visit back in 2006, there has been a very noticeable increase in the number of vehicles on the road, especially motorcycles (mostly Yamaha and Bajaj) and small cars (Tata, Hyundai, Maruti), adding to the interminable smog and noise. Delhi residents rarely see the stars and have no idea of the meaning of silence. The racket in residential areas is heightened at times by hindu bells jangling and muslim summons to prayer blaring from loud speakers. There's hardly any greenery in sight and nowhere safe for children to play. Go for a walk in the street and you come back home with filthy feet and a nose full of grime. Hell knows what's got into your lungs.

Tourists, don't worry too much about the threat of malaria, encephalomyelitis, pick-pockets or terrorist bombs! The Australian government's "defat" website gives a distorted impression of the main risks. The top hazards are just trying to cross the road and avoiding potholes, slippery mud and bits of steel protruding from the pavement. Be careful where you walk or you'll come home with an "India leg" (as my wife fondly called her twice-injured ankles). And avoid Delhi belly by religiously refusing to drink tap water or eat uncooked food. You can have a bit of fun and get around Delhi by auto-rickshaw (tuk-tuk) if you like, but beware of the danger and make sure you've got travel insurance.

Extract from news article, 25/02/2012: "Two Australian brothers are desperately scrambling to find more than $200,000 to bring their critically injured father home after an accident left him a quadriplegic in Bangladesh. [Mr X] had been in his native country for less than 24 hours when he was involved in a tuk tuk crash on Valentine's Day that left him paralysed and fighting for his life. Mr X, who didn't have travel insurance, currently has no movement below the neck..." OK, this was in Bangladesh, but the conditions are very similar and it makes my point.

One great way of getting around Delhi is on the new metro, already operating on our 2006 visit and now greatly extended. A lot of it goes above ground, on pillars mostly running down the centre of main roads, so you'll avoid the sometimes intolerable traffic jams and won't miss out on too much "scenery". Huh, a real plus for Delhi (?!)  A pity so many of the locals can't afford to use it. And a pity most Indians (70% of them in fact) living miles away in rural areas would have preferred half a roti for lunch than a stake in a transport system they've probably never heard of.

Although much new construction work, including major roads, was carried out well before the 2010 Commonwealth Games, people and traffic appear to have simply expanded to fill the new usable spaces, adding to the pollution and city centre congestion. Despite the bold measures taken by the government around 10-12 years ago to reduce Delhi's air pollution, the smog was much more noticeable in October-November 2011 than during the same period in 2006. This observation is born out by the fact that about 1000 new motor vehicles are sold to Delhi's road users every day. The same uppercrust mini economic boom that supported the road-building has made cars and motorcycles more affordable to the city's middle class.
Taj Mahal fogged!
Smoggy Taj Mahal, October 2011
The extreme air pollution is by no means confined to Delhi. We were unable to escape from it throughout our entire tour of Uttar Pradesh, though it was less noticeable in the Faizabad region. In Agra we found sunrise and sunset viewing of the Taj Mahal are no longer worthwhile, especially if you want clear photos, as the city is swathed in a perpetual smog which is generally worse at dusk and dawn, and even worse in winter. A photo I took of my wife in October 1990 sitting in an arch of the Fort clearly shows the Taj in the background. Twenty years later, the same shot, taken in the same month, has a blank greyish background. The Taj is nowhere to be seen, and no amount of computer enhancement would conjure it out of the mist.

Other nuisances for tourists include hasslers, touts and bothersome children at tourist sites - especially bad at the Agra Fort and Fateh Pur Sikri. Undoubtedly they've become worse in some places, and if you have no plan of how to get rid of them (or no sense of humour) they could make your visit such a misery that you wish you'd never come. Long queues, often caused by security checks, are also a problem, especially if you have to stand in the sun, but with smart thinking you can often avoid them. (For example, if you decide on a dawn viewing of the Taj, go there at least half an hour after opening time, to allow the queues to evaporate. Everywhere, look for and make use of special booths and entrances for foreign tourists. Ask appropriate people, because every Indian will give you an answer whether it's right or wrong.)

Then there's all the red tape, beginning at home with your visa application. This is now an unbelievably tiresome process, way beyond what you need to enter almost any other major country (China excepted). For most countries world-wide, Australian travellers will find they don't need to obtain a visa at all (prior to departure). India is a notable exception. No matter how short your stay, not only will you need a visa, you will need the right kind of visa, selected from a long list, and it could cost you an arm and a leg (in fact, about 200 times the daily income of millions of India's country dwellers). Your initial application must be done on the internet, some of the questions are far from clear, but you must answer every one of them. If you choose one of the tourist visa options, be aware of the restrictions, which in theory prevent you from doing anything except sight-seeing and visiting relatives. If you want to go into a university, a military area, a National Archives building or even a public library, you'd better ask before leaving Australia! They'll probably say you need a research visa, which costs more. Here's another reason that might deter me from going back to India. Obviously the government doesn't welcome tourists. (But seriously, will this really put me off? I very much doubt it, the lure is too ingrained!)

Slum dwellers
Slum dwellers
The primary cause of India's problems, of course, is the population explosion, a world-wide phenomenon but relatively unrestrained on the Indian subcontinent*. The government's birth control policies have always been much too weak to stem the tide. Far be it from me to suggest difficult reforms, but it does seem to me that long, long ago they should have introduced compulsory, stringent birth control measures, appropriate compulsory education for women and an absolute ban on child labour together with a comprehensive education program aiming to achieve a nation-wide, solid foundation in literary skills and understanding of population driven issues. What they needed was something like a combination of China's one-child policy and Singapore's litter and traffic reducing measures, along with better industrial emission controls (and not merely a relocation of polluting industries to non-residential zones). At the moment only Kerala appears to be doing some of the right things.

*To put this in perspective, India's birth rate is almost half that of many African nations and almost double that of China, Australia and many European countries. But because its base population is so huge, India adds more people to the world annually than any other country - currently around 26 million (or 24.5 million if infant mortality is deducted) - that's more than the entire population of Australia every year. Think about it! And it spreads out to the rest of the world. Almost 16 million people who were born in India now live elsewhere (late 2016). In 2010, when 13.2 million were living abroad, it became the largest diaspora of any country for the first time. Of course many of those Indians who emigrated would have produced (or will produce) children in their adopted countries. Probably around 30 million people of Indian ethnicity live in other countries and this number must be growing at the rate of almost two million a year, due to emigration and natural increase.

The next most important hinderance to India's wellbeing and progress is the Hindu religion, indelibly stamped into the soul of every countryman who is not a Muslim or of some other denomination (collectively about 19% of the population). Hindus would rather spend their time and money on temple-building, pilgrimages and glamorous religious celebrations than on schools, hospitals and feeding and housing the poor. Indeed the majority of these Hindus are themselves poor and uneducated! The saving grace of Hinduism, politically speaking, is that most of its adherents are peaceful, tolerant and utterly acquiescent, qualities undoubtedly treasured and encouraged by the Indian government despite the damping effect of religion on the country's prosperity. (I have more damning things to say about Hinduism in Religious Gunk.)

Garbage sifters
Garbage sifters

Make no mistake, India is fast running into deep trouble, and the rest of the world is already beginning to stagger under the weight of the fallout. Internally, the phenomenal pressure on the big cities due to migration from rural areas and the desire for a higher standard of living will bring the hubs of Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and perhaps most importantly the capital, New Delhi, to breaking point - unless the government takes extraordinary steps immediately to get the situation under control. (The images at left were re-incarnated from slides in my 1990 holiday collection, probably shot in Mumbai but almost certainly not by me. In a recent TV documentary about Mumbai, an Indian guide decribed this city as the biggest pot of gold in the biggest sewer. I'd have been less surprised had he put it the other way round.)

Road builders
Road builders
New Delhi - star of India, sludgepit of Asia! A focal point for unmitigated turbulence and for its remedy. Do you suppose the remedy will ever materialise? Not a chance! The Indian government seemingly has no bones or integrity. There's no need for me to tell you about where its problems lie, nor about the intensely distressing condition of India and its people as a whole. Other writers have done a great job of this. I would especially like to recommend the excellent summary entitled Why 1 million Indians Escape from India every year; also see the link from that page to "About this blog and blogger". In short, India's future is fearful, and the consequences for the rest of the world will make the current European crisis look like a lollypop stall gone bust.
I don't wish to imply that other governments - perhaps including Australia's - are any better. It's just that India's problems are especially formidable and have more serious consequences for the rest of the world. Australia is already feeling the pressure, because our government has left open the valves on too many pipelines. For example, thousands of Indians flock here on "457 visas", which allow them to work here regardless of whether unemployed Australians are capable of filling those positions. Currently the influx is composed mainly of IT specialists. One of India's largest IT companies, TCS (Tata Consultancy Services), has been accused of abusing the 457 visa program to send Indian workers to Australia. The employers of these workers include Telstra, Qantas, AGL, Westpac and Woolworths, and surely they must carry most of the blame. High time the flow was stopped. Along with this throng of people comes an even more insidious threat, to Australia and everywhere else - some of the most dangerous superbugs in the world, resistant to almost all antibiotics and one of them, we're now hearing, resistant to every known antibiotic. Yet another looming disaster that the Indian government has failed to arrest.

So why can't the Indians play cricket? Well, of course they can, but relatively speaking, I mean...  An Australian commentator recently remarked that India should be well ahead of the pack because they've got so many people to draw upon - in fact about 20 times as many as England or South Africa, 50 times as many as Australia or Sri Lanka and almost 200 times as many as the 15 cricketing countries and dependencies on which the West Indies can draw. Well, therein lies much of the problem: India's enormous population generates an environment that is not conducive to producing a comparable percentage of superlative cricketers. On top of that, the mentality of the government, the bureaucracy and the upper class has doubtless suffused the Indian cricket board, with adverse consequences for everything from training to team selection (Huh! not that Australia is much better.)  (17 March 2012 - Sachin Tendulkar deserves no kudos for his record-breaking century against Bangladesh, after his selfishly throttled batting almost certainly cost India the match. Another result of urban overcrowding that squashes team spirit and encourages an "every man for himself" style of competitiveness?)
A Jaipur sight 1
One of Jaipur's countless beautiful buildings...

Brett Lee obviously has a much more positive attitude to the India situation than me. But it is wishful thinking to suppose that his musical and cricketing escapades over there amount to more than a minute pinprick in an enormous balloon, and that the prick will deflate the balloon. When it does deflate, it will be with a thunderous bang. Scenic Tours had better get their customers through the sights in a hurry.

Well, here are a couple of marvels the likes of which are sure to tempt me back to India sooner or later (hover over images to enlarge). Finally, let me add that the stimulus for this webpage came, surprisingly, not so much from the bedlam of Delhi as from a visit to Lucknow's Ambedkar Park.

A Jaipur sight 2
...and another
This extravagant monument to extreme self-idolisation is a smack in the guts for all impoverished Indians. It is one of the most unforgiveable misappropriations of government funds I have ever come across, and undoubtedly the most obscene modern display of misplaced political vanity I have ever seen in my life. Having said that, in very different circumstances it might be considered quite spectacular were it not for its desolate open spaces and endless repetition arrogantly modelled on the temples of Egypt. Which reminds me. There are some countries I would never return to for reasons much more serious than those that might make me me stay away from India. Egypt is one of them - it has simply become uncivilised, and its governments increasingly regressive. Like several other places in the Middle East, unless you are on a well-organised tour it is now unsafe to go there, especially for women. Other countries I'd be inclined to steer clear of are those with proven records of severe human rights violations or shoddy legal systems. Keep out!

(See here for comparison with our 2002 visit to India)

........Dabs of Grue.........February 2012.....................