Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Postcard from India: One Giant Doer-Upper Project.

I don't know what I expected as we landed in Mumbai.

Of course, I knew the city would reveal stark contrasts between rich and poor. I had seen on countless documentaries the appalling degradations in seemingly endless slums.

I was also well aware that amidst this squalor others, the new Indian, glided past in air conditioned limousines, apparently immune to the surrounding poverty as they travel from newly thriving businesses to new and ultra luxurious residential compounds.

What I didn't expect, however, was the anger I felt when I saw it for real.

Over 50% of Mumbai's inhabitants live in slums; in conditions we would consider criminally cruel even for animals. ( See )

The streets aren't paved with 'gold' for these immigrants from the countryside but with the excrement of the millions living in abject poverty, without sanitation and without anything we regard as worthy of the word 'living'.

The city of Mumbai is quite frankly a disgrace on every level. The infrastructure is crumbling, if existent at all. The filth and lack of civic pride is shocking and horribly sad. The utter chaos is an obvious symbol of a lack of any real overall progress. The whole is little more than one big sewer, within which a few, fat, almost Dickensian, overlords extract seemingly endless riches for themselves.

Although from a working class background, I have never been a slave to my roots. I always felt that in the UK anything was possible, that I had every opportunity to move on, move up. Nobody was ever really 'above' me. And whether by luck or hard work I have been fortunate to prove this to be true.

In Mumbai, however, the gulf between rich and poor is so extraordinarily massive, so outrageously unfair and so bitterly divisive that for perhaps the first time ever I begin to have communist tendencies.

Here is a country Mr Cameron asks us to flatter, pander to, even look up to for its 'economic miracle'. That is one very sick joke.

This country is so messed-up you have to walk through metal detectors and have bags searched just to enter hotels or very ordinary shopping centres.

In Thailand they have reduced the numbers living below the poverty line from over 40% to just 7% in a mere 20 years. India will take several lifetimes, I would guess, to get anywhere near this progress.

Basically the country seems constipated by inefficiency, slowed to virtual standstill by bureaucracy, and ruled by outdated class systems and elites.

Don't bother telling me about the success of groups such as Tata or Reliance. I don't care.

Tell me instead why the authorities don't tear down the slums and create basic housing using Portakabins or old shipping containers or prefabs like the ones that sprung up all over Britain after the war?

Tell me why some of the vast wealth supposedly being generated isn't used to build safe, modern, public transport systems that people don't have to crowd onto like animals on their way to the abatoir?

Tell me why the newspapers and magazines are full of ads for high end apartments costing more than a whole slum would cost to clear?

This is a city that is one great big vast Doer Upper project. But I'm not sure the 'project managers' are capable of achieving anything much.

The people I have met are gentle, hardworking and desperate to please. But their managers are hopelessly lost and clearly useless.

For example, a simple small cafe at the domestic airport in Mumbai made Fawlty Towers look the very model of efficiency. Eight staff couldn't serve twenty customers without making endless mistakes, arguing with eachother, shifting blame on to co-workers or wasting time just wandering aimlessly around with a big grin.

It summed up India, for me. Too many people doing not very much, not very well...but seemingly with a smile on their face.

I probably won't publish this blog until we return to the UK. And I certainly can't imagine ever wanting to return to Mumbai....or invest in the fallacy that is India's economic miracle.

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