Our experience necessarily raised the question of whether India’s form of governance is not delaying by generations what it could achieve for its people if there were more discipline and common purpose at the top.
Incredible India: Tourism and Politics
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
My wife and I went to India in the final days of December 2016 for what we thought would be an enjoyable break from the mid-winter blues of Northern Europe. And while the sunny and warm days we encountered met those expectations, the entire experience of our Indian sojourn was more educational than pleasurable.
Visiting India and its southern spice trade region of Kerala in particular had been on our ‘to do’ list ever since 1997, when my wife and I read and were fascinated by the Booker Prize winning novel of that year, The God of Small Things, by Indian writer Arundhati Roy, a novel set in Kerala. Other destinations intervened, but the persistent and omnipresent Indian tourist promotion of Incredible India on European television these past couple of years drew our attention back to the Indian subcontinent.
The advertising almost exclusively presents rural India and exotic situations like elephants swimming. They do not specify geography. Why urban India is totally ignored we were to discover only upon landing in Mumbai. However, in the context of the tourism images, it seemed that our choice of Kerala, the original center of the spice trade and home to vast tea plantations made good sense.
Indeed, we were not alone in this reasoning. During our stay, the local edition of The Times of India carried an article on the decision of the UK board of travel agencies and tour operators to list Kerala State among its top recommended tourist destinations for 2017 for reasons including sustainable tourism, the idyllic backwaters, etc.
Our two weeks on the ground in India, most of the time in Kerala, some of it in Mumbai, turned up a lot of impressions that contradicted the notions of a progressive country pulling itself up by the bootstraps, a leader in what was once the Non-Aligned Nations, i.e. the third force in the world during the half century of Cold War; a leader today in the BRICS alliance for a multi-polar world as opposed to America, the one and only global hegemon. Associations of India with the non-violence of Gandhi, associations with yoga and meditation, not to mention India, the world’s biggest democracy: these and other positive attributes of India had held fast in our minds before this visit just as we once had simple illusions about Sweden and its magnificent social welfare system and about a number of other now fallen idols. In this sense, our time in India was well spent: we left the country sobered up.
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As a result of the tortuous process of obtaining an Indian visa, our doubts about the country began even before we got on a plane to travel there. We have extensive experience with one other big country well known for its expensive and convoluted visa application process: the Russian Federation. But Russia does not pretend to be a big international tourist destination, does not advertise heavily abroad to bring in tourists as India now does.
Not only is the India visa expensive, especially for Americans, but the application form is lengthy and irritating in the way it probes again and again to determine whether the applicant is not really a hidden Pakistani or related to a Pakistani. It digs into your past, back to your grandparents –all this for a tourist visa!
The visas are processed by a specialized agency under contract with the local Indian consulate. They re-do whatever you prepared in advance online, because there are inevitably flaws given the complexity of the demands, and they verify your supporting documents, which must include proof of local residency. They take your passport for a week or more, unless a shorter term can be specially agreed.
The theoretical alternative is the so-called e-visa which is prepared strictly online and is supposed to result in your receiving an email of pre-clearance that you present to passport control at the arrival airport in India for immediate issuance of the visa. However, the e-visa has a number of conditions that are absurd, notably the need to upload a visa photo in pdf format not exceeding 50k. As anyone familiar with IT knows, pdf photos this small are fuzzy and unusable, which is, in turn, justification for denying the application. However, this insuperable problem served us well, since we were later informed that the e-visas are not a magic wand and that passing passport control upon arrival with just the email can consume many hours. The lesson we learned is that notwithstanding its renown as a great software producer on the global scale, the programming that is being purchased by the Indian state is pathetic.
Of course, in the end we got our Indian visas on an accelerated basis and the trip went ahead. The next shock came after our arrival in Mumbai and check-in at our 5 star hotel: we were informed that the ATM in the hotel was not operating, but were assured that in the morning we could visit any one of several ATMs in the immediate vicinity and take out some cash for petty expenses.
The next morning revealed the shocking truth: that very few ATMs were operating in the city and nearly all currency exchange offices were closed because of the government action in the weeks before our arrival withdrawing the most widely used bank notes from circulation pending their reissuance, and using the transaction to force the general population to bring cash to the banks to credit the eventual exchange for new notes.
As we learned very quickly from the Times of India and other local newspapers, this currency operation was causing havoc. The stated intent was to turn the country from a cash economy mostly in the gray sphere, that it to say outside the tax controls, into a digital economy with most transactions being by cards and bank transfers, i.e. cashless. A brilliant idea, perhaps, but executed unprofessionally and with little consideration as to how it would impact farmers and all the small trading and services enterprises which absolutely require cash in hand to operate. Moreover, the changeover exposed to hostile scrutiny now all those simple people who had kept cash under their pillows instead of in bank accounts: the presumption being that their cash was illicit and so not eligible for exchange. Enormous lines formed in front of the banks before the deadline set for turning in old banknotes.
The kindly staff at our hotel front desk exchanged some of our Euro notes for spanking new 2,000 rupee bills, while explaining to us their own frustration over the new currency operation - which meant that for some time they and the rest of the population could withdraw only $30 a day equivalent from their bank accounts.
Of course, the recent experience of Venezuela with an exchange of banknotes came to mind. And Soviet Russia, where exchange of banknotes had been catastrophic for the general population provided precedents. But for this to happen in a normal and presumably modern democratic state was shocking and disappointing.
Our firsthand experience of the growing chaos did not end there. We decided to take in the museums and were turned away from the Arts Museum where the cashier could not give us change and refused to issue entrance tickets.
The daily papers quickly filled us in on the scale of the disruption to the economy which the government of Modi chose to deny. In any case the notion that plastic cards and ATMs will take hold quickly in a country with so many illiterate is mind-boggling. In the meantime many ATMs were shut simply for lack of new currency to dispense, and those which were open tended to serve only the given bank’s clientele.
It was with this in mind that one article in the newspaper claimed that the Modi “regime” is the worst government that India has seen in the last 10,000 years! This is what it means to visit a country with an ancient civilization.
As I mentioned at the outset, we went to India unashamedly looking to pamper ourselves. We made our own hotel and travel arrangements to meet these expectations and booked five-star accommodations. In the past that would lead us into tense discussions with our liberal-minded daughter, who might accuse us of cutting ourselves off from the local culture, of choosing to live in a bubble. Our experience on the ground in India proved that just the reverse is true: the vast majority of guests at the five star establishments were middle and upper class Indians, most of them Indian residents, some of them Indian diaspora living permanently in the USA or elsewhere. They know their country and they chose comfort and safety over adventure. In that sense, we were given far better opportunity to study local mores in luxury hotels than would be the case in lower star categories, where surely more Western tourist groups are sent, not to mention than in youth hostels which likely are wholly populated by Westerners.
By way of example, in Kochi, the main city of Kerala State, which has a population of perhaps one million, the number of genuine foreign tourists registered in hotels in the Christmas-New Year period was reported in the newspapers to be just 1,200. This during peak tourist season.
Then there was another fact that was striking: there is no way to insulate yourself from the masses. To be sure, you can spend your whole time in Mumbai on the premises of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, enjoying its interior gardens with swimming pool and its variety of restaurants if you wish. But as soon as you step out the door, the real India hits you in the face: it is unplanned, it is very densely populated and it is…squalid.
We were used to visiting cities in poorer countries which are surrounded by shanty-towns at their periphery. We were shocked to discover shanty-towns in the very center and in all districts of Mumbai, known to be India’s financial center and richest city. We found the same to be true in Kochi and in other little towns through which we passed. You can be a multi-millionaire, have a luxury apartment in a new high-rise tower, but when you leave the building, you face ugliness and poverty at your property line.
We had come in the knowledge that one quarter of the overall Indian population is prosperous, with annual income on the level of middle classes in Western Europe. That amounts to more than 300 million well-to-do Indians. We had not anticipated that they would be living in the midst of eye-sore communities and the indigent.
Fences and security personnel are omnipresent. In exclusive hotels like the Taj, some of which have had nasty experience with terrorists, there is airport-like screening of visitors and their possessions at the entrance. We were told that very often middle class Indians go out to visit friends only in the company of their family servant for protection.
Looking around our hotel lobbies, we understood that middle-aged upper-class Indian women are not in great physical condition. Many have mobility problems, which surely are related not only to diet but to their inability to leave the house for a walk, not to mention a jog, for reasons of personal safety. In the countryside simple people do walk, but there are no sidewalks and pedestrians are under pressure from the aggressive car and truck drivers.
While listening to the speech of the few foreigners in our five star hotels, we were struck by the absence of Russians. Such facilities attract Russian vacationers everywhere in the world where we have traveled, but not in India. Do they know something that we and other Westerners do not? The reason came out during a chat with the one Russian family we met in the Taj on our last days in Mumbai. They were there by accident, having decided against departure on a cruise ship which left from Mumbai. And they were re-routing themselves to Goa, which is where Russians looking for an Indian beach experience go. The difference is that Mumbai, like much of India, is a relatively “dry” state with very conservative laws governing the sale of alcoholic beverages, whereas Goa, a former Portuguese colony with very different traditions and laws, is a drinker’s paradise.
Indeed it was unpleasant to read, as we did in the local newspapers on the day before New Year’s eve, that by law all public dining establishments would be obliged to stop their sale of alcoholic beverages at 10 pm. In the end, a very kindly waiter put down a bottle of wine on our table at precisely 21.59 so that we could continue to celebrate to midnight while respecting the law. Other foreign holiday-makers in Kerala were less fortunate.
But on the subject of public safety, of which restricted sale of alcohol and omnipresent government controls on drivers are one small aspect, the overall impression from our stay in India was depressing and was formed already on our second day following our arrival in Mumbai by the unsolicited running commentary we were given by our taxi driver.
In India, as elsewhere, I looked to taxi drivers as spokesmen for the vox populi. Regrettably, most could not fulfill this role due to their very rudimentary command of English. It quickly became apparent that good command of English is a rare skill in India, and those possessing such mastery seek employment in much better paying professions than chauffeur of taxis. Nonetheless, at times we did come across talkative and understandable taxi drivers. One was the chap who took us from our first hotel on Naiman Point in Mumbai across the peninsula to the museum district surrounding our second hotel, the Taj.
En route, we passed a very enticing public beach with broad stretch of sand. It was empty, completely devoid of visitors although the gates were open and the weather was splendid. We enquired why and our taxi driver explained very matter-of-factly that the beaches are unsafe: gangs of young males are known to come there to rape any single women, any women exposing their flesh while sunbathing. Consequently, no one comes down to the beach.
We encountered a somewhat similar situation when we were in Kochi and, following the advice of our hotel concierge, took a car on a drive one hour to the north, to a stretch of beach directly on the Indian Ocean. At one spot on the beach, near the main road with its restaurants and shops, there were four lifeguards huddled together, the only ones to be seen. Within 100 meters of them, a few Westerners were lying on the beach, while a few others entered the water. We did the same. Further away, there was no one.
At one point in the aforementioned taxi drive in Mumbai, we were stuck in traffic. Movement along the major boulevard in two directions was suspended to allow some official cars to leave a government building. Not VIPs, just officials. Our taxi driver took this delay with equanimity, but he used the time to explain that the problems with public safety go well beyond deserted beaches. The boulevard on which we were situated at evening becomes a de facto race track for motorcycle gangs who drive against the oncoming traffic.
I asked why the police do not crack down and maintain order. I was told that the police do nothing because they fear they will be attacked with paving stones if they intervene. This is also one of the explanations why Indian cities tend to shut down early, as we noted during our stay.
Absence of city planning in major metropolises not to mention in provincial towns, glaring deficiencies in public order, and hare-brained economic adventures like the recent change-over of bank-notes all attest to an Indian government that is very weak at many levels. And I am not even talking about corruption, which is assumed to be ubiquitous and is abetted by the party system that tends to keep politicians in long, too long stays in power. Meanwhile, we saw very few signs of public-minded private initiatives from the country’s wealthy. In Mumbai, we learned of no museums or other centers of culture established by Indian philanthropists of recent generations. The last such Mumbai philanthropist seems to have made his contribution back in the age of Empress Victoria: his name was David Sassoon.
Though teaching of English may be producing only meager results in the general population, the quality of the local English language press that I found in our hotels was very impressive, and during our sojourn I reverted to the pleasures of skimming several newspapers each morning while enjoying breakfast. The first choice was always The Times of India, which has opinion pages for columnists that were always a delight. What I found there, though, was surprising in that it wholly contradicted my expectations of political views of a BRICS country. The Indians had just carried out test firings of a new range of missiles, which, the commentators noted, provided coverage of the whole of China.
Relations between India and China are clearly not warm, and all this is papered over in the BRICS summits that the leaders regularly attend. By contrast, op ed articles in the leading papers made apparent a wish that the détente policy proposed by the incoming president Donald Trump take hold, and that India could remain fast friends with both powers.
Lest the reader conclude that we faced only irritants and no pleasures during our India sojourn, allow me to conclude with mention of the exquisite 24 hours we spent on a houseboat for two in the Backwaters of Kerala State. Arranged on the spot by very efficient concierges of the lake resort where we spent a couple of nights, our romantic-looking house boat had all the creature comforts one could ask for: a large bedroom with en-suite shower and WC, up and downstairs lounges, and a crew of two, one of whom served as cook. Their English was sufficient for us to agree on whether the menu would be vegetarian or not, what we would have for breakfast and whether or not they would go out and buy a couple of beers for us when the boat was tied up for the night. The choice of menu otherwise was theirs and the result was the best food we had during the entire stay in India.
You don’t travel far on these boats and they tend to move in caravans following the leader. But the rich tropical forest bordering the rivers and canals you pass through, the quality of the light, the tranquility were all memorable. Worth a trip? I am unsure, but I give credit where it is due.
I have no doubt that these travel notes will find severe critics among experts on India, or among travelers who have visited the hallowed sites, such as the castles in the north, the true Taj Majal, the holy sites of many kinds. India is by definition a subcontinent and a very large one at that, with great variety of climates and topography as well as regional cultures and languages. But it is a country with an obviously weak central government, as we saw, and our experience necessarily raised the question of whether its form of governance is not delaying by generations what it could achieve for its people if there were more discipline and common purpose at the top.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2017
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Gilbert Doctorow is a Brussels-based political analyst. His most recent book, Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015.