India Impressions

I spent a month in India recently and wanted to share some impressions.

Prima facie, India is a distressing and depressing place. The overwhelming feeling is one of criminal neglect and carelessness. This feeling needs to be tempered with the real difference in wealth between India and rich countries, but the differences are present even when in comparison to similar income countries like Vietnam.

The classic example is of driving. There are a 130 fatalities per 100,000 vehicles in India, the same number for is 55 for Vietnam and 37 for Indonesia. Drivers are reckless, contemptuous of rules, near maniacs on the road. Traffic police is nowhere to be seen.

The other apparent feature of India is trash. India actually generates very little trash per capita. But virtually none of this seems to be disposed properly. The constant sight of trash on the roads, every nook and corner eventually starts to appall one. More importantly, the health and safety implications are grave.

A newer menace is pollution. In the winter, it is a permanent fixture in the sky, casting a depressing spell. Health implications will become clearer in the coming years. Street lighting is also very poor.

Cumulatively, this series of neglects produces an urban environment that leaves one paranoid, morbid and irritated.

Our Constitution makers committed a grave oversight by allowing states to decide the structure of urban governance. Legally, cities in India exist at the whim of state legislatures. Mumbai city has no independent legal existence. Tomorrow, the state of Maharashtra can merge it into Pune if it wants. Imagine the state of Texas abolishing Austin. The central government doesnt seem to care that it hasnt appointed 37% of high court chief justices. The list of governance befuddlements goes on and on.

We actually have good urban schools (PPP or government aided), which are funded by the state and managed by independent religious, cultural or educational societies. These schools have produced a generation of excellent human capital. But it is the West and Gulf states that benefit from this excellent system, due to our own short-sightedness. Those who care about India’s future need to think seriously about why the best of India’s talent leaves at the first available opportunity.

My own hope lies with Delhi. Through sheer providence, we managed to have an urban area with a sensible model of governance. The city actually has a real mayor, who by most accounts has done a great job in the last five years. If policing responsibility was also shared with the Delhi government, rather than being in the hands of a Union minister, we will see what Indian democracy can truly achieve in an urban area.

43 thoughts on “India Impressions”

    1. It doesn’t matter. Any urban area in India would match Vikram’s description. I live in Bangalore, and I’ve lived in Delhi in the past (before the AAP regime took over, I should add.)

      1. I was in Delhi, Mumbai, Pune and Indore. Indore was noticeably cleaner, but I was only there for a day. Delhi’s suburbs were appalling but the city itself was cleaner.

        Mumbai and Pune were terrible, especially Pune’s suburbs. The expressway was a pretty underwhelming experience, to put it politely.

  1. You get a somewhat different picture if you visit often and have a sense for the “trend” rather than a “snapshot” in time.

    I have visited Mumbai several times of the last decade travelling with someone who is non-Indian and is not emotionally invested in it.

    Her first impression a few years ago was as you say: overwhelmed by the garbage; bothered by the constant unwelcome attention; the demands for money etc. On our last visit she remarked on how much cleaner Mumbai has become, the absence of panhandling. Most interesting to me was how no one seems to stare any more at unfamiliar visitors although the question “where do you come from” is a constant. You can have some fun with this by making up random answers.

    (Asking your interlocutor’s opinion on the Modi government gets you a virtual kaleidoscope of opinion, the only common element being utter absence of any sort of neutrality. Like Bush they are either FOR him or AGAINST him.)

    1. You get a somewhat different picture if you visit often and have a sense for the “trend” rather than a “snapshot” in time.

      Well, I’ve been living in India continuously for almost a decade now, so I’m not sure I see the trend you are talking about (I could have a frog-in-the-well mentality). Vikram’s observations square with my own, and I’ve dropped comments around here saying similar things.

      About garbage and the barbaric driving: you can get used to it and turn a blind eye to it the more you experience it. About people not staring: there may be something to this, or you could have instinctively learned to avoid peoples’ gazes and stick to company you know.

      I’m not saying you are wrong, just that there are other explanations. As for Mumbai, I have been visiting the place annually as well over the past decade (so my impressions are also those of an outsider) and I haven’t seen it get any cleaner, at least in the parts I visit. But I’m willing to accept that the authorities are taking it in stages and haven’t got to the parts I visit. (Like people say that Swacch Bharat is a success in the rural areas, but I wouldn’t know as I never visit rural India.)

      1. I go to India once a year, but this time the visit was longer. There have been lots of positive changes, as one would expect with two decades of rapid economic growth.

        Socially, the best thing I have seen happen is the entry of women into the workforce in large numbers. Petrol pumps, shops, restaurants, visa pre processing offices, everywhere I saw women (visibly from family who were not previously well off) working professionally along side men.

        In Mumbai, I have seen a tremendous increase in the number of mixed gender friend groups across all ages. Of course, couples can be seen everywhere in urban India today. My friends told me that the dating scene via Tinder and Bumble is far more dynamic, with young people no longer squeamish about physical relations (DTF being normal lingo). They attributed this to women being out of their home cities for work, and discovering sexual independence.

      2. I have been to Mumbai in 2019 and then before that in 2009.

        Improvements I noticed:

        Airport – Went from being one of the worst in the world. To better than any pretty much any American and most European airports in terms of architecture. Some Asian airports are still better IMO.

        Also in 2009 two seperate official looking guys came up to me and asked if i wanted to smuggle some gold into the country upon my arrival at the airport. This didn’t happen in 2019.

        Metro rail – In 2009 Mumbai had a suburban rail that was left over from the british era. By 2019, Mumbai and other major Indian cities had light rail systems. Considering the glacial pace of rail construction projects in North America I was impressed.

        Pockets of competence wrt to cleanliness: There are places like bandra kurla complex, the area near IIT-B with a bunch of condos, that were either very early on in their development in 2009 or just didn’t exist.

        Overall it is still fairly accurate to call the city a “shithole” by global standards. The slums for eg. are worse than anywhere else I have been.

        But i think the changes were quite dramatic, at least to me. The locals didn’t seem to think much of the changes, I guess they are just used to the pace of development.

        1. Yes, big ticket infra is a significant improvement. India ranks pretty well on the logistics index. But the problems of trash, traffic, law and pollution are more complex, and involve lots of competing interests and entrenched lobbies. The very structure of our governance model is at fault here.

    2. Arjun, I have met many Indians who are “blah” (in between) about PM Modi. Much of PM Modi’s support is mostly a vote “AGAINST” post modernist sub-altern critical race theory woke social justice warrior madness. And correctly so.

      India is clearly improving rapidly along many spheres. I am long term optimistic.

      My many non Deshi friends visit India all the time and they like India too!

  2. Well cities generate money but dont vote their concerns. So yeah they will be used and abused as cash cows by politicians. There is a reason Telangana and Andhra fought to the death over Hyderabad. And Punjab and Haryana still over Chandigarh. And both these states are no Bihar.

    Making something new is hard. And takes time. And we are no China.

    Finally the reason why Delhi has progressed is because it was always political (so some good stuff still seeped in), and almost everyone is an outsider. If any other city tries this, it will quickly become urban vs rural, outsider vs insider fight. And we all know who wins that fight.

    1. Delhi, a few years ago, looked good in the center but not in the periphery, even in supposedly posh areas like Vasant Kunj (where I lived); unmaintained roads and sidewalks, trash in the open, etc. The Old Delhi/Chandni Chowk area I thought was in abysmal condition; you literally could not walk without wading through trash.

      Has this changed in the AAP regime?

  3. We take no pride in keeping our habitats clean. I used to regularly argue with my neighbours who used to dump garbage in an empty site (in from of their own home). This is even after the corporation used to do a door to door collection every morning.
    How’s it going to be clean if this is the behaviour?

    1. Yeah, a lot of public behavior is governed by people’s willingness to police each other, even in rich countries. When people call each other out on bad behavior, shame incentivizes them to live up to a standard. There is very little of this in India. From what I see, people would rather avoid calling others out so they can themselves be excused for throwing trash, etc. Parents seem unwilling, at least in public, to teach their own kids manners and etiquette (do others see this too or am I being harsh?)

  4. “The other apparent feature of India is trash. India actually generates very little trash per capita. But virtually none of this seems to be disposed properly.”

    This is very true. When I visited Vietnam I noticed how the streets were much cleaner even though the country wasn’t that much wealthier than India when seen on a per capita basis. It’s the same with Indonesia and Cambodia.

    I do believe there’s a cultural aspect to it. There is a stark difference in the cleanliness of public areas of the sister states in the north-east and Sikkim, even though some of these states are poorer than the national average. Kerala and Tamil Nadu are also noticeably cleaner than the Gangetic belt. I’d say that the cleanest ‘brown’ region would be Sri Lanka if you leave out colonial spots like Mauritius and Suriname.

    I wonder if the relative ease of availability of domestic help in the country has something to do with it (at least in the urban areas). Many of the younger Indian population in the top 2-15 percentile have barely had to clean their own rooms and houses, and this perhaps has greater effects on the wider society where they don’t feel responsible w.r.t. throwing stuff on the streets because they think someone else should do the cleaning.

    I hope the education ministries in various states enforce the teaching of germ theory and social responsibility in primary and secondary government schools. This + a few other low hanging fruit can make noticeable differences over the next 20 year period.

    1. For Viet Nam the answer is simple. A strong authoritarian government ensures swift – sometimes draconian – consequence to transgressors.
      Before the communist government took power (and initially drove the economy of the country into the ground) Viet Namese public spaces used to be as bad if not worse than those in India.

    2. There was this controversial (lol) Indian social commentator called Aakar Patel, and I remember he once wrote the only two “civilized” parts of India were the Catholic and Parsi neighbourhoods of Mumbai. By Catholic, I think he meant Goan, but I’m not sure.

      His argument was Hindus and Muslims don’t have the same kind of civic sense or communal responsibility, and wealthy Hindu philanthropy was usually just building temples, whereas Parsis and Catholics built institutions for the betterment of society (universities, music schools, hospitals, etc).

      1. Bro that guy is now Amnesty India head.

        I love his writings though. Very simple, and no filter.

        One of the funny events which a parsee freind narrated to me once was, that they mostly did inter community stuff like Fire temples and cremation houses, during Brits time. But once a parsee guy converted while studying in a catholic school and hence parsees got alarmed and started their own schools . In a way Hindu/muslim communities primary drivers for education institution was also that.

        1. Hindu institutional building is somewhat kept in check by the government.
          Laws like RTE makes opening schools a difficult business, specifically for the majority. Government control of temples in a lot of places means temple revenue can’t always be directed to community.

          I am not sure, though how much of these factors play a role.

          A few years ago, on this weblog, there was a lot of debate on whether Hindus are less charitable than people of other religion. I am not sure what the conclusion was.

  5. Some cities did progress quite a bit and some are stuck the same. From regular visits to India, Chennai looks about the same (I mainly know the routes to and from Airport and out of the city towards North) and sometimes slightly worse in terms of cleanliness and smelliness. Bangalore significantly worsened (compared to early 1990s though) while Hyderabad significantly improved in some parts (I can’t vouch for the old city).

    Some of the smaller cities became unbelievably better as they became local real estate investment hubs and foreign-returning NRIs wanted cleaner roads.

    1. “Bangalore significantly worsened (compared to early 1990s though)”

      Bangalore has significantly worsened even in the last three years that I have stayed here.
      The number of paan stains has increased exponentially. I blame the likes of Swiggy and Dunzo. The number of deliveries have 100x-ed in this time. A lot of the delivery boys are migrants from the north who don’t have any qualms about treating the street as their personal spittoon.

      This is apart from the horrible public infra and roads that would put war torn Syria to shame. And the increasing amount of dust in the air, thanks to all the digging going around.

      I do agree with you on Delhi. I hope other states replicate the delegation of power to major cities.

      1. A lot of the delivery boys are migrants from the north

        Your other observations about Bangalore are accurate, but I order delivery a lot and I have yet to encounter a non-Kannada speaking delivery boy (maybe it’s the area I live in). North Indians are worse when it comes to spitting paan, but the locals are no angels either.

  6. Talking about trash, I saw some by the sides of the freeways in the Bay Area, which I visited recently. (I’m talking east of the bay, from San Jose going N/NE.) The last time I was in that part of the world was a decade ago, and I don’t recall seeing much if any trash in those parts back then. Have things changed?

    1. California has an ongoing homelessness crisis, that may have something to do with it.

      Since a lot of infra projects and zoning in the US is decentralized and in the hand of municipalities, residents of the area may not want more people there to preserve living quality, hence the rules against high-density housing and resulting unaffordability.

      Frankly, it’s quite hard to survive there for regular people without the right education given how expensive it is, especially when they’re competing against the best from the rest of the world.

      1. Thanks! I’ve heard that San Francisco has a homelessness problem, but the part of the Bay Area I drove through were far from SF. I’m talking the I-880/I-680 corridor; San Jose, Fremont, and north towards Napa Valley.

        I have seen trash strewn by highways before, but near the Gulf of Mexico in the aftermath of a hurricane. Not really in California.

        1. Homelessness affects not just SF but pretty much all of the bay area. The litter you see is largely but not entirely due to that. The cities are also spending less time/money cleaning the roads

  7. I have not been to India in the last 5 years mainly because of my little kids. I dread the idea of travelling to Delhi with them and I will have avoid it as long as I possibly can.

    The last city I visited 5y ago was Bangalore and I hated it. It is a terrible place now. I have been to Bangalore a few times before (the first visit being 1995) and I know the time when it was really pretty.

    The same has happened to Pune over nearly the same period (90s to today).

    Delhi and Mumbai were always ugly shitholes from my POV and have remained true to that old assessment.

    In short I dread taking my kids to India. I will probably end up being terribly grumpy on any such trip.

    1. Some friends brought their 5 year old American son to India recently. He called every single day he spent there ‘the worst day of his life’. I am a skeptic of the ‘take kids to India every year’ logic. The place confounds most Western adults, the effect on a kid can only be imagined.

      1. I just returned from an India trip in the company of a child who had never been to India before. He thoroughly enjoyed himself and has composed a bunch of videos detailing his experiences.

        On the other hand, we were also accompanied by an adult who decided midway through the trip that he was “done” with India and spent the rest of the time indoors.

  8. Vikram, agree to (what i’ve understood to be) your point about urban governance. Any reason you wouldn’t agree that a true fiscal federalism and tax autonomy to ALL local governments wouldn’t also be more of a good thing? I feel it would be a great thing. Too much public policy thinking in India is based on the (unspoken) assumption that base of the pyramid populations are stupid, unethical, and prone to zero-sum political games with out-groups and that giving them power would be a case study on the tragedy of the commons on an epic scale. Naturally, technocrats must create fool-proof institutions and devolute control slowly. This all seems backwards to me. Centralisation, considered on either the union or state level seems to train communities not to be stakeholders, and anecdotally most old-timers have spoken of villages and small municipalities having been much more functional in terms of planning and hygiene 2 generations ago. Hypothetically, the governance structures of post-independence India destroyed a lot of social capital in rural communities.

    1. Agree completely with Girmit.

      The Indian central government ideally should deregulate and simplify regulation as much as possible and transfer regulatory and tax power to state and local governments.

      Some state and districts will become first world pockets inside India, some will become second world pockets inside India and some will become trashy dysfunctional pockets inside India.

      In time more and more districts will gentrify into first and second world pockets. Many of these districts will link up into large contiguous parts of India which are developed.

      It is okay to have large pockets of failure inside India. Freedom is more important. Let each state and district decide their own fate.

      Anecdotally many parts of the Indian government at multiple levels have sharply improved in merit, capacity and competence . . . albeit they have a long ways to go. I think many states and districts will choose to succeed. Trust them. Live and let live.

    2. “Any reason you wouldn’t agree that a true fiscal federalism and tax autonomy to ALL local governments wouldn’t also be more of a good thing? I feel it would be a great thing.”

      I think it would be a great thing as well. The problem is that the powers that be are never going to devolve the power. The only major party that has spoken about it is AAP.

      BJP used to be the federalist party but look at what they are doing now that they are in power. Same with Congress, which will make noise but will act extremely centralised while in power. The main reason IMO is that any such move will cut down on the revenue sources of these parties, which is basically suicide.

      You just have to look at anti-defection laws and the complete apathy towards it to realise that no one cares. We can at best create a libertarian-ish awareness and hope it snowballs into something bigger in a few generations.

      1. India having one foot in the anglosphere, you’d think at least a certain libertarian ethos could trickle into the discourse here. Wasn’t the swantantra party a bit about all that?

    3. In general, the process of industrialization will destroy rural social capital. Further, one reason given for excess centralization in India is the ‘villages are dens of ignorance’ conclusions arrived at by Ambedkar and others. And, from the point of view of a Dalit and most women, this conclusion makes a lot of sense.

      The Indian state has an unenviable task. Industrialization almost everywhere has been accompanied by a veritable bloodbath and has eviscerated cultural/social capital in most places it has taken place. But excess centralization kills governance and eventually leads to political tensions.

      There may be no easy answers here actually.

  9. The statements put forth are thinking of education elitist, which has no value in country of approximately 1.2 billion people. Greed, bureaucracy and corruption has a vicious circle, it never ends. Baby boomers will have to let go the power and hand it to the new generation leaders who are selfless.

    1. The “baby boomer” term is meaningless in India. In the US, it refers to the generation born shortly after World War 2, in the aftermath of a devastating war, when people had lots of babies in the hope of a shining future.

      1. Makes me chuckle whenever I come across terms like ‘baby boomers’, ‘millenials’ out of their original contexts (USA, UK etc).

  10. I had grown up in Chennai but returned to spend a year in the city in 2019. Life has gotten better, it seems. But if you were American who only grew up in a big city, India would be appalling. The filth is daunting, let alone the massive symbols of wealth juxtaposed next to the poverty. There is trash everywhere. Open gutters. Open defecation. The rivers, like the Couum and Adyar, are gigantic sewers. Million dollar homes border these rivers, but the owners have no qualms parking their Range Rovers in their car ports while seemingly oblivious to the odiferous water bodies. Then again, there are astonishing places to eat, and massive malls peopled with young ones sipping on Starbucks or eating Burger King chicken sandwiches. Then again, does any of this matter if there is the constant stench of shit?

    I do have family in Mangalore, and parts of that coastal state are clean. I have heard that Kerala is clean, but these geographical regions are exception to the norm: India, a giant shithole brightly dotted with symbols of obscene wealth.

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