Reflections of Summer in India (Part 1)

Within the span of barely 4 hours, there have been more than 5 power outages. Right here, at NITI Aayog. It has to be some kind of sick irony. NITI, after all, stands for National Institution for Transforming India. In other words, this is the government institution whose very existence is meant to propose reforms towards a better India. Yet, standing in the very heart of the governmental/parliamentary districts of Delhi, the capital of India, power outages have been accepted by us interns (as well as the disturbing lack of work spaces) as a commonplace occurrence.

I can already hear the accusations labeling me as an outsider/foreigner who is looking at India with a bloated superiority complex. Perhaps, I am, although I certainly try not to. Yet, there is a lot of merit in the facts that cannot be denied. There is a difference between an intern asking for an office with air-conditioning to work in, and one that just wants a table, chair and functioning lights. The first is certainly pampered, demanding and ignorant.

One may also point to the fact that India is a country of poverty – for me to make demands as if I expect it to be like my home country, Singapore, is to oblivious of reality. That, too, is untrue. Furthermore, one has to ask: how far can someone blame everything that comes short within a country simply on its poverty?

Yes, India has the world’s largest population living in poverty, but that cannot explain the lack of proper roads, old and dilapidated buildings, etc. When asked why the mountain roads in Mussoorie sometimes have no safety railing, the answer comes as if it were common sense. “The British made these roads when they were here.” As if that were adequate to answer such a question. If the conditions of the past is an excuse for the problems of the present, then what is the purpose of advancement? Why do we drive cars and not ride horses? Why do we have technology if we can still write on paper? In other words, just because these roads were made by the British doesn’t mean it should stay the way it is! In fact, it is that very reason it should be rebuilt! Those roads were made for horses and carriages, which are far more narrow than cars. It’s not even a minor feature I’m nitpicking at, for these are mountain roads, which can result in life-threatening accidents!

Another example is water. Yes, I lived my entire life in Singapore, where the water supply was never a problem. It is a developed country, wealthy and prosperous economically, and one small enough to be easily managed. The two other countries I’ve lived in for extended periods of time were: 1. China, and 2. the UK. Let’s not touch on the second – although I see it as a plateauing economy soon to spiral into chaos, it is still very much a developed one. China, on the other hand, had given me the most similar experiences. As a child, I grew up in one of those mountains in Sichuan (which, for the life of me, I cannot remember the name of), and in those days, we used to take bucket baths, because the water pipes wouldn’t work properly in the winter. For some obscure reason, in India, while bucket baths are not the norm, the flow of water in the shower is 1/3 of what I get anywhere else, 1/2 at best. From what I’ve learnt through my research during my internship, it is not the water pipe system that is the problem per se, but that 60% of water being transported is lost underground. This situation has been around for a while, but still, has not seen any solution.

Both these examples, however, brings me to a political reality of India, which, as a contrast to the tone in the rest of this post, is much more positive. I’ve also learnt that Delhi, as a city, was much cleaner, safer and modern just a few years back, when the previous government was in power. The reason? The current political party in government is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Delhi, a union territory and a first-level administrative division, has long supported the opposition, which is why when the BJP came into power, the city slowly and slowly began to fall in disrepair. Many of the reconstruction projects under the previous government were halted, with the BJP playing-off the populations protest against temporary relocations. This kind of political tension, to me, actually speaks volumes about the richness of Indian political life, and how much it is entwined with the people’s lives.

Is that necessarily a good thing? Definitely not. However, I grew up in Singapore, which is, at best, a competitive authoritarian state. Anyone who argues that it is a democracy is simply deluded. In all these decades of independence, we haven’t seen any real opposition and political movements are next to none. In Edinburgh, peaceful marches and protests, bringing awareness of various issues, are commonplace. In Singapore, I have never, in my 20 years there, seen a single true political march. There is no freedom of assembly or association. I couldn’t even hold my own in an argument in class when I wanted to claim that Singapore was not a one-party state, because it is. Politics, in Singapore, has become such a hush-hush and detached element that most folks don’t even see it as a problem. While political party changes in India have resulted in economic slumps, etc., there is the promise that a vote can count. There is, of course, corrupt practices, etc., but the very fact that power has changed hands before, and resulted in real changes, means that the people are very aware of their right to determine how they are ruled. It is not a consciousness that I truly had before going outside of Singapore.

And this consciousness is seen by the way people talk about politics. They are unafraid to voice their dissatisfaction, their alliances, and the changes they want to see. Yes, Singaporeans complain, but like many have criticised, that is all we do. We complain and complain. Most of the time, nothing happens. If it gets too loud, the government makes a small little concession, and people quieten down. Just as an example: education. We’ve been complaining about how stressful the PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examinations) is, pointing to the kind of lifestyles the children in Singapore live – from even before Primary School (before 7), they have tuition day-in and day-out – for years. It took suicides, of 11-year olds, before the voice got loud enough for the government to make a change. Instead of making any real change, now sports and arts are merited. People then quietened down. There was no real change. Things actually got worseNow students are not only expected to get their straight A*s, they must also excel in all other areas. Yet, we just went back to normal complaining?

This is why I quite admire the fact that people actually actively involve themselves in politics in India, whether or not it is positive or negative. It’s just so strange for a human being to give up that much control over the circumstances of their own lives without fighting for it.

However, that does not change the problem that too many people here in India have often swept away my criticisms with “we’re a poor country” or “the British did this”. With all due respect, there needs to be a period of transition given for poverty to be eradicated, and for a developing country to become more developed. And with a country as large as this one, it takes decades. Still, I can’t help feeling that there is something wrong when ‘poverty’ becomes a word used as if that were a stagnant truth, and the past as an excuse for the present, when independence happened quite a while back. While many things would not have changed…at least renovate your roads!

(In the process of making this post, I experienced yet another 4 outages.)

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