Tag Archives: poverty

Sati and IT: Social Stats and the Bangalore Boom

Mobile phones and infant mortality, American call centres and drought-dead farmers, software outsourcing and burning wives: ironies of India’s growth.

Several classes of the course introduced socioeconomic issues.  In 1991 the Indian economy nearly collapsed when the Gulf War drove oil prices up.  This forced rapid liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation, which led to dramatic growth.  Standout stats I’ve heard: from 1991 to 2006, foreign reserve increased from US$1.5 million to $220 billion, and annual software exports grew from US$150 million to over $31 billion.  From 1997 to 2007, Telecom subscribers increased from 15 to 225 million.  From 2000 to 2005, mobile phone users grew from 3 million to over 100 million.

These figures are impressive, making India one of the emerging BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China), but India’s social problems remain huge.  “India’s economy offers a schizophrenic glimpse of a high-tech 21st century future amid a distressingly mediaeval past” (Edward Luce, 2006).  The country is still almost three-quarters rural.  Villagers often struggle to survive and over 10,000 drought-stricken farmers commit suicide annually (see Wikipedia here).  India has an average life expectancy of 63 years, 5.7% infant mortality, and 46% of kids under three years old are underweight – one million die of diarrhoea every year.

Living standards for the poor are increasing, but not as fast as for the rich, so the gap is growing.  In 1991 there was a single TV station.  In 2006 there were more than 150, bombarding the disadvantaged with advertising images of upper-class luxuries they’ll never afford.  This can fuel resentment.  I’ve heard compound fences in some parts are growing higher.


Another lecturer praised the high role of women in the earliest Indian religion, compared to their subservient status since.  Male children are strongly preferred because the bride’s family pays a high dowry, and a son must perform the funeral rituals.  Without these the parent’s soul cannot be reincarnated and becomes a “ghost”.  Female foeticide is rife, although many hospitals refuse to do prenatal gender testing and display a “no sex determination” sign.

India has 933 women for every 1000 men.  The paper reported the Northwest state of Punjab has only 739 women, so they are bought in from other states.  A woman costs about 3000 rupees.  A buffalo costs 30,000.  Baby girls are often abandoned in parks, trains, garbage heaps.  Sikh leaders have ordered Punjab gurudwaras to place cradles at the entrance so parents could leave “those innocent children at God’s door, not death’s”.

The custom of Sati, where a good widow is expected to burn herself alive on her husband’s funeral pyre, is of course illegal, as is honour killing of women who have shamed their family by supposed immorality or bringing an inadequate dowry.  In rural areas, however, a remarkably high number of women are burned in “kitchen accidents”.


In our final class on Friday, an HR consultant talked about Bangalore’s rapid IT boom, especially since Y2K computer panic in the USA increased the need to outsource software.  Call centre workers typically work night shifts, are given English names, learn Western accents, and earn more than others, so they expect Western lifestyles ­– as seen in the many brand-name outlets lining the Bangalore’s Brigade Road (header image above).  As well as IT, many Western doctors and lawyers have their dictated notes transcribed in Bangalore.  In The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century (2005) Thomas Friedman wrote:

It was somewhere between the interview with the Indian entrepreneur who wanted to do my taxes from Bangalore and the one who wanted to write my software from Bangalore, and the one who wanted to read my x-rays from Bangalore, and the one who wanted to trace my lost luggage from Bangalore…  I was realizing that, while I had been sleeping, while I had been off covering the 9/11 wars, I had missed something really fundamental in this globalization story. I had lost the thread, and I found it in Bangalore.

A few weeks ago the newspaper reported that traffic through Bangalore’s airport increased 40% over the last 12 months and that every day 500 new vehicles enter Bangalore’s streets (fewer than 963 per day in Delhi).  It wasn’t for nothing that in 2006 Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said:

Bangalore is a brand the world identifies India with. It is also the single biggest reason why India has become such a hot investment destination.

But of course this growth has a cost.  Last night in town I had to queue one hour to get an autorickshaw, which then took nearly one and a half hours to get back.  Both we and locals curse the boom time traffic!

Juggernauts, Monkeys and Maharajahs: Colours of Mysore

A mélange of cultures and technologies, brutal worship and courteous apes, vibrant markets and kingly dining.

Today we rose at 4:30 am for a 22-hour day trip to Mysore, the region’s historical capital 140 km south-west of Bangalore (see photos).  As we consumed cartons of Appy apple juice, the panorama unfolded outside the bus.  Mosque minarets were silhouetted against the dawn.  Workers clambered over lopsided bamboo scaffolding on construction sites.  Many buildings had lower floors completed and occupied, concrete-and-steel pillars sticking up on flat unfinished roofs.  (I heard this both avoids tax and allows for family growth.)  Multi-coloured clothes lines and saris hung several storeys to dry, splashing colour down grey walls.  White-uniformed kids lined up in a dirt school yard.  Unlike the Americans, blasé after Egypt, I was thrilled to see camels carrying loads.

In the West, new developments supersede the old: motor vehicles replace animal carts for transport, tractors replace bullocks for pulling ploughs, wheelbarrows replace shallow round trays on your head for shifting piles of earth.  In India, as we saw out the window, the latest technology is tacked on without discarding the past.  Nehru described the country as a palimpsest, a document of many histories and cultures written on top of each other, with none fully erased.  In India: a Wounded Civilisation, V. S. Naipaul criticised the way India absorbs the new and avoids any challenge to change.

We had our first view of Mysore from Chamundi Hill.  Here the goddess Chamundi slayed the evil demon Mahishasura.  His statue stood in the parking lot, with flowing black locks and generous moustache above clenched teeth and fangs; his right arm wielded a fierce scimitar, the left grasped a long snake.  The national ten-day Dussehra festival celebrates this victory of good over evil in South India, but in North India it commemorates the slaying of the demon Ravana by Lord Rama – legends often vary by region.

Filing through the temple, we glimpsed through receding gold and silver archways a tangled pile of floral garlands and jewellery that covered an idol.  No pics, ‘cos “Photo of goddess phrobhited”.  Outside the temple I was dwarfed by what seemed like a siege tower on wheels.  A removable flight of steps lead up to an empty pagoda with red pendants dangling at the corners from silver bamboo staffs.  It was topped by a cone festooned with white, green, red, orange, blue flags.  At the front, rusty cables were coiled and twin white wooden horses reared up on their hind legs.  The temple idol is taken out to see the world in this chariot, rolling on four shoulder-high, blood-red wooden wheels.  In central East India, crazed devotees used to throw themselves beneath the wheels of such a wagon that carried the idol of Jagannath (a title of Krishna), to die in ecstasy at their god’s feet – hence our word juggernaut.

The hilltop swarmed with hawkers wearing necklaces and belts of sunglasses.  Stalls sold plastic trinkets, flowers or coconuts to break as offerings, snacks and bottled Appy Fizz: “a cool drink to hang out with”.  I was leading on a parapet to photograph heaped coconut husks below when I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder.  I turned to say “No!” to the beggar or hawker and saw a polite monkey, who then continued along the wall.

Then we drove past colonial English buildings to the Maharaja’s Palace, rebuilt in 1912 after it burnt down in 1897.  It reminded me of European palaces, but with Indian and Muslim architecture.  A coat of arms bore a mythological Indian creature and Hindu temples punctuated the stone walls surrounding rose gardens and parade ground.  Apparently the royal bodyguards were paid a special allowance to keep their moustaches in good trim.

Inside were marbled floors from Italy, English mosaic tiles and a grandfather clock presented in 1860 by Queen Victoria, stained glass and cast iron pillars from Glasgow, and a collection of Continental souvenirs: Parisian statues, Belgian crystal, Venetian glass, along with Japanese porcelain vases.  Inlaid ivory doors and carved teak ceilings, royal family portraits, elephant heads from local hunting and tables with animal hoof legs.  In the car park outside, paper cones of roasted peanuts were sold from bicycles, vendors of wooden flutes played the Titanic theme song and Yankee-doodle.  I negotiated two flutes for 100R through the window as our bus pulled off.

India is a fantastic country, if (and only if) you are rich.  In Mysore I experienced the most brutal contrast yet.  Sweating through the sun and flies, we pushed past a pair of handless arm-stumps wanting food, safely up the steps into our bus.  A few minutes’ drive later, a uniformed footman saluted and opened a barrel-shaped door into a short basement tunnel, cool ice beneath the glass floor, which led to a softly lit, luxury theme restaurant.  Some tables were inside classic cars; my seat was a motorbike!  Waiters wore American cowboy hats and leather vests.  Maybe I’m an uncouth kiwi, but I do find it a bit much when an attendant (in the already overcrowded bathroom) insists on pulling paper towels from the dispenser for me.

After lunch three of us rickshawed to the Devaraja market.  Neat pyramids of apples, oranges, limes and coconuts; dangling brown and black wooden beads like rosaries; dazzling bangles; sacks overflowing with grains, spices, peppers; white, yellow, orange coiled flower wreaths; the smell of sandalwood and incense.  And a psychedelic painter’s palette of tikka or kumkum powder cones, scooped from square tins into scales and sold in paper cubes tied with string.  It’s used for cosmetic and religious forehead marking – different Hindu sects have different patterns.

Dragging the girls away from counters swimming with silks, we checked out the zoo.  More animals were cooped up behind bars than NZ zoos, but many roamed open fields behind ditches.  A sign warned “Please don’t cross the barricade.  Survivors will be prosecuted.”  The white tiger was new for me, but most entertaining were the baby monkeys chasing, springing, wrestling around outside any enclosure.  On the way back, the sun set behind green rice fields separated by muddy flooded paths, as a few farmers and a V-flock of birds straggled home.

Tools and Turnips: Twin Indias and Two Thanksgivings

Indian contrasts on the street: electronics and idols, Adidas and excrement, harvest and hunger, gratitude and guilt.

This weekend was the Ayudha Pooja festival, when Hindus worship their work tools and give thanks to their means of livelihood.  As in most festivals here, florists make a killing.  Shop fronts, market stalls, buses, trucks, tractors and bikes were all decorated with banana leaf branches; chunky yellow, orange, purple, white flower garlands; glistening tinsel or dangling tassels.  I heard drumming: tractors were pulling wagons through the street, carrying idols buried under bulky floral wreaths.  I saw a man circling an oil lamp and making offerings to his car – candles burning before the front bumper – as to a temple idol.  I spotted a garlanded transformer in a power substation, and was told that office PCs are also praised in ancient rituals.

It’s another taste of Indian contrasts.  Our first lecturer on the course said there are really two Indias: first world “India” and third world “Bharat” (the Hindu name for India).  There’s the educated 40% of middle-upper class Indians who enjoy Western comforts, and the struggling, often illiterate 60% who seem lost in the dark ages.  I’ve experienced this myself on a half-hour walk in Bangalore or Pondicherry:

Behind plate-glass in air-con cool, yuppies patronise Nokia and Adidas outlets, alongside a blaze of sari fabrics and then a superette: Colgate toothpaste, Kellogg’s cornflakes and Cadbury chocolate; electric toasters and cordless kettles; shelves of idolettes and incense holders, mangoes and milky sweets.   A 21st-century Western city spiced with an exotic tinge.

In front of the glass is a dirt-cum-concrete footpath with missing slabs that expose the aromatic drain a foot or more below.  Stray dogs pick at melons rotting in the heat.  A small boy tugs at your sleeve, a wizened old lady begs for a cent, a young woman moves hand up to mouth and back, entreating food for her baby.  And all around you the civic band is tuning: buses, motorbikes, rickshaws trumpet their sluggish frustration; truck horns blare stuck-record tunes; people cry out in strange tongues.

On a block of narrow shop fronts, chemist counters are packed with bottles and vials and boxes; medical clinics advertise x-rays and tests for stool, urine, blood, sputum; tailors sew trousers; cobblers mend shoes; mechanics fix motorbikes or radios or watches; astropalmists predict your future; flies crawl over skinned chickens beside tottering piles of dodgy DVDs.  All the life of the city is on display like a row of booths in a fair.

Saunter for a minute down a small side street, and you’re in a rural village.  Goats pick over a garbage heap and cows tied under a thatched roof supply the farmyard aroma.  A man urinates, a child defecates, a woman sweeps with a twig broom.  It could be the Middle Ages, if you don’t look up at the drooping tangle of wires.  Around the corner is a religious bazaar.  Through a multicoloured, poly-statued gate, worshippers glimpse a bronze deity by the flickering light of a priest’s oil lamp.  A mosque minaret wails the prayer call.  Turbaned Sikhs gather in a gurudwara, or Christians pray in church.

We attended a different sort of thanksgiving celebration today.  The local Whitefield Memorial Church (founded 1886) celebrated the goodness of God’s creation and the earth’s produce in its annual Harvest Festival Service.  Cauliflowers, marrows, coconuts, pineapples, carrots and corn coloured the windowsills, and a huge pumpkin rested before the altar.  The congregation belted out classic English hymns with gusto.  A salt-cellar, pitcher of water, bunch of flowers, winnow of rice, basket of fruit, unleavened loaf and a decanter of wine were paraded in with matching prayers.  ECC director Dr Chacko preached on the ten lepers healed by Jesus, of whom only one returned with gratitude – “were not ten made clean, but where are the other nine?”

Then was the annual church fete, which also had an English feel with a jumble sale, lucky dip, skittles, and guessing a cake’s weight competitions.  The scrum at the Indian food stalls showed less Anglo-Saxon reserve.  It was a pleasantly fun and festive scene.  As I left, however, I ran the guilty gauntlet of beggars seated outside and I recalled another gospel story: poor, starving Lazarus at the feasting, rich man’s gate.  I made eye contact and smiled at one beggar-lady, who then followed me plaintively down the lane.  Is it better to stride coldly, unseeingly past as many locals do?

I’m recovering from the initial shock of Indian streets and sometimes wonder what my problem was at first – walking around isn’t that terrifying!  Now the tension between the two Indias is starting to emerge in more troubling ways, which may not so easily go away.