A blend of spices, cows, cow pats, sewage, chickens and incense combine to perfume the streets. Downpours of monsoon rain interrupt scorching 40 degree days in Rajasthan and take over completely in the cool mountains further north. Vibrantly-dressed women, children and men fill the streets, walking in-between vegetable and fruit sellers. A rush of waterfalls, swaying mountains and fast moving rivers; India is alive and beating; it is unlike any other country I know.
Gregory D Robert’s best-selling novel SHANTARAM claims that: ‘In India your heart always guides you more wisely than your head’. He goes on to say: ‘There’s no heart like the Indian heart’, and as far as I can tell he’s onto something. India is overflowing with sounds and sights: some heart-warming, others heart-breaking. Together they form India’s pulsing core.
Amidst all of the smells and smiles it’s easy to forget that 30% of India’s population live in poverty – 360 million individuals, each living without full access to food, water, shelter, education or health services.
India is a complex country with a long history of oppression of the poor. While India as a nation is experiencing tremendous economic growth and its influx in new businesses mean a new middle class is slowly emerging, its wealth is largely reserved for the educated, the urban and the social elite. Large colonial style hotels and houses are situated adjacent to city slums, palatial apartments sit side by side with makeshift housing, there is no physical separation of the rich and poor, they walk and live on the same streets; although their differences in quality of life ensure that they are worlds apart.
As a tourist traveling in India you are bombarded by images of poverty. It follows you everywhere you go and pervades everything you do. Infants playing by the sides of the road, children dressed in rags holding the hands of younger siblings, women begging for food, men with mutated limbs and malnourished bodies. Girls and boys tugging on your clothes and the sheer number of people with a barely concealed agenda to part you from your money are enough to ensure that you can’t visit India without some awareness of the extent of India’s poverty problem.
Without the safety net of a welfare state the poverty in India is all encompassing and it hits you in the form of an all-consuming mass of people. Sticking to the warnings that I’d been given to not give money to child beggars proved to be painful, though (I reminded myself) not as excruciating as the daily lives lived by many of India’s poorest. To be so fully surrounded by poverty, by wide eyed thin children, with sad faces and open palms and yet to be so incapable of helping in any significant way was exasperating. I found myself darting out of the way of the small children pulling on my clothes. It dawned on me that I was frightened: scared of their poverty and of the glaring differences between the difficulties that mark their lives and the indulgence that marks mine. Any attempt to help seemed to smack of first world arrogance and traces of imperialism.
It is important not to be disillusioned and disheartened by India’s seemingly endless social and economic issues. While huge divisions between those who have and those who have not still exist, this budding middle class, volunteer charities, a growing economy and government initiatives to supply food and basic necessities at controlled prices, ensure that the gap is increasingly closing. 300 million Indians now belong to the middle class; one-third of them have emerged from poverty in the last ten years. India is on track to cut poverty statistics in half, from 1990 to 2015.
India has so much to offer, and travellers should not let their fears persuade them against visiting this incredible country.
Photo courtesy of Meanest Indian