In the last couple of years India has experienced an economic growth unlike many other countries. The country has become a centre of information technology, and its trade is expanding. Shortly, India will become a powerful player in the global economy as well as in world politics, with a middle class that is growing fast. In spite of all this, India still battles with problems such as corruption, and a large part of the population suffers from poverty and income inequalities. The UPF Travel Committee wanted to know more about the home country of Gandhi and Tata, so we decided that the longer trip of 2011 would go to India. Once the decision was made it soon became clear that it would be impossible to try to cover all of India in the relatively short time we had. Instead we decided upon exploring some of the largest cities; New Delhi, Jaipur and Mumbai, as well as some of the smaller cities Agra, Patna and Udaipur.
What first struck me when I arrived to India (apart from the heat) was the huge amount of people, which really should come to no surprise knowing that India has the second largest number of inhabitants in the world, but it still managed to. People were everywhere and a great many of them seemed to be doing nothing. Later on we were told that because of the houses often being so small, people prefer being out in the street socializing rather than spending time at one’s place. This also reflected that the poverty is quite visible in India. There were beggars everywhere, women sleeping in the street corners with their newborn babies next to them and children approaching cabs asking for some coins to be spared. Despite India’s financial upswing, the positive results mostly affect a rather small part of the society. Leaving a large part of the population, especially women and people in rural areas, unaffected by the economical progress.
In Patna, a relatively small city about one hour up the country from New Delhi, we were invited to a traditional Indian wedding. It was an amazing experience to see different types of wedding ceremonies and Indian traditions. To get the opportunity to chat with guests that had traveled from all over India and eat off the many dishes. An Indian wedding lasts for several days, and we were only there for a couple of hours. Still, we got to see the engagement as well as the actual wedding ceremony which took place just hours after the engagement.
Back in New Delhi we visited the Swedish embassy where they informed us about the relationship between India and its neighbors as well as problem areas within India. But above all we talked about corruption, a big problem in India, something that became even more of a burning topic just weeks ago when news spread of Anna Hazare, an activist who went on a hunger strike to protest against the corruption. After almost two weeks Hazare broke his strike, in connection to a statement made by the Indian Parliament, promising they would take stronger measures against corruption.
In Jaipur, also known as the Pink City, located in the desert of Rajasthan, we visited a non-profit organization called Saarthak. Saarthak’s aim is to reduce poverty through the empowerment and education of women and children. The situation for women in India has much approved over the last years with several laws to guarantee equality and women in high positions in society (the current president of India is a woman). Still, for many it is difficult, especially for those living in the slums, where illiteracy is still very common and education is not prioritized. Saarthak offers education for women and children in geographical areas where they are most vulnerable, for instance in the slums. In these small schools they learn basic Hindi and English, Mathematics, computer skills and family planning. Participating in the Saarthak program requires the husbands’ approval, and the day of our visit two women had left the program due to that their husbands had changed their minds. Saarthak believes that it is through education poverty will be extirpated; without education you are unaware of your rights as a citizen, and this is not just a problem for women; it is the reality for many of the people living in the slums all over the world. Dharavi is the name of one of these slums. Located outside Mumbai, it is one of the biggest slums in the world, with its own shops and schools. The people that work in Dharavi do all kinds of duties, for example they clean plastic cans and oilcans and they dye fabric that are then sent to textile factories where they are made in to saris. Guided through Dharavi by people native of the slum we got to talk to the locals living and working there. The working conditions are the one thing you notice immediately, the small factories are often dirty and they lack proper lighting. Often there is a smell of oil and burned plastic present. Our guide told us that many of the workers get sick by working in these conditions and it was not hard to understand why. But even though the working conditions seemed poor to us, our guide told us that there is a certain sense of pride to belong to Dharavi, to be a part of that community. And though he himself did not live there anymore, he would always be returning back to Dharavi.
All in all the trip to India was very rewarding. We got to experience poverty and a class system unlike ours, but we also came across a great deal of hospitality and helpfulness. One thing is for certain, we were there too briefly to say that we are know perfectly familiar with the Indian culture, but I think we at least can say that we caught a glimpse of the diversity that India represents.