Tuesday, August 16, 2011

India's Extreme Situations...

Independent though she is, India must deal with extremes that range from delightful to excruciating. Presenting a country juxtaposed between centuries, the contradiction that is India.

India, a country caught between intense extremities, is home to both Antilla and to Dharavi. The Ambani's 27-storey house, Antilla, one of the world’s most expensive homes, was built at an estimated cost of $2 billion, holding 6 stories of parking, three helipads, nine elevators, and a ballroom of crystal chandeliers. Ironically, Antilla is located in the same city that houses Dharavi, one of the largest slums in the world. Spread over an area of 175 hectares, it is home to over a million people, and affords only one toilet per 1,440 residents.

India is a country of many centuries. Our roads play host in equal measure to the Bentley and Ferrari, as they do to the lowly bullock cart and hand-rickshaws, still prominently used in many cities across the country.

India’s universities and placements boast of international standards, and the country is seen as an emerging new academic destination globally. Yet, India has one of the largest illiterate populations in the world, with the highest number of labourers under 14 years of age. A UNESCO report estimates that 72 million primary school children are not in school, with a staggering 12.6 million children engaged in hazardous occupations.

While millions starve in a country ranked second in the world for the number of children suffering from malnutrition, India also witnesses abject waste in abundance. Food is hoarded for price rise, until rot sets in, and is no longer fit for human consumption. And across the cities, marriage halls hold feasts, while beggars outside scavenge through the garbage, looking for another day’s sustenance.

Feminine divinity is omnipresent in India. Depictions of Sita, Radha, Durga, Laksmi and Kali range from mounds of mud, and wood carvings to paintings, bronze statues, and poetic verse. The goddess is the centre of sacred festivals, and cities adorn themselves to win her favour. Conversely, female foeticide in India has acquired almost genocidal proportions. Sex-selective abortion has grown into a Rs. 1000 crore industry, and India’s sex ratio is skewed to the point of 940 females for every 1000 males.

India is known for her love of food, and has variations in cuisine that far outnumber the states in the country. The explosion in restaurant culture varies from international fare, to traditional cooking that traces its roots back a hundred years. This segment of life is, like much of India, accessible only to a small margin, and the larger, poorer sections of the population find their comfort and sustenance in the unobtrusive chai stall. Found at every street corner, the sweet, warm brew is the source of energy and strength for the majority, as they get through another day in a hard life.

Cricket is the closest thing India has to a single, unifying experience. The children in slums share the same mad passion for the game as do the gray-haired gentlemen enjoying a match at the cricket clubs. The game lends itself to many forms, and gully cricket, in its most basic avatar, has been the initiation of many of India’s finest batsmen, who left the narrow lanes of their childhood behind, to play under the bright lights of the IPL, a professional cricket league whose brand value is now estimated at $3.6 billion.

India holds claim to 17% of the world’s population, and one-third of the world’s poor. The World Bank estimates that 41% of Indians live below the poverty line, in situations of abject scarcity. While the majority of us reading this have seen birthday celebrations, and gifts from family and friends, many in India are born on the streets, without medical help or sanitation. They are not celebrated; instead their births are a burden, and their lives are hardship, ignored by most, on the pavements of India.

Dhobi ghats, ubiquitous to India, are where the city’s laundry traditionally gets done. Clothes are handwashed by the hundreds, and hung on clotheslines, to dry under the sun. Against this, the concept of the laundromat is slowly finding its feet in the country. Self-service laundry facilities offer coin-operated washing and drying machines to do your clothes. However, the high cost of the laundromat means that it will be some time before the dhobis are ousted from their position at the top of the laundry pile.

India’s telecommunication industry is the fastest growing in the world, and among the most progressive telecom markets. With 851.70 million mobile phone subscribers and a network second only to China, India has truly embraced technology. Parallel to this, India also has the most widely distributed postal system in the world, with 155,333 post offices across the country. India also has the highest post office in the world in Hikkim, Himachal Pradesh at a height of 15,500 feet (postal code - 172114).

India’s rapid economic growth in the last 2 decades has made air travel accessible to the ordinary Indian. The entry of several low-cost domestic airlines has enabled the connectivity of more than 80 cities across India, and the Mumbai-Delhi air corridor is ranked among the busiest routes in the world. India’s rail network, far more extensive, covers a distance of 64,015 km, and is said to be the 4th largest network in the world, carrying 10 billion passengers annually. The Mumbai Suburban Railway alone constitutes more than half of the total daily passenger capacity of the Indian Railways.

The National Commission for Women describes water as the most commercial product of the 21st century. Growing populations and changing lifestyles have led to an increased demand for fresh water; while agricultural, industrial and domestic sectors push the water tables deeper underground. In many villages, women have to walk distances of 2.5 to 5 km to fetch water. This time spent in fetching this water is equivalent to 150 million women days, and translates into a loss of 1000 crore per year. In callous contrast, water-themed parks have been spreading across the country, with viral popularity. Almost blind to the way the other half lives, the parks are always packed, as young and old alike, revel in the thrill of a water fight.

India is fast emerging a key player in the global arena of biotechnology. In a knowledge-intensive, research-driven sector, India has the skills and facilities to far surpass the best in the industry. Meanwhile, the UN estimates that four children die every minute in India, from tragically preventable illnesses, with nearly 1000 children dying every day from diarrhea alone.

India’s vision of becoming a world leader in nuclear power technology, with ambitions to supply 25% of the nation’s electricity through nuclear plants by 2050, falls in sharp contrast to the whopping 35% of population that live without access to electricity today.

India, the world’s spiritual epicentre, sees a steady river of devotees seeking divine salvation, flow through its holy cities nearly every month of the year. They seek cleansing in her ashrams and temples, in meditation and communal living. Yet, India’s godmen have been mired in controversy and corruption, and the community’s repute has been stained by the murky legacy of its villains.

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