India’s way of life may seem desolate to many on the world stage. From inadequate infrastructure to poor sanitary systems, this vast country rich in history as well as natural resources, is often unfairly categorized as a third world country or an emerging superpower. As one travels around the country, from village to village, city to sprawling city, comparisons to developed countries fall away as inspiration from the systems which do work in India begin. The Indian toilet has worked for billions of people for thousands of years, so why can’t other smart systems of India be translated to the rest of the world?
From the late 1990’s through most of the early 2000’s, the western world was on a brisk clip to convert as much farm land into newly developed strip malls and condominiums as the public would consume. Attached parking lots replaced the native foliage with individual spaces large enough to house trucks almost big enough to be deemed a tank. India also experienced accelerated growth both in housing and commercial endeavors. However, instead of the gluttonous poor urban planning of building out, India builds up.
Land parcels are a premium, especially in the urban city centers where the population boom from villagers seeking a better economic life continue to stream en mass. Housing projects on the outer fringes of suburbia are massive multi-floor towers with retail stores built within the ground floor spaces. In the villages where open land is more abundant yet still costly, newly built single story structures are capped with steel rods protruding from unfinished cement columns, a sign of future growth upward. Buildings are tightly connected to one another keeping a sense of a closely connected community while being conscious of the land space used. The backyard isn’t a lush green lawn, it’s a garden growing various vegetables which will help offset the cost of food bought in the market.
4 Lane Roads to Nowhere
Road conditions of India are often called into question. Images of dusty gravel paths barely wide enough to fit a bicycle yet doubling as the major highway still pervade the thoughts of many. And in some ways these images are accurate. Narrow winding stretches of broken asphalt roads double as the footpath and motorway for most of the rural villages of India. Western developers would shake their heads in disgust that there isn’t a properly graded, two lane road with wide shoulders outfitted by guard rails and an endless amount of posted signs warning of bumps, slow kids, animal crossings, scenic highways and more. But these roads are connecting small villages of 300, 200, 100, 50, even just 25 inhabitants with the rest of India’s modern highway system.
India either hasn’t devoted the money (thankfully) or realizes the ridiculousness of building 4 lane roads to nowhere. Drivers strategically dodge stray cows and goats as villagers collecting fodder on the roadsides step out of the way of oncoming traffic. Slow trucks are overtaken by horn blaring mini-cars speeding toward market. Motorbikes breeze through the tightest of spots in-between hand-pushed food carts and bullock powered farm trailers. Multi-lane highways are sold as safer, more productive means of transport yet it takes years to build small sections by hand as it is and rural inhabitants are often displaced by the end result. India’s love affair with the automobile is a blessing and a curse. Let’s hope TATA or Mahindra don’t squash mass-transit as GM did the trolley.
Cheap, Fresh Food
Eating on the cheap is a perk to the body, mind and budget for a tourists of India. Inflation is beginning to make that a sad thing of the past. Western countries rely on the bulk of their food to be purchased at local stores. True, there are farmer’s markets and the hobby farmer who plants what they can during short growing seasons. However unlike India, where fresh produce is purchased and consumed on a near everyday basis, transportation costs in other countries (where it’s common to move food grown in one corner of the country to another) racks up a high percentage of the total selling price. India grows the majority of the staple foods found in their traditional cuisine. That basic need to eat what comes from close to home keeps costs much lower than countries obsessed with “exotic” ingredients, portion sizes out of line with caloric needs, and food waste from restaurants or simple overabundance of stocked refrigerators. One look at used plates left by an Indian family versus foreign tourists at a restaurant in India will exemplify the difference in appreciation for the relationship between food source and final presentation.
Power cuts at any time of the day quickly remind local residents and wandering travelers how fragile India’s power grid remains. Metropolitan businesses combat this disruption with massive generators which help to bridge the gap between power failures and power-full times. Even so there is always a sense of conservation among Indians. Villagers cluster under the illumination of a single fluorescent bulb to conserve electricity and money. Switches to fans, lights, hot water geysers, and just about anything else that requires electricity are clicked off immediately after use. Water is used sparingly, partially due to the laborious task of walking several kilometers in some places and because of an ingrained mentality not to waste, even with indoor plumbing. And rarely do you see a car in rural India with just one person. In fact, the general rule of a vehicle is it will be either full, or really really full. Spend a day with an average Indian to learn what low consumption really means.
Budget Hotel Doesn’t Mean No Frills
A room at a budget hotel outside of India includes a plastic key to a room outfitted with a bed, a TV with cable, a desk with WiFi, and a bathroom. Nothing more or nothing less all for around $59 or higher. There is no luggage assistance, no staff to help with any extra needs other than a lowly paid front desk employee, and breakfast consists of coffee, self-made toast and juice. At least you get free parking.
A room at a budget hotel in India first involves meeting the owner. After agreeing on a price (because hotel prices are never fixed) guests then meet the staff of young Indian men who double as luggage handlers, room service attendants, meal preparers and tour guides. As one guy hauls luggage into the room another guy is making hot chai. Freshly made dinner can be ordered for nominal charges and eaten either in the room, again brought by a member of staff, or taken in the dining room. Early morning chai is no problem nor a hot breakfast prepared to order. The usual amenities are included as well such as a bed, TV with satellite, WiFi (sometimes), and a bathroom. Oh, and the staff may do your laundry if asked nicely. Prices range from Rs 200 to Rs 1000 ($4 to $20).
Over Regulated, Over Built, Over Sanitized
The US is stereotypically known for being the land of big people, and even bigger buildings. Acres and acres of open land stretch between cities. Every 40 or 50 miles you’re sure to find a highway rest stop. During the late 90’s and early 2000’s, these useful stops designed to give weary drivers a safe place to break, sleep, grab a snack and take care of natural business, begin remodeling to reflect the outlandish lifestyle the country was adopting. What used to be a one man plastic shed attached to a hole in the ground turned into sprawling buildings made from brick, logs, and metal. Modestly small buildings that housed a few toilets for each sex were removed for massive structures with open-air two story lobbies filled with nothing but tourism brochure racks and coke machines. The feeling of nothingness is only preceded by the feeling of wastefulness.
Outside the mammoth buildings are obnoxiously large parking lots built to hold a predetermined number of cars which never, ever will be filled at one time. Over-regulation requires a certain number of stalls, marked to an exact width, must cover an exact amount of space which also must be only so close to the building yet only so far from the highway.
Of course the upkeep costs were factored into budgets which assumed good times would roll on. There was little room for an economic collapse. As the world markets melted down, one by one many of these McMansion rest stops were closed due to deteriorating road maintenance budgets. One only had to look at India’s system of relying on highway dhabas to provide neat and clean, comfortable rest stops. Drivers can find not just toilets, but home cooked meals plus cold refreshments to rejuvenate themselves. And the best part is the government bears no expense. In fact they earn money on the taxable sales of food and beverage. Gravel parking lots make room for as many cars a needed. And no-one complains that the space isn’t wide enough.
Bargain for Goods
How many times have you heard people say “Oh that’s too much!” What choice do we have in the western world? There are very few places where one can haggle for basic daily needs or services. Fixed prices aren’t civilized business, it’s profit control for corporations.
It Takes a Village to Make a Country
What happened to rural life where small towns and cities were self sustaining? Locally grown food only had to travel from field to market a few miles. Basic goods and services were attended to by local business owners with few reasons to leave for the big city unless residents wanted some fresh ideas. Now our food is transported in by truck, rail, even plane. Big box stores have driven out (for various reasons good and bad) local merchants who knew their customers by name, replaced with hourly workers who drive up to an hour away to work in a neighborhood they barely know. Western society used to have strong beliefs in community values which placed a premium on taking care of family and neighbors. That has been replaced by bargain hunting for the cheapest plastic toy made in China.
Indian villages on the other hand still grow their own food spending multiple hours of the day tending to crops. The yield doesn’t cover all of a family’s needs but it certainly cuts out a large portion which is then subsidized by way of the local markets. Local tailors can still produce a made-to-order outfit in under 24 hours. The milk man still delivers by bicycle. And Grandma is still hailed as a saint.
Twice I’ve had to seek the advice of a physician while traveling in India; twice the bill was less than $10 USD for an office visit, x rays and prescription drugs. The usual layers and layers of Indian regulation red tape is either non-existent or a small percentage of cost for out-of-pocket patients. The health care systems of the western world are severely broken for many reasons. Somehow both sides need to connect to offer simple access to medical professionals at affordable rates with or without insurance. In India, a few dollars out of pocket gets you in to see a private doctor without an appointment and with little waiting.
Europe is miles ahead of the US in respect to viable passenger rail systems and inner city mass transit operations. And while there are many notable standouts among American cities in regard to well executed light rail/subway/bus operations, the majority of the country pails in comparison to the network of mass transit available in India. Even the smallest villages are connected by rail or bus. A small bus in the village connects to a larger bus in the next town which connects to a railhead in the next city which connects to an airport, etc. Best of all it’s affordable for nearly every passenger. Is this such a foreign concept to duplicate?
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