...in the bottom drawer
I knew I'd lose it so I put it in a safe place, and now I can't remember where it is.

currently stashed in: Cheshire Street, London
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November 04, 2005 || 6:26 pm
India - the full report

After Friday afternoon filing and emails, finally I have half an hour to write, more fully, about my time in India last week.

General impressions: I expected India to be huge, chaotic and poor, but it was vastly more of all of these than I had imagined. I couldn't really believe how the country manages to function as one of the world's largest economies. Somehow, perhaps, all the news that features here about the IT industry, call-centres, Bollywood stars and new luxury resorts on the beach had made me imagine that there was beginning to be a semblance of order and organisation about the country, and a growing middle-class. I'm sure these things are happening, but the appearance of everything we saw, from the headquarters of a major fabric mill making all Levi's jeans, through to the Delhi Secretariat, was exactly as you might imagine from the mid 1960s - terribly shabby offices, erratic electricity, extraordinary flunkeys, whirring overhead fans and broken lifts being among the more endearing features.

In the streets of even 'middle-class' areas, you can see the infrastructure creaking visibly. Every electricity pole has a hundred makeshift connections to it. Buildings groan with badly-built additions, extensions and dangerous-looking cantilevers. While we were there, the newspapers were full of how late monsoon rains had brought chaos to the IT centre of Bangalore, flooding the entire city and embarrasing the authorities, who were attempting to hold a marketing event to new IT companies. Of course, the 'real' slum areas are absolutely appalling too - but, callous as it might seem, I had expected that more than the general chaos of the 'regular' neighbourhoods.

Amazing facts: that only 3% of the population pay income tax. Half are still illiterate. The area of slums doubles every ten years and by 2020, Bombay will be 90% slums. In many cities, less than 10% of the area has sewage lines. Is the headlong, unstoppable rush that the country is experiencing going, in fact, forward or back? How on earth does the country stay together?

I might say that I don't know how it is even possible to install functioning urban infrastructure - roads, sewers, electricity lines - across a city as congested and densely inhabited as Delhi, with its 14 million inhabitants. Yet one man who we met - the engineer Himanshu Parikh, who has been working on a method he calls 'Slum Networking' for the last twenty years - managed to install sewage lines with capacity for the entire city of Indore (pop. at that time 1.4m) in only four years, through his perceptiveness about the city's urban grain and his absolutely simple, elegantly designed solution to the problem. So it is possible - although, talking to him, I felt deeply his frustrations with the slowness and terrible corruption of government, through whom such projects have to be managed.

And equally, we met children who are part of the extraordinary CLEAN-India programme in Delhi - utterly committed, knowledgeable activists for the environment achieving fantastic results on an intimate, networked scale in their communities. It was quite astounding to see thirteen-year-olds dealing with professionals as equals, demanding to know when their next meeting would be, telling them when they were wrong, initiating their own projects and wanting to see them get done.

So, altogether an incredible trip. I could write more - the fantastic food, the shocking disparity in prices, and so on - maybe I'll do a Part 2 before too long. But in the mean time, you can look at some of my photos here - and here's one to get you started. Happy (late) Diwali and Eid.

In Delhi Old Town



Can you tell us more about Clean India? Do you think that community network activism could work here?

By Anonymous Ben, at 4:21 pm  

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