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Very few countries are as exotic to Americans as India. “Incredible India!” shouts the slogan of the government tourist board. I don’t quite believe it, and neither should you.
India gets only 0.5 percent of the world’s tourists, even though it has the Taj Mahal and the Himalayas. In 2006 it had 4.5 million visitors, ranking 42nd internationally. Croatia and South Africa attracted almost twice as many travelers. Although India has dramatically improved its airports, hotels, transport, and other aspects of its travel infrastructure, the country still is not particularly tourist-friendly. A big reason is that the poverty is in your face the moment you step out of the airport.
I remember the mother of a French friend of mine who worked for a social service agency in a suburb of Paris. When she flew to Bombay for the first time, she was accosted by a horde of street children at the airport. Overcome by their youth, their destitution, she opened her bags right there on the sidewalk. Within minutes her bags were picked clean.
The first time you travel to India you should, if you have a social conscience, be affronted. Outrage is also okay. Not just because of the poverty visible all around you but also because the rich live so well in the midst of the poor. The rich live well because of the poor—outside every high-rise apartment building is a colony of maids, electricians, launderers, drivers, babysitters, cooks. Your hotel will have a similar encampment from which it draws the staff that caters to your every whim. Just notice the number of waiters who flock to your table when you need something; all you have to do is raise your head and someone will appear. There are always three people for every job.
You will feel like shit, frankly, staying in sybaritic opulence when just outside your hotel is squalor. While sipping your $20 cocktail at one of the swanky new bars, you might convert the price to rupees and figure out that it’s equal to a month’s salary for many Indians. You will feel even worse when your hotel Mercedes passes people sleeping on the sidewalk, when beggars thrust their maimed and deformed children at you. I felt ashamed and guilty when I returned to Bombay to live—and I was born there.
The country has achieved an enormous amount in the 60 years since independence: It’s accomplished the greatest transfer of political power in history, from a small elite to the vast majority of its one billion people. But the political power-sharing has not been matched by a sharing of the economic spoils. Four of the ten richest people on the Forbes World’s Billionaires list this year are Indian; close to 87,000 Indian farmers committed suicide between 2001 and 2005 because they couldn’t pay their debts.
As a thinking, feeling human being, how do you deal with this disconnect? You could argue that the money you spend trickles down. After all, every hotel employs an army of attendants, clerks, and guards, each of whom gets some small share of the several hundred dollars a night you pay for your room, and most of them support extended families with it. India needs your tourist dollars, the rich as well as the poor.
And you could give money. Not to the beggars who parade their babies—although, what the hell, if you gave them 50 rupees it wouldn’t be the end of the world. You could give money to any of the hundreds of organizations trying to make life better for the poor. Or you could give your time and your sweat. Some tourists volunteer at Mother Teresa’s hospices for the poor in Calcutta. Others go to places like Bhopal, to work at the Sambhavna Trust Clinic, which provides medical services to the survivors of the 1984 corporate massacre known as the Union Carbide gas leak.
Unless you commit to several months or years, you are not going to be able to do much good for the clients of the NGOs you’re working with. But it’s okay; you’re making an effort, and it’s a beginning.
Most Americans travel within an America in India: the five-star hotel, the air-conditioned car, the staged cultural show. Do what Bill Clinton sometimes did—get out of your car and wade into the crowd. If you’re shocked by the poverty, your shock should lead you to try to understand the roots of the poverty. Understand what colonialism, the caste system, religious strife, globalization, and corruption have done to create a nation that has 400 million citizens who are illiterate but also the world’s third-largest pool of scientists; where levels of malnutrition are greater than sub-Saharan Africa’s yet the economy will likely overtake America’s by the middle of the century. The greatest gift you can give India is to understand its complexity—before trying to do something about it.
Go ahead, meet the poor directly. They won’t harm you. Unlike, say, in Brazil or South Africa, poverty in India is not associated with violent street crime, muggings, carjackings. You can take a prearranged tour of the slums in Bombay or Delhi, mostly led by non-Indians who cater to tourists eager to know a more authentic India. Or save your dollars—it’s the easiest thing in the world to see the slums. Just ask a waiter or a doorman or a taxi driver to take you to his home. It’s there you will discover an India you can believe in.
Suketu Mehta is the author of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, a Pulitzer Prize finalist.