I recently read a brief article on a website called Democratic Paper, wherein the author argues that the western media seems to want to paint a picture of India as a third world nation. The main thrust of the article centred on a series of photos that showed the modern side of India: its skyscrapers, its new cutting edge architecture, such as the wonderful Lotus Temple in Delhi, and even its new freeway overpasses! Interestingly, most of the photos are taken from the air and are devoid of people, something that did not escape the attention of those commenting on the article.
The western media does have a tendency to focus on India’s problems: poverty, corruption, and its rates of rape and other violent crimes against women, which have been incorrectly reported as being the highest in the world. In reality, India has a relatively low rate of rape – Australia’s is fifteen times higher (per capita). I will be writing another essay about this soon.
It is certainly too simplistic to say that India is a ‘poor’ or ‘third-world’ nation: it is a country of immense wealth and immense poverty. While the number of people living below the poverty line is decreasing, the gap between rich and poor is increasing, and I wonder whether this growing divide is the reason why I sensed a tinge of embarrassment between the lines of the article in question: are rich Indians embarrassed by the poverty that surrounds them?
Perhaps this is a stretch. Perhaps it is not only a matter of embarrassment, but frustration with the difficulties of living in a large Indian city. These frustrations have seen many rich Indians moving to gated communities, the numbers of which have exploded over the last few decades. There are now gated communities on the outskirts of every major Indian city, and even some of the smaller ones.
These communities, which have idyllic and even whimsical names like ‘Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head’ (a compound in Bangalore), often have their own clubhouses, restaurants, tennis courts and even schools. They present the opportunity to live in a cocoon of affluence away from the noise, squalor and poverty that exists beyond their walls. Inside, the residents live in spacious villas with manicured lawns sitting on hyper-clean streets. An article published in the New York Times clearly demonstrate the advantages: while many residents in Gurgaon, a bourgeoning metropolis 32 kilometres south-west of New Delhi, are without power for long periods daily, the residents of a gated community, Hamilton Court, enjoy an uninterrupted supply. The water they drink is sometimes freighted to them, at enormous expense, while those dwelling in slums only a stones throw away, drink water full of contaminants and microorganisms.
Gated communities provide Indians the opportunity to pretend they are not living in India, and the other side of the coin is pretending that they are living somewhere else, somewhere ‘western’. Perhaps they dream that one day they will drive beyond the walls of their compounds to find their city transformed into a western one, and maybe this is the reason for the photos in the article, which could have been taken in any western city in the world.
The desire to escape seems bizarre from my perspective. As a traveler in India, I grew to love the noise and teeming masses of people, the chaotic and lively streets. Interestingly, the one place that I did not like was Chandigarh. Compared to other Indian cities, it is drab and lifeless. It was a painful reminder of home, of what a city loses when people drive everywhere rather than walk, where the sprawling mix of residences and commerce give way to strip shopping and residential complexes.
I am acutely aware that this is a hypocritical view. As much as I love India, I would not want to live there. As I lament the growth of gated communities and cities like Chandigarh, I have the luxury of escaping and returning to my comfortable life in Australia, where I sit around researching articles like this, washing down some $50 a kilo Italian gorgonzola with a glass of Barossa Shiraz.
Australia is ultimately one big gated community, protected by oceans instead of high walls, and whose citizens, including myself, indulge in a game of make-belief, just as the elite of India do. Whether we live behind walls or beyond oceans, this self-imposed solitary confinement has the same effect: it limits our empathy, just as it limits the region in which we live our lives. The world over, the rich are turning their backs on the poor, walling themselves off or creating laws to prevent the poor and the needy from imposing on their lives, just as Australia’s odious asylum-seeker policies do. This is not the answer. We need to feel more empathy, not less.