Reflections on India

And People Wonder Why The Lights Go Out In Delhi So Often?Editor’s Note: This blog post was written more than four years ago. If you want to know if and how my opinions on India have changed see this post. Better yet, why not, instead of limiting your exposure to me by one piece of writing, why not try and read all that I wrote on India while I traveled there, which can be found here. Do you agree with me? Disagree with me? Leave a comment. I enjoy debate and I do not mind being proven wrong so long as there is evidence to back it up. So, leave a comment.

Even better than that, why not put my blog into your RSS feed, as I write about a myriad of subjects, not just India. That’s it. Now, here’s the story you came to read——>

If you are Indian, or of Indian descent, I must preface this post with a clear warning: you are not going to like what I have to say. My criticisms may be very hard to stomach. But consider them as the hard words and loving advice of a good friend. Someone who’s being honest with you and wants nothing from you. These criticisms apply to all of India except Kerala and the places I didn’t visit, except that I have a feeling it applies to all of India, except as I mentioned before, Kerala. Lastly, before anyone accuses me of Western Cultural Imperialism, let me say this: if this is what India and Indians want, then hey, who am I to tell them differently. Take what you like and leave the rest. In the end it doesn’t really matter, as I get the sense that Indians, at least many upper class Indians, don’t seem to care and the lower classes just don’t know any better, what with Indian culture being so intense and pervasive on the sub-continent. But here goes, nonetheless.

India is a mess. It’s that simple, but it’s also quite complicated. I’ll start with what I think are India’s four major problems–the four most preventing India from becoming a developing nation–and then move to some of the ancillary ones.

First, pollution. In my opinion the filth, squalor and all around pollution indicates a marked lack of respect for India by Indians. I don’t know how cultural the filth is, but it’s really beyond anything I have ever encountered. At times the smells, trash, refuse and excrement are like a garbage dump. Right next door to the Taj Mahal was a pile of trash that smelled so bad, was so foul as to almost ruin the entire Taj experience. Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai to a lesser degree were so very polluted as to make me physically ill. Sinus infections, ear infection, bowels churning was an all to common experience in India. Dung, be it goat, cow or human fecal matter was common on the streets. In major tourist areas filth was everywhere, littering the sidewalks, the roadways, you name it. Toilets in the middle of the road, men urinating and defecating anywhere, in broad daylight. Whole villages are plastic bag wastelands. Roadsides are choked by it. Air quality that can hardly be called quality. Far too much coal and far to few unleaded vehicles on the road. The measure should be how dangerous the air is for one’s health, not how good it is. People casually throw trash in the streets, on the roads. The only two cities that could be considered sanitary in my journey were Trivandrum–the capital of Kerala–and Calicut. I don’t know why this is. But I can assure you that at some point this pollution will cut into India’s productivity, if it already hasn’t. The pollution will hobble India’s growth path, if that indeed is what the country wants. (Which I personally doubt, as India is far too conservative a country, in the small ‘c’ sense.)

The second issue, infrastructure, can be divided into four subcategories: roads, rails and ports and the electrical grid. The electrical grid is a joke. Load shedding is all too common, everywhere in India. Wide swaths of the country spend much of the day without the electricity they actually pay for. With out regular electricity, productivity, again, falls. The ports are a joke. Antiquated, out of date, hardly even appropriate for the mechanized world of container ports, more in line with the days of longshoremen and the like. Roads are an equal disaster. I only saw one elevated highway that would be considered decent in Thailand, much less Western Europe or America. And I covered fully two thirds of the country during my visit. There are so few dual carriage way roads as to be laughable. There are no traffic laws to speak of, and if there are, they are rarely obeyed, much less enforced. A drive that should take an hour takes three. A drive that should take three takes nine. The buses are at least thirty years old, if not older. Everyone in India, or who travels in India raves about the railway system. Rubbish. It’s awful. Now, when I was there in 2003 and then late 2004 it was decent. But in the last five years the traffic on the rails has grown so quickly that once again, it is threatening productivity. Waiting in line just to ask a question now takes thirty minutes. Routes are routinely sold out three and four days in advance now, leaving travelers stranded with little option except to take the decrepit and dangerous buses. At least fifty million people use the trains a day in India. 50 million people! Not surprising that waitlists of 500 or more people are common now. The rails are affordable and comprehensive but they are overcrowded and what with budget airlines popping up in India like Sadhus in an ashram the middle and lowers classes are left to deal with the overutilized rails and quality suffers. No one seems to give a shit. Seriously, I just never have the impression that the Indian government really cares. Too interested in buying weapons from Russia, Israel and the US I guess.

The last major problem in India is an old problem and can be divided into two parts that’ve been two sides of the same coin since government was invented: bureaucracy and corruption. It take triplicates to register into a hotel. To get a SIM card for one’s phone is like wading into a jungle of red-tape and photocopies one is not likely to emerge from in a good mood, much less satisfied with customer service. Getting train tickets is a terrible ordeal, first you have to find the train number, which takes 30 minutes, then you have to fill in the form, which is far from easy, then you have to wait in line to try and make a reservation, which takes 30 minutes at least and if you made a single mistake on the form back you go to the end of the queue, or what passes for a queue in India. The government is notoriously uninterested in the problems of the commoners, too busy fleecing the rich, or trying to get rich themselves in some way shape or form. Take the trash for example, civil rubbish collection authorities are too busy taking kickbacks from the wealthy to keep their areas clean that they don’t have the time, manpower, money or interest in doing their job. Rural hospitals are perennially understaffed as doctors pocket the fees the government pays them, never show up at the rural hospitals and practice in the cities instead.

I could go on for quite some time about my perception of India and its problems, but in all seriousness, I don’t think anyone in India really cares. And that, to me, is the biggest problem. India is too conservative a society to want to change in any way. Mumbai, India’s financial capital is about as filthy, polluted and poor as the worst city imaginable in Vietnam, or Indonesia–and being more polluted than Medan, in Sumatra is no easy task. The biggest rats I have ever seen were in Medan!

One would expect a certain amount of, yes, I am going to use this word, backwardness, in a country that hasn’t produced so many Nobel Laureates, nuclear physicists, imminent economists and entrepreneurs. But India has all these things and what have they brought back to India with them? Nothing. The rich still have their servants, the lower castes are still there to do the dirty work and so the country remains in stasis. It’s a shame. Indians and India have many wonderful things to offer the world, but I’m far from sanguine that India will amount to much in my lifetime.

Now, have at it, call me a cultural imperialist, a spoiled child of the West and all that. But remember, I’ve been there. I’ve done it. And I’ve seen 50 other countries on this planet and none, not even Ethiopia, have as long and gargantuan a laundry list of problems as India does. And the bottom line is, I don’t think India really cares. Too complacent and too conservative.

Do you agree? Disagree with the author’s opnion? Then leave a comment!

Further commentary on India can be found here. Reader responses to this story can be found here and here. Please contact me via Facebook (you can message me via Facebook even if you don’t have an account) if you would like to respond. My only request is that you be polite and not call me names.

August 25, 2013 Update: I have not returned to India since I wrote this in 2009–I hope to return in 2014 or 2015. That’s four years and a lot can change. That being said, things change slowly in India. I remember visiting a village in China in 1999 and then returning in 2003. Vastly different place. And then there was my first visit to Delhi in 2003, my second in 2005 and my third in 2009. Not much had changed, except parts of the subway were open. So, take my criticism with a grain of salt, as it might very well be dated. Although I would bet money that Delhi is still just as filthy as it ever was.

For a 2013 updated, read this. 

9 Responses to “Reflections on India”

  1. Asif Khan

    Dear Sean,

    Recently one of my friend sent a link and I have read the article on India you wrote. You have spoken the truth and I admire you for providing tools to Indians to ask it’s government to provide basics of better living. I am from India and living in Chicago from last 21 years and I love my country. But every time I visit India I see the same mess you have meticulously described. I wish the Indian media takes some drastic steps to educate the people and teach them basic necessity’s and hygiene. Television is a strong medium and they could do it.
    Thanks for writing a beautiful article and please don’t be afraid of name calling…if someone is calling you a name, they are hurting themselves not you.

    Warm regards,

    Asif Khan

  2. Fairooz kabbinavar

    I was forwarded your “Reflections on India” article just a few days ago. Suffice it to say that it evoked a visceral reaction in me. Here’s my response to your diatribe:


    Another Reality of India: by Fairooz Kabbinavar MD.

    Sean Kelley’s article on India paints a harsh picture of India but like all things in life there is another reality of India and about Indians which may be unpalatable to those who enjoyed the Sean Kelley piece. The other India specific reality is that no matter what “mess” Sean Kelley saw, people of India and India itself are thriving and progressing towards a future full of opportunities for its young citizens. No wonder then the world is looking towards India and not looking down upon it. The real mess is the current financial mess that the western world finds itself in; a mess stemming entirely out of its own greed. The stink from this hubris has now engulfed Europe but India (with all its problems that are apparent only to people with a jaundiced eye) appears stable and is still attracting investments in medicine, healthcare, IT, automobile, telecommunications just to name a few industries. One has to just look across the border to see where India is and where our neighbor is in the same span of the last six decades.

    I am sure there is an article or two by some economist stating that India is headed towards doom! Might I remind you that these are the same economists and experts who failed to see the current financial mess as big as the Grand Canyon! But what really stinks is that the US economy has not recovered despite a trillion dollar bail out and now Europe is on its knees begging for a bail out even as I write this article. India’s neighbor to the west for the six decades of its existence has lived on handouts digging itself deeper into a stinking mess with its regressive policies. My dear friend that is a true rotting mess.
    Pollution is a problem that is not unique to India but is a global issue. Look around the world and every region is beset with this problem. Sean Kelley talks about stench and filth but my advice to people who want to visit Agra is to see the wonder that the Taj Mahal is and not be too bothered by the “filthy” surroundings. Smell the roses and not the fertilizer or the manure I say!

    Lack of infrastructure, bad roads, overcrowded buses and trains unreliable power supply do not dampen the entrepreunial spirit of Indians. We Indians move on and rest of world moves along with us. Look at the partnerships that have evolved in India with all the big business houses of the world from A to Z and everything in between. IT giants such as Apple, IBM, and Intel are all at home in India. Hollywood giants are shaking hands with Bollywood players. Educational institutions from Harvard to Johns Hopkins to Yale all want to and have opened sister campuses with Indian academic institutions. Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Bentley have all set up shop in India. Monsanto, Coke, Pepsi are few more examples of conglomerates doing business in India. If the “poor roads and lack of infrastructure, filth and stink” has not stopped these international business houses from partnering with India do not let a few pot holes and cow dung on the roads stop you from visiting and enjoying India.

    Lack of rural health care laments Sean Kelley but he conveniently forgets to write that despite obvious problems from overcrowding and seam-bursting populace India has kept pace with progress in medicine. It is a hub for medical care in that region where patients even from the US and patients from other parts of the world get affordable health care that is on par with current international standards! This health care extends to but not limited to hip/joint replacements, cardiac bypass surgeries to heart, liver, kidney and bone marrow transplant; again to name just a few! Big international pharma is already in India. Indian pharma is the biggest supplier of US FDA approved generic drugs worldwide and more specifically to this country. So next time when you buy generic drugs at your local CVS do not be surprised to see a “made in India” label.

    Corruption is rampant everywhere. If anyone thinks it is only unique to India then they are delusional. Greed is another name for corruption. Look at what this deadly sin has done to economy of the US and Europe! Banking institutions are tottering, hundreds and thousands of hard-working US citizens woke up to find their pensions evaporated because of greed of a few! Sean Kelley and his ilk need to wake up and smell the stench of greed coming from Wall Street and the banks. But we Indians have accepted corruption as another harsh reality of life in addition to many of the problems listed in Sean Kelley’s article but what we do not do is lament, play the blame game, wring our hands in despair about it and wait for someone to bail us out or give us a hand out. Indians shrug it off and continue to work around this scourge of corruption to make lives better and certainly do not depend on or expect dole from other countries for our survival. One needs to not only have open eyes but an open mind as well to see some of the things that have been achieved in the Indian public sector despite the rot of corruption and cancer of bureaucracy. The private sector is flourishing just based on the fact that India is a sought after country by US and European businesses! Money is being poured in India not as aid or bail out but as an investment.

    Sean Kelley says he has travelled over 50 countries and apparently that is what makes him an expert on all that is wrong in India. My suggestion to him is to visit urban areas in about 5 to 10 big cities in the US (or Europe) and he will sure as a day find human excrement, urine, drug paraphernalia, condoms, homeless, drug addicts, whores and rats as big as cats; all this without leaving the shores of this country!

    Every country and every region of the world has its share of warts and pock marks. If Sean Kelley thinks that US shit does not stink then he is genuinely delusional. He really needs to talk to all those unemployed US workers as well as those who have lost their pensions because of corrupt and greedy CEO’s to see for himself what real mess is and how bad it stinks!

    The list of problems that India has is not in debate but what Sean Kelley failed to see or rather refused to see is the indomitable Indian spirit that rises above filth, squalor, bad roads, no electricity, corruption, bureaucracy to not only survive but actually make lives of future India and Indians better. Despite the ills that Sean Kelley saw, India does not just survive but it lives on with a song and dance and festivities keeping pace with rest of the world. India is progressing in the 21st century and certainly not by any means regressing to the stone ages as some other countries seem to be. India has produced Nobel laureates, scientists, poets, writers, artists, musicians, sportsmen, business tycoons that are playing on the world stage. India’s neighbor to the west has produced a string of dictators and corrupt leaders who ended up selling their country’s sovereignty for a few pieces of silver! India is a stable democracy with an independent judiciary whose secular credentials are borne out by the fact that every major and minor religion of the world is practiced openly with no fear of persecution. India where hindus are in majority has had two muslim presidents, a sikh president and a sikh is the current prime minister, a lower caste president and the most powerful person in India now is a catholic lady. The author of India’s constitution Dr. Ambedkar was a neo-Buddhist. All this in just sixty years and it took over two centuries to have the first black president in the US. On a lighter note three muslim khans in Bollywood rule the roost with a combined fan following of a billion hindus. How many countries of the world can match India in its compassion, acceptance and tolerance of humans of such varied caste and creed? None I say! India’s future is as secure as it has been for the last 5,000 years no matter what the dooms day pundits predict.

    So my advice to visitors to India is to see this beautiful side of India, enjoy the wonder of Taj Mahal in the moon lit night, savor the different cuisines, catch a Bollywood movie and feel the warmth of Indian hospitality and like a good guest not kick India on the way out. Even if you do behave like an ungrateful ill-mannered guest, India and Indians will still roll out the welcome mat if you do visit India again but remember the stink that you may wrinkle your nose at, may be more likely emanating from your self-righteous pompous persona and not from India!

  3. john

    Although I’ve never been to India, I have met many ethnic Indians in my home country (Canada), and have found most of them to be intelligent, talented and industrious.

    I think that when one has such a diverse country of over 1 billion people, there are going to be certain problems. The so-called “first world countries” like Canada, the U.S. and the E.U. have their share of ennuis, just as poorer nations like India, the Philippines, Mexico and Brazil have many strong points.

    I hope that India finds the renewed vigour and creativity to tackle the weaknesses which the author has mentioned. I would really like to visit there when I have enough time and money.

  4. Sriharsh Bhyravajjula

    Yes. I am an Indian, and I agree. You’ve hit the points correctly. We do not care.

    And there is a reason why. The term “Indian” doesn’t mean anything to us. We’re not proud of it. We don’t FEEL responsible for what is happening to our country – because we’ve never really gotten anything from it. From the day one is born to the day one dies, we struggle against the failures of the government, of the corrupt and selfish co-citizens. Life is a struggle, and we’re all scared to venture out of our little hard shells. The funda is : Become a somebody, then we’ll think of the ‘desh’ – the country. We’re all waiting for a saviour to come pull us out of this hopeless mess, and in the process, we suppress the makings of a saviour within us.

    It’s ironical that foreigners seem to care more about our country than we do.

  5. Prateek


    This is just after reading the first paragraph of yours about New Delhi. I cant agree more! Well yes.
    Just so you know that I am a 23 year old guy born and brought up here in a bourgeois status. A chap like me has seen scarcity, paucity & making the ends meet.

    To cut the long story short on a subjective level if you see my perspective and you will find out that the personal ambitions have some place in it. So, as of now in terms of priority thats my first. The problem will start when I make it my only priority. Most of them do that and it never ends. Makes my nation pretty much if not more of a Shit Hole.

  6. Prateek

    Now am reading it and find myself rather thankful to you for the in your face reality so manifestly written. Do you think it has
    got anything to do with history like the cultural history?

  7. Vishnu

    I am an Indian and i cannot thank you enough for writing this blog….

    Thank you for showing these smug Indians that the emperor has no clothes! and that their country is a joke.. a PATHETIC joke.

    I don’t know what i hate more.. the persistent ignorance of the urban populous or the govt which keeps everyone ignorant on the REAL issues that need to addressed.

  8. Hector Gamboa

    I’m in Hyderabad right now trying to build an IT company. Power goes out from 8am to 10am and 2pm to 4pm every single day with lots of fluctuations in between. Internet goes down at least three times a month for at least 12 hours each time. Nobody seems to be honest in business and everyone we talk to about getting some contracts tells us it’s impossible without bribing someone and even then bribes are often useless since someone else has surely bribed more. I can clearly see the boom in IT here but I don’t see how it can sustain itself. Living here is awful and I’m counting the seconds until I’m able to leave. There is nothing redeeming about this filthy place.

  9. Sid

    I’ve never seen an article written on this topic with such respect, humility and thoughtfulness. Being completely in agreement with this viewpoint since as far back as I can remember (Indian, born and brought up in Mumbai) I didn’t think it was possible for anyone to dispute any of this.

    And yet, I see the omnipresent apologist comment, here by Fairooz Kabbinavar. To it I must respond, waxing eloquent about everything good about India achieves nothing but derailing discussions about what should change, and people who do it are either malicious or incurably delusional.

    Yes, every country has problems, but none have problems so pervasive and all-encompassing as India. Everything people say is good about India (poetry about healthcare and entrepreneurial spirit, huge Indian firms partnering and buying up others) benefits a microcosm of the population- the rich, the bourgeoisie, the government. And even they are not free from the filth and chains that hold back the 99%, who are unfortunately too conservative and too delusional to believe that anything needs improvement.
    In a country of a billion plus, it stands to reason that there are outstanding individuals in all fields. It’s a discredit and a shame that they achieve their potential only when they look to foreign shores.

    India was forced into urbanization, when it was and is rural at heart, mind and soul. There is no concept of common good, because it is absent from the cultural psyche and is unlikely to emerge within our lifetimes.
    So many Indians think that their pitiful, ascetic existence is the height of noble living; and India is a failure.

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