Cycling the south coast of India (January 24th - February 4th)
India is a land of contrasts and contradictions. There are currently in excess of 1.1 billion people and it is projected to pass China as the world's most populous country by 2030. It is home to one-third of the world's chronically malnourished children and some of the world's richest men. Almost half of India's women do not know how to read or write. I have been cycling in the relatively prosperous south of India but the signs of infrastructure problems are everywhere. Garbage is usually just thrown on the streets (where the cows and dogs gather to scavenge) or collect in the rivers that are so polluted that they cannot possibly sustain any life. There have been at least a few power outages every day and many villages particularly in the north do not even have electricity. Many villages have a communal source of drinking water and very few have any form of transportation, other than their feet and maybe a bicycle. They are also without doubt the happiest people I have seen on my trip.
The economy in particular is one that offers a glimpse into some of the problems facing the country. India is a rural society with 70% of the population still living in villages. The farms simply cannot provide an adequate standard of living for over 700 million people. There is a certain sense of pride in the belief that village life is at the core of being Indian, an idea forwarded by Gandhi who maintained that it is the village that is the backbone of the country. That mindset however has meant mass immigration to the cities has not been planned for and it is hard for me to see how they (in particular Mumbai) can cope with more people. The population of the two largest cities of Mumbai and Delhi approximates that of Canada and it would be a logistical nightmare to try to provide housing, clean water, transportation, healthcare and education to so many in a confined space.
There are 2 significant problems relating to the economy with the first being high unemployment. There is much talk around the world about the IT miracle in India but despite the incredible growth, particularly in the southern states, there are only about 1 million or 0.25% of the entire labour force employed in IT, software, back-office processing and call centers. The lack of employment in the "organized economy", or those who pay taxes, means a large portion of the population has to support those who do not provide direct employee tax revenue to the government. It is estimated that only 35 million are gainfully employed in the organized economy and of those, 21 million work for the government. Despite the impressive economic growth it will be important to create manufacturing jobs for the millions of people who will not be able to sustain a reasonable standard of living in the villages.
The second problem is one that impacts the poor people in the poor countries around the world and that is corruption. There are strict employment laws here and it is almost impossible to fire those working for the government. You need strong employment laws when you have an almost limitless supply of people willing to work for very little to prevent employer abuse but the laws have to go both ways. If an employer can't fire people with just cause, it leaves the employee with the freedom to do what he wants and when. Without the threat of dismissal, an employee can take risks and abuse his position with little fear of reprisal. An example that I have read about relates to the number of rickshaw drivers in Delhi. The city has 99,000 licenses for the taxis but there are reportedly in excess of 500,000 actual drivers. The police demand bribes from the excess 400,000 on a monthly basis, in return for them to look the other way and allow them to work. The drivers are mainly from the slums and rely on the meagre income to survive so have little choice but to pay the fees. Government jobs are the most sought after here as everyone knows their salary is a small fraction of their actual pay. I have read numerous articles in the local papers about the need to address the widespread and entrenched corruption but it will take a lot of time and effort to deal with it.
I stayed 2 days and 3 nights in Baga, Goa at this place near the beach.
The lodges look nice from the outside, particularly with the palm trees and nearby Sea but inside many are very basic. On more than a few occasions, I had little choice on where to stay. In this place the bathroom was on the dingy side. It did not have a shower but did have a square hole in the wall that would have been for a window, had they actually got around to finishing it. For now it was just an open space.
When there is a risk of mosquitoes or other things that could crawl on me during the night, I seek refuge in my tent.
I was asked a short while ago if I would be camping while in India and after finding out what wildlife they have here the answer is you couldn't pay me enough to sleep outside. As I head down the coast there are many Wildlife Reserves (without fences) that are home to elephants, monkeys, tigers, crocodiles, spiders and millions of snakes and rats. Any one of those would be more than enough to keep me in a Lodge. In fact, I even hesitate getting out of my bed to go to the bathroom at night, inside the hotels, and always put my sandals on and check behind the doors for anything that could slither out.