India Highlights: Part 1

Hard to believe that just last week I was getting ready to board a plane from India back home. The jet lag is not making it any easier trying to wrap my head around all of this. So, in remembrance of being in India a week ago (AND IN HONOR OF INDEPENDENCE DAY IN INDIA TODAY – JAI HIND!), I begin my next series of posts in which I will attempt to recap on my travels.

By now you should know that my initial reason for going to India this summer was to intern. However, that left the evenings and weekends for meeting with relatives and exploring the mystical wonders of India – and who in their right mind could turn that down? In this post, we begin with the city of Gurgaon.

My internship was located in Gurgaon which is less than 20 km from where I was staying. What ideally should have been about a 20-30 minute commute was easily doubled (if not tripled due to bad weather) due to India’s dense traffic, especially across one of the main national highways. So during those long drives I observed and learned quite a bit from the passenger’s seat. (Here’s a good place to stop and read my disclaimer: these views are purely observational and are not meant to belittle, disrespect, insult, or paint a negative picture of India or the city of Gurgaon.)

Gurgaon is located in the state of Haryana, which actually borders the capital of Delhi.

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Fun Fact: Gurgaon was actually a village that has recently, in the past 15-20 years, undergone tremendous growth as a technology center in Northern India. It is also a growing hub for call centers – so that Indian guy that picked up the phone when you called to ask how to fix your computer, was quite possibly situated in Gurgaon while answering your plea for help – wrap your mind around that! Regardless, when such cities rise so quickly planning of infrastructure is often overlooked and disruptions to the lives of locals and swarming of the wealthy to invest in the city creates an income gap between rich and poor. And it is strikingly evident nearly everywhere you go. Just in the 5 weeks that I was there it was shocking, yet somehow intriguing, to see the vast differences between the kinds of people that call Gurgaon their home. There are the mega-rich living in multi-million dollar apartments overlooking golf courses and then there are the original inhabitants that have sold their land to the government living in tarp covered tents on the sides of the road. It was a common sight during my commute to be in bumper-to-bumper traffic with several Porsche SUVs and BMW sedans and immediately right next to me rickshaws and three-wheelers. You see businessmen in fancy Italian leather shoes and briefcases with their heads buried in their phones, and the beggars with torn clothes knocking at your car door window pleading for a few spare rupees. The contrast are overwhelming.

One of the most unforgettable moments that I have experienced during my trip was the amount of chaos that unfurls when the monsoonal rains flood the streets of Gurgaon. In such a technologically savvy city, it is quite ironic that there are insufficient amounts of sewer and drainage systems along the roads, let alone systems or landscaping that ease the flow of water off of the streets. This usually gives way to flooding throughout portions of city, especially along unpaved streets. Just in my first week, the road outside my office (which, mind you, is right next to a 27-hole golf course and one of the most expensive apartment towers in the city – prices are comparable to those in New York) flooded with close to a foot of water.

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It took nearly 20 minutes just to navigate through that mess – and was definitely quite a spectacle to see people with expensive cars panicking  and stalling in the middle of the streets while the rest of us continued to trudge on through the muddied waters. This is just one of many examples of how differently the privileged and under-privileged live, and how different mentalities can be based on the lifestyle you are brought up in.

The juxtapositioning of rich and poor was extremely prevalent in Gurgaon and was sometimes uncomfortable to see. Yet, many people regard India as the next China, and I would agree. There is so much potential that I saw in Gurgaon alone as growing cyber hub, that I would be surprised if India didn’t live up to that hype. For a city to come up that quickly and to have such profound technological and economic effects for the country, is no small feat. However, I believe that India has a lot more untapped potential hidden within the country and I think this stems from the inequality in wealth distribution across the population. The majority of the population makes so little money that they are struggling to simply live a satisfactory life, sacrificing education for labor in order to make the most meager amounts of money they can get. On the other hand, top earners want nothing to do with the poor and are eager to continue to buying off and developing these ancestral village lands. With the continuing advancements in the world and with economic competition ever increasing, it is inevitable that things like this would happen, and evidently so, development and globalization has proven to be a double-edged sword. Yet, I think that India can become an even more productive country if initiatives to help the underprivileged gain momentum. While population is dense, I believe in the power of numbers – and India has it, it just needs to leverage it.

But despite such disparities amongst the classes, I can see so much potential for the young city. Since I have come at a time of major rethinking and restructuring of city infrastructure, I can only imagine what the next 15-20 years will bring. As for the inequality, I can only hope that the people and the government somehow address this ever-widening gap. There is so much that can be done, so much that can be achieved, and I hope that the next time I travel to India I can see the beginnings of change, if not a complete transformation.