Bhimbetka Caves outside of Bhopal: paintings from 4000-30,000 BC


I have seen the effects of almost unbridled growth. In India.

It isn’t pretty and it isn’t good for people, either.

With the exception of the British Empire’s cantonments, cities in India were never planned. They grew; they grow, like octopi. When I was interviewing people in Jabalpur back in 1970, I had an object lesson in what unplanned development meant. I had addresses and names, but the addresses were building numbers, not streets, because the streets were really just meandering spaces between buildings and the numbers were in order of when the building was built, not some rational numerical order down a straight street. The only way to find somebody was to ask someone who knew you, trusted you, or someone with you. 

My interpreter/informant, Shyam, an orthodox Brahmin, saw someone across what might have passed as a street. He hailed him, muttering an aside to me, “he’s a classmate—and he lives here.”

His friend came over to me, shook my hand, chuckling. “They think you are CD, or something. They send you on wild goose? chase. I will ask, and they will tell me. No worry.”

Within ten minutes, we were welcomed to my first power-weaving small business on the sample, Shyam’s friend introduced us and the proprietor looked pleased that we’d come. And he helped us find the next businessman on the sample, when we’d finished.

While new parts of cities, like the new Kochi, and the new Sagar, have relatively straight streets, there are no regulations enforced that prevent people from putting up any sign, of any size, building extensions out into the street, or shelters for unlicensed shops. In the oldest continuously inhabited city, Varanasi, there are no traffic lights. There are free-for-alls at every intersection, even ones where police try valiantly to direct traffic (they don’t succeed). Motorcycles outnumber cars, pedestrians equal motorcycles; trucks and buses vie for space; cows and bulls wander imperturbably down streets and everyone avoids them, even stops for them. Traffic stops for little else. But, at least the free-for-all at the intersections are all in extreme slow motion.

India was developing rapidly, before the pandemic: averaging over 7% growth in GDP per year, but it’s not planned, not regulated; it’s out of control. It looks like what rapid, unregulated development looks like. It’s not  pretty.

Delhi, Mumbai, even Agra, had air pollution that was visible; people had hacking coughs, some wore face-masks. Even in Darjeeling, and in Sagar in the virtual center of the subcontinent, air pollution was present. Only out in the hinterlands, far from mega-cities was the air somewhat clean (Delhi 25 million, Mumbai 23 million, even Bhopal in central India 3.3 million).

Development (via the Union Carbide explosion) killed our driver’s father in Bhopal, when he was 2, and his mother 10 years later.  (Note: the American corporation responsible never paid for the damage). Mr Asif had to quit school at age 12 to feed his remaining family.

Development is killing people every day. Many Indians expressed dismay at what was happening to their land. Houses, huts, shops, temples, mosques, churches, mega-malls, hucksters under awnings, hotels, all sprout almost spontaneously along any right of way, whether it be a straight street, a boulevard, a highway, or a meandering alley. Traffic is incessant all day, an assault of motorcycles, a flood of people, cars, trucks–many way overloaded–cows, bulls and even dogs. Opposing lanes keep shifting, but there are usually two discernible lanes, except at an intersection, where it’s a free-for-all in slow motion. Cars, buses, motorcycles, three-wheeled taxis slowly converge, cows and un-wheeled people, dart in and out between vehicles. Lanes get seriously blurred. So do the edges of the roadway.

It was in one of those free-for-alls that a motorcyclist, coming from behind, accelerating his way through what he saw as a hole in the mass of traffic ahead of him, grazed inches of skin off my arm. After a quick visit to a clinic, I wore a large bandage for about a week. I had been as far over to the side of the road as I could manage, skirting around trucks or taxis parked halfway into the road, following a guide.

In Darjeeling we had a guide, Amit, who lives in a village in the valley below. He told us that he won’t sell his ancestral home and land, but that people all around him have moved out, have become absentee landlords. All are happy to sell to any developer, as long as the price is right.

There are no regulations, or regulations enforced, that would prevent almost any kind of development, anywhere. Amit said that in the monsoon, all the drainage of the new construction wells up as sewage in the streets.

Further, climate change is worrisome: flowers blooming now that should be later, marked changes in rainfall—if the monsoon fails most will starve—warm and cold weather—Darjeeling is subtropical, but high in the hills. Our view of the Himalayas was completely blocked by clouds and mist the whole time we were there—and maybe pollution from neighboring Nepal and Sikkim added to the clouds.

When we drove from Delhi’s Ring Road to Agra, about 4 hours on the road, there was nowhere along the way, even in what looked like the pastoral Gangetic plain, heavily cultivated, that the haze of pollution went away. Most of the air pollution was from either Delhi or Agra (the latter a little over 1.5 million in 2011, probably closer to 2 million now), but a lot of pollution was from brick kiln production out in the hinterland, burning coal to feed the building boom.

Neither climate change nor development are kind to human beings, or other living things, especially when India has no control over either. The people are wonderful: kind, patient, friendly, helpful, but many expressed anxiety and helplessness about what was happening to their land.

It’s what unbridled growth looks like, like the “beautiful” modern buildings thrown helter-skelter, next to huts, tiny shops, jerry-built apartment towers along a crowded highway, or the piles of trash, some being eaten by the wandering cattle. Trash is also burning, adding to air pollution.

India is a vision of what the US could look like if Trump and the GOP are successful in eviscerating all regulations and all environmental rules.

However, there is one crucial difference: when I worked in India in 1970, the population was about 450 million (100 million more than the US now). Now, India has 1.324 billion people, almost three times US figures, and on a territory about 1/3 the US mainland.

Further, India is getting even hotter than it was already, with temperatures on the Gangetic plain frequently climbing above 120 F. How long will 1.324 billion people be able to survive there?

Will humans leave barren deserts and poisoned wastelands?

I haven’t mentioned the Modi Government, until now. Narendra Modi was (is?) a Hindu extremist, member of the RSS, a former member of which assassinated Gandhi. He organized the Bharatiya Janata Party in Gujarat as an RSS assignment. Now, the BJP rules India and most of its states. 

Modi, leading the BJP swept most of India in the 2019 election, increasing his majority, while still not carrying my favorite state: Kerala, still proudly Communist.

The BJP, like the Hindu party I encountered in Madhya Pradesh 48 years ago, is pro-business and pro-American (Nixon, then, Trump, now).

Modi reinforced his Hindu nationalist image, by locking down rebellious Kashmir, revoking state-hood and imposing Federal rule. Kashmir is 67% Muslim.

He has also posed the question, whether Muslims, anywhere in India, are really citizens, He’s set up barriers to repatriating any Muslim refugees from neighboring countries, but no barriers for Hindus. Like Trump, he divides, but it’s not “the Left” pounded by Trump, but a whole religious group,171.7 million, who date back, in some areas, to the 7th century. The rest of today’s Muslims are the result of successive Muslim conquests until the Mughal conquest (1520), its court and armies, and all those who converted for the advantages it offered them (including liberation from a low caste).

They are neither a movement, nor a race; they are a religion, but now it seems, while Sikhs, Jains, Parsis and even Christians are acceptable to the RSS’s idea of Hindutva (roughly translated as Hindu-ness), Muslims are a foreign religion. They don’t have Hindutva.

Modi has done poorly managing the pandemic. First, abruptly, closing everything down. Cases stayed low. Then people began to starve, and/or flee, or rebel. So, he opened everything up, and two weeks later, Covid exploded, in all the cities, first of all. Public health spokes-people say India is on a trajectory, with the disease, that could overtake the mismanaged US, in numbers of cases and deaths.

Modi and Trump got along; pals for two events. Modi also rules with the kind of suddenness  we’ve become familiar with in Trump. Like his retirement of the most used rupee denominations, to stop ‘black money.”

The currency “reform” didn’t work, but it wasn’t a political disaster, just an economic set-back. Modi was fighting against “black money,” so many thought it must’ve been a good thing. His charisma is somewhat (consciously?) reminiscent of Gandhi as political holy man, albeit a very skilled politician when it comes to exciting his followers, and bringing more on board.

The BJP doesn’t control the state of Kerala, Hindus, Muslims and Christians live there in apparent harmony: they have been doing so since the 7th century, even celebrating each other’s religious holidays,  but the BJP still tries to drive them apart.

As far as his economic policies go, Modi is for deregulation, (much needed in India after  the corrupt “Indian Socialism” of the Congress, bound up, literally, in red tape) (the term red tape, and the practice of tying files in it, was created by the British Raj, but the Congress government “got rid of” the red tape: changing the tape color to blue.). Modi’s also for protecting his friends, cronies and Indian billionaires. He says he’s “pro-business.”

The likelihood is that his government will continue to appeal to the super-rich, and continue to allow development to go on unregulated. But with Covid19, it’s likely that India’s huge population will be trimmed of many of the most vulnerable people.

Inequality will worsen. The environment will be even further compromised.

On a more positive note: the Communist government in Kerala built the first completely solar-powered airport, in Kochi.

Published by douglascsmyth

Writer, gardener, former political science and economics professor, free-lance writer, 81-years old, married to Elizabeth Cunningham, father of Darshann, Julian and Marina. I live on the western slope of the Shawangunk ridge, NY, in a house powered largely by solar and heated and cooled by it. Associated with High Valley, Clinton Corners, until 2014.

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