As soon as I started to tell friends that I was going to India for a week before participating in the inaugural Asian Meeting of Econometric Society, I learned that Indian travel experience was incredibly divisive. I was told that there are two kinds of people coming back from a trip to India: those who swear they will never visit India for the second time, and those who can't wait to travel there again. I didn't think too much of what I heard; I have too much travel experience for that kind of superlatives.
But from the first day my India experience started to make unexpected turns, as if challenging me to make up my mind about India.
On the flight to India, I started to read my Lonely Planet guidebook and found out that there is newly opened metro line from Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport. At least traveling around in Delhi is just like anywhere else, so I thought to myself. But then I had to spend a full hour figuring out how to get to my hotel by metro, because the hotel address does not exist on Google map, which kind of annoyed me. It got worse after I arrived: the metro from the airport had been shut down for renovation after just a few months in operation, so I completely wasted my time. Worse still, the taxi driver couldn't find the hotel either, even though he didn't seem to show any hesitation when I gave him the hotel address at the "official" airport taxi stand. In the end I had to turn on my IPhone and google the hotel phone number for the driver to get direction from the hotel front desk.
But the hotel was a pleasant surprise. It was supposed to three-star and was reserved online from the conference website, at the rate of $75 a night. I knew Delhi is not a crazy ritzy city like London, but I thought cities like Beijing and Shanghai were roughly comparable to Delhi and over there $75 a night was not really enough to get a decent hotel deal. But my hotel in Delhi was more or less clean, and staffed with friendly and helpful people. My mood was rapidly recovering from the twenty-four hour trip and the irritating initial experience. It was not too late in the afternoon so I decided to take the fifteen-minute walk from the hotel to the nearest metro station for the famous bazaar in Old Delhi.
The walk to the metro station turned out to be a complete shock to me. On one side of the road was abject poverty of the kind that I had only seen in movies like Slumdog Millionaire. There were people lighting fires on the sidewalk, men urinating standing just steps away from rickshaw traffic, and kids playing near open sewage in a nearby park. I couldn't believe it---this is the capital of a country that attracts tourists from all over the world with wonders like the Taj Mahal! I knew about poverty in India but I was completely unprepared to see it in Delhi. Maybe because I am Chinese born and such a scene does not exist in the middle of Beijing or Shanghai. But poverty is almost as bad in China as in India. For all I know, instead of feeding its poor, the Chinese government had not so long ago spent billions of dollars on summer Olympic games, including paying for such cosmetic operations as boarding up facades of dilapidated buildings on the outskirts of the city. Should I think of as a disgrace that slums in the capital greet foreign tourists, or should I praise a country for not letting the government spend people's money in faking the appearance?
But the metro experience was great. The station was clean, the ticketing system efficient, and the staff friendly. The experience was little different from one in any modern city, despite the presence of soldiers with guns and the tight security at entrances with metal detectors. But it vastly exceeded my expectations, formed from reading news stories and talking to Indian friends. The truth is that India is lagging behind in developing its infrastructure compared to other developing countries like China; the question is why. The answer does not just lie in the fact that India's economic reforms started more than a decade later than China and its economy has been growing on average at a few percentage points lower than Chinese economy: investment in infrastructure can just as likely lead to economy growth as be led by it. Could it instead be that a democratic government like India's, with unfortunate and often unavoidable inefficiencies due to checks and balances, cannot just dictate winners and losers among its own people? For I know, the Three Gorges Dam project in China, being unquestionably successful in power generation and flood control at least for now, displaced more than a million people, many of who to this day remain improperly compensated. So, should I criticize the lack of vision shown by a government in having constructed just one-tenth of total length of metro tracks constructed in China, or should I admire a political system that forbids the government to ruin some lives to make others better?
Stepping out of Chandni Chowk metro station, I was soon enjoying the nighttime hustle and bustle of old Delhi's iconic bazaar. Unbeknownst to me the most traumatic event of the year 2012 was unfolding at the same time. A medical student, with her male companion after a movie night out, boarded what they thought was a public bus but was actually private one under public contracts taken out for a "joy ride", and was savagely raped and beaten by the friends of the driver before being dumped by the road. In the days and weeks that followed, the citizens of Delhi would be enraged as never before and protests would erupt; the government would respond with water cannons and repeated suspension of public transportation near the protest sites, together with promises of tougher prosecution in this and future rape cases. I would follow online the development as reported by the CNN and New York Times, and find myself shocked yet again by things I did not expect about India. I heard about female infanticide and bride burning that still happen in modern day India, but have always thought these practices are blamed on a deep-rooted sexist culture instead of inadequate law and feeble enforcement. In a country like China with an equally sexist culture but without a government forced to respect people's basic rights and answer to their needs and concerns, violent crimes against women might be committed with impunity. Yet many Chinese would find the gang rape shocking, as it would be unthinkable to suggest that Beijing's city streets and public buses can be dangerous for a young woman. I also find it surprising that in response to the rape incident, some Indian politicians have suggested expedited prosecution of suspected rapists in the future, especially in the National Capital Region that includes Delhi, and chemical castration and even death sentence for those convicted. Maybe these politicians just discovered the Chinese invention of "strike hard" campaigns, where established legal precedents were disregarded for immediate deterrence impact. I don't think this kind of knee-jerk reactions are going to be enacted as law by the Parliament. But should I criticize a government for its inability to respond quickly to public outcries, or should I admire a country that prevents its government from harming the legal foundation for civil society under political pressure?
India is incredibly confusing. To none of its many problems does there appear a straightforward solution. The situation is just the opposite of what most people are led to believe about China. Take corruption for example, which is one of the biggest problems facing India. Indeed, were it not for the Delhi gang rape incident, the year 2012 would have been remembered in India as when the anti-corruption movement gathered further strength from increasing public resentment of official corruption and political inaction. But is establishing a strong and independent anti-corruption legislation and enforcement body the solution to the long term corruption problem in India? If that were indeed true, why is the problem still there? Why has India failed so far where Hong Kong in 1970's, while still a British colony like India was before 1947 and lacking political representation for local people, managed to gradually root out its own widespread corruption through the establishment of the Independent Commission Against Corruption? In the case of mainland China, many people believe that it can succeed in ending endemic official corruption only with an independent judicial system, which everyone agrees is probably more likely if more political parties than a single one compete to represent the people. But Hong Kong had no meaningful political parties and succeeded, while India has so many but has failed.
I have made up mind mind that I am not going to make up my mind about India after such a short trip. It will take one more visit to decide whether I should never go to India again or will travel there many more times.