After Seeing India

In the words of the BBC’s beloved contemporary Sherlock, “you’re seeing, but you’re not observing.” This is exactly what I felt I had been doing on my fortnight trip around the North of India; I was seeing the palaces and the rikshaws and tuk-tuks, the street sellers and the beggars, but I wasn’t observing what that all really meant.

India is possibly the most beautiful and majestic country I have ever seen, with the snow-dipped Himalayas and the busy cities stacked on top of each other is a mess of noises and vibrant smells. You can walk down the street and hear a myriad of languages and dialects, almost get run down by a cow or a child, on a motor bike, all the while trying not to make eye contact with the beautiful women offering to tattoo your arms with henna. But this is not what I remember most about my visit; despite the sights and smells and sounds, only one image remains stronger than ever. The children who tugged at my shirt with their arms outstretched, sent by hungry fathers and desperate mothers to try and entice the foreigner. There were men without legs and women without eyes who sat with their arms out, crying out for money. I saw all this, and I certainly felt the stabbing guilt – giving money was forbidden by my guide, as either I or the recipient would be mugged by others in desperation – but I did not observe what it was all trying to tell me.

Of course, I am not pretending to be the first person to notice that India needs long term financial assistance, nor do I assume to be the only person to write about the issue at hand. But it seemed to me, as I volunteered in an orphanage in Old Delhi, that all the money we Western do-gooders were donating was futile. It was like putting a plaster, a band-aid, on a gun shot wound and expecting to stop the blood flow. What is the use of spending money on rice for a community who do not have any future in which to eat it? surely, investment in infrastructure would be a way of ensuring long term benefits for these families and these desperate children; building roads, hospitals, water pumps, toilet blocks, schools, hostels and in doing so, creating trade unions and social projects would be a more sound investment in improving an economy which was the strongest in the world before the British took it as a colony. I’m not saying that we should stop sending money for food and shelter to Indian charities, or any international aid charities: it is indisputable that they are saving lives. But for what? Without a long-term improvement for social care of the most vulnerable in society, how can an economy expect to improve? From this, I realized that I was not just observing India; this idea rang true to my own country, to my own situation. How can Britain itself expect to find a way of overcoming the economic crisis without investing in us, the next generation. Okay, we are hardly short of water pumps, but I would see no issue with creating jobs for the young by building new social housing, for which there is a shameful shortage. We think that because we are in the West we are above third world countries, but we are not. Until we can honestly say that we are ensuring a future of prosperity and hope for our children, I personally do not see as drastic a difference. 

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