I know that here in central London we moan about congestion and the hustle and bustle of everyday city life but until you have seen life in the middle of an Indian city it is impossible to appreciate what a teeming mass of humanity really looks like.
My experience of India came about this summer during a valuable visit as part of a parliamentary delegation. As well as meeting local and national politicians in various parts of the country I took the opportunity to walk around the bazaars and street markets in New Delhi and visit the poorer areas of Bombay to see for myself the intensity created by the huge populations in Indian cities.
I was struck immediately by the smells, sounds and sheer energy of those inner city areas. Walking through the narrow commercial streets of Delhi I thought that this must have been close to how life was in the City of London during Victorian times before the City became synonymous with the financial services industry alone.
Rickshaws and mopeds weaved their way between vast crowds of pedestrians walking in all directions whilst, much to my surprise at first, wild and domesticated animals loitered in shop fronts. They say that there are some 150,000 cows roaming around the streets of Delhi and I can certainly believe it! After a while the sight of animals living alongside people becomes less incongruous though never completely to this Londoner’s eye.
In Bombay the sight of tiny corrugated iron roofs spread out as far as the eye could see was my first experience of a shanty town in the world. In spite of what seemed to me unbelievable poverty and squalor, the people living in this harsh environment all wore immaculately clean clothes as they emerged from their ramshackle homes and were calm and peaceful in their manner in stark contrast to what one might see in our poorer council estates back here in London.
Thankfully sanitation has improved greatly throughout Indian cities in the past decade or so and with it the high levels of early mortality have plummeted whilst life expectancy amongst both men and women has improved.
India may always have been but certainly is now – an amazing country full of contradictions. We met leading politicians when we were in New Delhi. We conversed with businessmen and women in different parts of the country who had an optimistic story to tell about renewed economic reform in India over the decades ahead.
It is clear that global trade has brought with it terrific opportunities for the sub-continent and whilst poverty remains it is abundantly clear that much of this wealth (in stark contrast to countries in Africa, for example) has begun to trickle down to enrich all members of society. The country is also one of the most beautiful in the world and I am sure it will have an even bigger tourist industry in the future with the very wonderful Taj Mahal and areas such as the exquisite Srinagar area in Kashmir both of which we were able to see on our visit.
I am confident that India has got a great future ahead. Economic growth continues apace whilst the political reforms, designed to promote the spread of democracy, are also in play, if not quite as fast as some of India’s critics would like. Nevertheless with a population of over 1 billion India, along with its neighbour China, has the opportunity over the next twenty years to become a leading player on the international stage.
From our visit we came away with an understanding of the earnestness behind all members of Indian society to drive up the nation’s economic prosperity. And my lasting memory will be of the enormous crowds of people in India’s cities, many busily making their way to and from work, selling their wares on street corners, committed to improving their way in life.