Anyway, I wanted to share some thoughts on the country, since I've got some time to write (and a computer to write on, which probably won't be the case after this). Please remember these are ideas are just my own, and that, as with any country, there is always a spectrum of opinions about various issues. Also, some figures are what I've heard here, so I can't guarantee their accuracy. With that primer, here are some random, unconnected musings...
(This got a big long - I think the paragraph starting with "Perhaps just as depressing..." is the most interesting, fwiw.)
The heat season is dawning, and for Uttar Pradesh, it really doesn't look good. UP is the biggest state in the country and has long been one of the poorest - locally, it was often a running joke that similar, nearby Bihar had it worse, but recently the perception is that Bihar has improved considerably, deepening frustration with the government. Power cuts have always been the norm, even in the winter, but they will likely hit harder this year - the state owes Rs. 6,000 crore (around $1.2B) for power it has bought from other states. When I was here last in late May 2010, the power would be on an average of 9-12 hours per day, but my relatives seem to think it may even dip below that this year.
It's been interesting to see this firsthand - when I arrived a little over a week ago, the power would be gone 3-4 hours a day, and the daily high was around 85-90F. Just over the past 10 days, the temperature has slowly climbed to the triple digits, and power cuts risen with them - over the past day, the power has been out more than 10 hours.
Of course, the population hasn't taken this lying down. My earliest memories of Kanpur (circa early 1990s) consist of pitch-black nights, candles, and flashlights. Shortly after, my family added a (gas) generator, used somewhere between liberally and for emergencies. Today, there are "inverters" on both floors - essentially batteries that turn on when the power goes off, powering basic devices (particularly fans and lights) which are fully connected so that they only power devices that draw limited power (quite snazzy, right?). This seems to be standard for the middle class (though keep in mind the middle class in Kanpur is very, very different from middle class in America). But there still are limits - today, I woke up at 6am to the piercing whistle of the inverter letting us know it was almost discharged, having powered two ceiling fans all night.
UPDATE (from a day later): Right on time, both inverters went out last night. Dinner was had by candle light, childhood memories were conjured. The irony (and, of course, food) was delicious.
Moving on, I got a very interesting look at the remnants and effects of the caste system, thanks to a couple college-aged neighbors. I should have known all about the quota system (and perhaps many of you do), but I thought it might be of interest to describe it briefly. Starting from the top, the caste system was an intricate classification of the population based on last name, which corresponded to a profession. These were roughly grouped into 4 classes: Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (merchants), and Shudra (laborers, servants, and untouchables; the last of which call themselves Dalits).
The basic story is known - the system resulted in discrimination, enslavement, and all sorts of other bad stuff (that's the technical term). What was fascinating was hearing about the affirmative action program that has been put in place to counteract these historical injustices. It's called the "Reservation System" and splits Indian society into 4 groups (that don't correspond to the 4 castes), listed in order: General (all relatively privileged classes, including the top 3 castes), OBC (generally the upper range of Shudras/non-Untouchables, standing for Other Backward Classes - pc, eh? :), Scheduled Castes (generally Dalits/previously called Untouchables), and Scheduled Tribes (very poor, "tribal" people).
The majority of infrastructure of higher education, employment, and even government is built on this reservation system. Various percentages of universities are reserved for each class . Since tests play a big role in determining admissions, differences can be stark: as an example, people from the General quota know that they need over 60% on a certain test to get in to a particular school, but also know that someone from OBC will get in with 45%, and SC with 40% (those are real numbers, according to my neighbors).
The net effect of this system is that members of lower castes have been able to progress in society. However, because the reservation system is socioeconomic-blind, many of the people benefiting from the system come from privilege in the first place. Furthermore, the constantly entrenched idea of different classes in competition in society can fuel nepotism in certain situations. Finally, it can be difficult for competent people from high classes to advance in organizations, and the frustrating process can contribute to the already prominent brain drain. These types of situations certainly played a large role in my Dad's (easy) decision to leave the country when he could.
Switching gears again, tourism has taken a 25% hit since the Delhi gang rape incident, and women tourists are down 35%. New rape cases are alarmingly common in the papers. People here seem to be split on whether the higher visibility of the incidents seem to reflect a genuine increase in these sorts of crimes, or just a higher incidence of them being reported and written about in news sources. My hunch is the latter, but who really knows. The only silver lining is that public awareness of the issues is certainly increasing.
However, I fear awareness will only have a limited effect on the problem - violence against women is certainly not new in this country. Some people say "it's part of the culture" and while that's not untrue, I think it's a simplistic take on the issue. (Delving into potentially dangerous territory here - forgive me if I say something totally awful.)
From what I understand, most psychology-based approaches to explaining the causes behind rape (explaining not at all, in any conceivable way, meaning justifying) revolve around control. This sort of explanation seems to have some ground when considering the economic situation of the majority of Indians, particularly those living in destitute conditions - they simply don't have any meaningful control over their economic destiny. In many ways, the lack of control even permeates the upper classes - the government and entire social structure are so corrupt that any individual is only one interaction with the law away from having their lives completely uprooted. Compared to life in the States, life has a palpable sense of chaos in India - the rug can be pulled out from under you at any time (and for so many people, there is no rug...).
All of that to say that while I think awareness is great, it's hard to see a meaningful reduction in violence against women before the economic and civil realities of Indian citizens change - the former is a symptom of the latter, as I see it, and just one of many symptoms, at that. It seems this generally holds true for poorer countries (and it's not like the US is paradise - the maltreatment of women is an issue as old as humanity, and there is much work to be done in every corner of the globe).
Perhaps just as depressing is an overall attitude that permeates society and interactions. It's a game theorist's nightmare - a widespread lack of trust that leads to all sorts of unfortunate consequences. I think the traffic here is a great metaphor: no one believes anyone is going to follow the rules, so everyone tries to get everywhere as fast as they can without any regard for anyone else - driving on the wrong side of the road, swerving between lanes that don't really exist in the first place, etc. Of course, if everyone just followed a common set of rules (lanes, stoplights, etc.), everyone would get where they're going faster - but no one trusts others, so everyone charts a strategy of maximizing personal gain, and you end up in the lower right quadrant of the prisoner's dilemma.
The dynamic rears its head everywhere in everyday life. The country is filthy because no one trusts that anyone else to take the time to put trash in a dust bin, and so it's easier in the moment to just litter (hah it also hurts that there is no garbage industry/collection...). Things get even more troublesome when it comes to business interactions and communal resources (urinating and pooping in the Ganga being a great example). It makes me sad because I really don't know how something like this changes, outside maybe a super authoritarian government (which of course has it's own problems...).
Related is a sort of habitual trading of the long term for the short term. A driver I was speaking with had a great example - someone who hires a driver for a multi-day journey will often give the driver a poor tip. This means the driver will spend less money on food and lodging for the evening, probably not sleep as well as he could have, and ultimately will be less of a safe driver the next day. In trying to conserve his money, the person being driven has created a situation that is actually worse for himself. Not that drivers are blame free - expecting low tips and little reward for performance, they're often late and impolite. The driver said that he felt this sort of thinking is quite pervasive across society.
Please remember - there is no universal characterization of a nation of people. These are just a prevailing dynamics I've noticed. I could talk about how warm and welcoming Indians are and the same thing would apply. Furthermore, people generally tend to understand that these issues are deeply problematic, but it's a classic game theory situation where there is no easy way for individuals to show trust and allow others to reciprocate (not littering will not convince others to stop littering...).
(As I write this people in the internet cafe are complaining about the power cuts. The power has been off most of the morning into the afternoon. It's 2 now and it won't be back until 4, and if the past couple days are any guide, it might be closer to 6. Pretty sure today will be more than half the day without power...)
Finally, I'll end on a bright note - it's IPL season! The Indian Premier League (of cricket) is the first professional cricket league in the world, featuring 9 teams composed of top international and domestic players competing in a tournament format over 1.5 months. The sport is played in the exciting Twenty20 format (20 overs a side, look it up if you're interested :). It's super exciting and certainly a fun time to be in the country (despite the heat). I'll save the musing on the effects of the league's deep commercialization and incessant advertising on consumerism for another day. :)
Hope this post reaches you well. Thanks for reading, and until next time, take care.