The garbage in India beggars belief. It’s everywhere. It’s on every street, the parks, the empty blocks. Somehow, perhaps the rains carry it, perhaps it’s swept there, it migrates from there to the margins of the city, where it accumulates between the slums and the foetid waterways, or beside the railroad tracks, or on the empty blocks. These are the ad-hoc landfills. Kids play on them, observed without interest by stray dogs made languid by the heat. Every so often, one will catch on fire, and the waste will finally be destroyed, a sort of perverse bushfire clearing the refuse scrub. I don’t see what new green shoots will grow from this however. Yet the cycle goes on.
India does, at least, have half a sewage system: for a lot of people, what goes in the toilet isn’t simply dumped in the nearest creek. This isn’t the case in the slums, built without the benefit of infrastructure. The people who live here simply shit and piss on the piles of garbage outside their houses. The piles of rubbish that the kids play on. The smell, raised by the heat from the excreta and detritus, lingers everywhere, a constant presence to ensure you never forget where you are, and the conditions there.
This is the libertarian nature of modern India: libertarian, not in the sense that the state has withered away (it hasn’t), but that the state is ineffectual. Despite the bureaucracy, its reach is limited, and it simply can’t enforce its laws and regulations. Small businesses of questionable legality emerge and disappear with neither the knowledge or the approval of the government. Traffic laws apparently exist, but are ignored without fear of punishment. So, by all accounts, India should be a paradise: the invisible hand of self-interest should have created an explosion of wealth and the rising tide of economic growth should be lifting 1.2 billion boats. This is patently untrue – almost all entrepreneurialism that exists is the entrepreneurialism of the desperate, where you can start a “business” to eke out subsidence, or you can starve.
Thus, on each corner, the wretchedly poor will establish their business every morning, hoping to sell enough lemons, cheap (yet colourful, like everything here) plastic tubs or flower chains to afford to eat and pay rent. I remember watching the fantastic BBC documentary “Welcome to India” before I left – there, other “entrepreneurs” dug in sewers for scraps of gold, or sold used plastic bottles. It spoke to a brutal and unforgiving existence, and this is what I saw.
With the need to survive so openly felt, you find – as a white person, who is therefore rich – that it becomes difficult to have interactions with people; in their place, you have transactions. Everything is a potential opportunity for profit, so the white tourist will be assailed by cries of “Hello, sir, hello!”, or “Where are you from?”, and will be often grabbed by the arm to be guided into a shop. This is a pity – perhaps in another situation, these shopkeepers might actually care where I’m from, but not now: the economic calculus demands otherwise. It would be churlish to actually get irritated at this though: it’s just a concrete demonstration of the privilege we Westerners have. But you do get very defensive.