30 April 2010

Counting heads

What costs 60 billion rupees, uses up 11 million tons of paper, concerns 240 million homes in 7000 towns and 600,000 villages and takes 11 months to complete by 2.5 million officials?

Answer: the 2011 Indian census!

India is the country with the second biggest population in the world (after China of course). Counting close to 1.2 billion people takes time, human resources and even paper.

Since April 1st, government officials and schoolteachers on their summer breaks are visiting each and every household in the country over the next 11 months to gather information for the 2011 census. From residential compounds to apartment blocks and shantytowns to footpaths, each of India’s 240 million households will be visited by an election official. They will be asked to answer 15 basic questions on their identity, date of birth, marital status, occupation, address etc., as well as 35 questions asking what kind of building material their homes are made of, if they have access to drinking water, electricity and toilets, and whether they have possessions like a mobile phone and personal computer.

Every person over the age of 15 will also be photographed and fingerprinted and given a national identification number.

Collecting and processing the personal details of over a billion people is no easy task. That’s why a sophisticated data electronic processing system is in place. Dr C Chandramouli who is in charge of the 2010 census seems to be proud of the Indian census which has been taking place since 1872:

“In terms of history, our census is the oldest. We were the first to use the Integrated Character Recognition Technology (ICRT) to scan the filled census forms and tabulate the data. We get delegations from countries like Indonesia, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal. And many of our retired census experts go to countries like Sudan and Ethiopia as consultants. We don't need to go anywhere to get trained as our methods are largely followed across the world. In the developed world they don't go from house to house, instead, they mail the forms to people… This can work in countries where everyone has an address.”

There was much debate in parliament whether a question on caste should be included in the census with many right wing parties insisting it should be. Last month the home secretary declared that caste will not be included in the census. Only ‘scheduled castes’ and ‘scheduled tribes’ will be recorded since these groups fall under the reservation system.

Despite this, my friends A & S were asked to volunteer information on their religion and caste. When they asked why this information was being asked of them they were told it was mandatory!

In the meantime the caste debate seems to continue in the papers who are also calling the 2010 census “the biggest-ever census attempted in the history of mankind.”

21 April 2010

Temple in construction

During our trip last December to Madhya Pradesh we visited a temple which had just been built. Sculptors and artisans were busy at work, creating sculptures and carvings out of the blocks of stone. These are images of the Bhaktamar Jain temple just outside Dhar.

16 April 2010

Ding dong!

A friend who had spent some time in the US told me that she found it to be a quiet and lonely place. No traffic noise. No crowds on the streets. No one talks to you. And no one knocks on your door… I had to laugh because it’s true that in India the doorbell rings several times a day.

Ding dong! Who could it be?

It’s the maid.
It’s the newspaper man coming to collect his fees.
It’s the man from the cable company collecting payment. (This is how bills are often paid - the only bill we receive by mail is the phone bill.)
It’s the courier man. (Any important document is sent by courier and not by post.)
It’s the paper wallah coming to collect old newspaper.
It’s the dhobi wallah delivering my ironing.
It’s the man who washes the car.
It’s a salesman selling encyclopedias.
It’s a woman asking me if I want to subscribe to DNA newspaper (“Your neighbours have subscribed,” she tells me, thinking this will convince me.)
It’s a man with a garlanded bull playing a nadaswaram (a noisy reed instrument)!
It’s someone from the BJP who wants to give me an election flyer.
It’s a group of children collecting money for the Ganesha festival.
It’s a neighbour stopping by for a chat.

These are some of the people who show up at my door. Actually I’m lucky that the entrance to our home is at the back of the house, so I don’t get too much traffic. People who live in houses often lock their front gates to avoid the not-always-welcome guests. Or they have a security guard stationed there whose job it is to deter beggars and salesmen and welcome bona fide visitors. It’s a full-time job!

Now please excuse me… someone’s at the door!

05 April 2010

Real India

Last weekend after a film premiere I found myself at a reception at one of Bangalore’s many swanky hotels. “This is not India,” I overheard a Frenchman remark, referring to the trendy bar we were in. Yes, this is India, I thought to myself. This is one facet of India. One of India’s many faces.

I think there are few foreign tourists who come Bangalore. There are expats, yes, but they are a different breed because they have come to India for professional reasons (and usually don’t like it). Travellers come to India (often every year) because they like it. That’s India. You love it or you hate it: passionately in either case.

Tourists and travellers are also different breeds. Tourists visit Rajasthan, the Taj Mahal and Kerala and stay in each place for a few days. Travellers go to places like Rishikesh, Manali, Varanasi, Goa, Tiruvannamalai and Hampi and stay for a few weeks, months or years. These places all have something of the ‘Incredible India’ about them, but they have also become travellers’ haunts overrun with Internet caf├ęs, German bakeries, Israeli restaurants and banana pancakes. And annoying touts asking you if you want to buy hashish.

Travellers tend to avoid Indian cities. They are too big, too crowded, too polluted, too noisy. They are also too ‘modern’ and therefore not the ‘real India’. They don’t want to see things that remind them of home, like shopping malls, automatic teller machines or rapid transit systems. They want the elephants and snake charmers. They want the authentic experience. The real India. Cities are of course very much a part of Indian life and if you scratch the surface and emerge out of the usual tourist haunts, real India inevitably stares you in the face from every doorway and street corner.

What is India?

India is temples, pilgrimages and festivals.
India is shopping malls, mobile phones, and tech parks.
India is vada pav, masala dosa and aloo gobi.
India is Domino’s Pizza, Baskin Robbins and caffe lattes.
India is overpaid executives, underpaid domestic workers and overworked taxi drivers.
India is stylish bars, trendy nightclubs and 5-star hotels.
India is darshinis, dabhas and chai stalls.
India is doctors, engineers and IT professionals.
India is rag pickers, office peons and rickshaw wallahs.
India is Bollywood, Tollywood and Kollywood.
India is arranged marriages, dowry deaths and child labour.
India is high-end real estate and overcrowded slums.

India is many things. They are all real.