I spent the third decade of my life in the U.S., first doing a PhD at MIT and then working at Bell Labs. But I came back to India to teach at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, where I have been ever since. The choice was mainly motivated by the fact that my undergraduate education at IIT was funded by the taxpayer’s money, and I felt a moral obligation to return (literally and figuratively). The point is I love my country as much as the next person, though my chosen profession of science knows no borders.
When I came back in 1995, India was on the radar of the world and of all big multi-nationals. With the opening of the economy in 1991, everyone felt that India would be the next miracle like the South-East Asian countries — Malaysia, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, etc. We would replicate the success of these “tiger economies,” but in the manner of an elephant — slow to move at first but with a large momentum once it got going. The Asian elephant had been awakened.
But what I have seen in the last two decades has left me disillusioned as to whether we will ever join the ranks of civilised countries. It dismays me that, despite our rich history and tradition, so many of our fellow citizens live in abject poverty, in inhuman conditions. The image of India that my American friends have is a place that is hot, dirty, disease-ridden, and over-populated. Can you blame them?
I list a few things that I think make a country civilised. There are glaring differences between India and any developed country.
Lack of overall cleanliness: No civilised country tolerates open garbage or litter. The roads are clean. The sides of the railway track are litter-free. Nobody spits or urinates in public.
And lack of open garbage is the reason that there are no stray dogs in these countries. Stray dogs in India are rabid and will bite anyone who comes near them. Civilised countries have only pet dogs, dogs that are vaccinated and well cared-for, often better than humans!
No honking and respect for pedestrians: Traffic in developed countries is orderly and disciplined. There is no honking. Drivers are taught to respect other roadusers, particularly people on bicycles or foot.
I remember once running across a road in a U.S. city before a bus came by. In my hurry, my right sandal came off, but I continued running barefoot because I was more interested in saving my life. The driver, however, stopped the bus, smiled at me and waited for me to pick up the sandal from the middle of the road before moving again. I felt sheepish that I had held up all passengers in the bus because of my stupid hurry. But can you imagine this happening in India?
Disabled friendliness: Go to a country like the U.S. or Germany, and you will find that the road pavements are smooth and end in a slope so that a person on a wheelchair can go anywhere. All shops and restaurants have handicap-access ramps. Each building has at least one toilet that can be used by a person in a wheelchair.
Two of the nearest parking spaces are always reserved for the handicapped. City buses, in addition to steps, have platforms that can be lowered to street level so that anyone in a wheelchair can wheel himself/herself in.
This was not always the case, at least in the U.S. 50 years ago. Back then, only a few restaurants had proper wheelchair access. I remember one of my teachers telling me that he became sensitised to this issue when he went to eat out with a handicapped friend, and found that the restaurant did not have proper wheelchair access. He made up his mind from that day to eat only at restaurants with proper access. If we made a similar resolution in India, we would have to give up eating out altogether!
Emergency services: Last but not least, medical and fire services are never more than a few minutes away. Drivers are taught to move to the side of the road to let emergency vehicles pass if they hear the siren of an ambulance or a fire engine. Compare the response in Boston to the recent bombing during a marathon there to any similar incident in India.
When will my beloved country become civilised?
(The writer belongs to the Department of Physics, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)