Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Road Trip

'Home Sweet Home' is a special series on my visit back home to India after 3 years, hoping to document not just macroscopic changes in the world's populous democracy, but my own emotions on being back. While originally intended to be posted as events occurred, I was too busy to go online while in India, and I'm now posting these after my return to the US.

There are changes in India that become evident only when you take a road trip. For one, the choices of quality cars available is phenomenal, and several with good gas mileage to boot. Our choice was my brother's Tata Indica V2 , a homegrown 70 hp compact. While 70 horses seems a bit too few on American roads, Indians seem to do well on Indian roads with lower power. The Indica under real conditions gives about 10 kmpl (23 mpg) under real city conditions, even though under test conditions, it is rated at 14 kmpl (32mpg).

The National Highways are far improved from my days in India, thanks to the phenomenal Golden Quadrilateral project and other big infrastructure investments under the previous government. The GQ is a system of interstates linking the four largest cities in India by top-notch freeways. As we discovered on our drive to Bangalore, much of the freeway is now a toll road, but the Rs 150 ($3.20) spent on using the tolled highway saved us plenty of travel time.

Maybe it's a fiction of my imagination, but it does seem villages along the GQ are less impoverished than I remember. With rural centers now better connected to commercial hubs, I guess it's logical to expect the rural economy close to the distribution system is booming.

We stop at Natrampalli, a village that was my dad's first posting back in 1969, and now a town of just under 10,000 people. Let that number not fool you - in India, where populations are measured in rather large units, a town of just under 10,000 people is still a town in the middle of nowhere. So we were indeed surprised to walk into the bank and see an air-conditioned office, filled with computers. We learn that they will be inaugrating the ATM later that week .... imagine that, an ATM in the middle of nowhere! The branch manager also tells us they are part of the centralized computer banking system, that allows these villagers to access an account located anywhere in India. What change!

But lest we get too euphoric, a touch of reality. We go over to the Ramakrishna Mission premises. The Mission is an order of monks attempting to change the world, but unlike the wealthy religious groups of today, they still maintain an austerity, and still believe in a mission to improve spirituality, to make the Hindu a better Hindu, the Muslim a better Muslim, the Christian a better Christian. Our purpose though is not a religious one. We talk to the gentleman in charge of the Mission office, and he tells us of their efforts in education, with the percentage of children passing up from 8% to 30%. However, getting them to a level where they can go to college is a difficult task. The challenge is finding teachers willing to come for low pay to a remote village like Natrampalli.

After much discussion, the gentleman, in a reference to the previous government's electoral slogan 'India Shining', says, 'India is Shining, but only in the cities and highways'. He points out that when you get away from the highway, there are still myriad problems requiring solution. I still am an optimist, and I leave hopeful that the new successes in the economy will allow tutors from cities to come down for 1-2 weekends a month to help these children.

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