Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Pool reflections

I spent the afternoon today by the side of a pool in a resort in Kerala, India. I was there by invitation of some family members and they were my companions. Various other tourists from the UK and Italy and elsewhere also spent the afternoon by the pool. It cost 200 Rupees for the privilege unless you were staying at the resort in which case it was free.

It was a very nice pool - cool and blue. There were murals on the high wall which enclosed the pool and sun beds and green lawn. The sky was a brilliant egg shell blue. Coconut palms leaned over the wall and shaded the sunbathers; the hot season is just under way in India and that cool shade was delicious.


The entire experience was an exercise in keeping India at bay. The heat of the day, the chaos of the town, the dirt and grime of, well, everywhere; but above all the annoying presence of Indians. 90% of Indians don't have 200 Rupees spare for pool side lazing. The other 10% weren't around today. Perhaps they turn up now and then, but at least you can be sure that they won't be the annoying type who are forever asking for money.

Let us call a spade a spade. This is racist tourism. This place has been set up and deliberately priced to exclude poor people. Which means, since we are in India, excluding Indians. It could not be more obvious if they had a sign at the front saying LOCALS AREN'T WELCOME.

Such places are an attempt to distill all the tropical exoticness of the location - the sun, the sky, the palms - and remove the humans and all the inconvenience that comes with them.

Because, dammit, India - and Indians - can be pretty inconvenient. The roads are bad, the rubbish isn't collected so reliably, the food is spicy, the water's dodgy, the towns are noisy, and it's always so crowded. So many people!

Of course money has always been used in every country to avoid inconvenience. Rich people back in England can avoid many of the travails that bedevil your average Joe. The difference is that in this place the line dividing rich and poor follows pretty close to the line dividing foreigner from lcoal. So, to all intents and purposes, we have an apartheid set-up with white-only zones (except for the Indians who mix the drinks).

This kind of tourism stinks and this kind of resort stinks. Harsh words but I hold them to be true. The people around that pool were decent, ordinary people many of them were the same poor folk who, back in England, can't afford to avoid the everyday inconveniences that don't register with the rich. They were enjoying the novelty of feeling rich.

Unfortunately `feeling rich' is a novelty we have no right to enjoy - for it necessitates that others must feel poor.

This pool provided a reflection. A reflection of the state of the world - where millions are born, live and die in poverty. When we sun ourselves by the pool's blue waters we are openly enjoying the fruits of a world wracked by inequality, injustice and oppression. No wonder the glare of the sun this afternoon was so bright that most people had to shut their eyes.

* * * * * *

P.S. Arundhati Roy's An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire provides an alternative view of India to that experienced at the pool side:

47% of India's children below three suffer from malnutrition, 46% are stunted. Utsa Patsaik's study reveals that about 40% of the rural population in India has the same food grain absorption level as sub-Saharan Africa. Today, an average rural family eats about 100kg less food in a year than it did in the early 1990's. The last 5 years have seen the most violent increase in rural-urban income inequalities since independence. (p222, written in 2004)

Saturday, 9 February 2008

What a load of rubbish

Last week-end I took my beloved on a romantic trip to Chennai's main landfill site. As we approached the site the sweet smell of shit filled the air and a haze of smoke blocked out the sun. We coughed our way inside, through fumes erupting from piles of rotting refuse, waving away buzzing flies and mosquitoes. A mangy, pussy-eyed old dog sat at the side of a jet-black stream scratching its behind, while various people meandered around the site doing I don't know what. Sorting the rubbish? Scavenging? Contracting some kind of hideous skin rash? All of the above and more.

Outside the dump a group of local residents had gathered to express their protest at the state of affairs. The dump is huge (400 acres) and illegal and its right on the doorstep of a large number of poor families. These poor buggers have been housed courtesy of the Slum Clearance Board. This institution is supposed to move destitute people from squalid homes in slums and put them in decent housing elsewhere. But times change, and now the process seems to have reversed. The residents here used to live elsewhere in the city but had to move due to highways being built, or other developments. So now they live in squalid accommodation next to a massive pile of shit.

Actually shit is the least of their worries. It's the carcinogens in the air that really bother them (air samples from the yard taken on January 22, 2007 and analysed by Colombia Laboratory Services in California revealed the presence of 33 noxious gases, five of which are carcinogenic). And the prospect of contracting malaria from the monster clouds of mosqitoes that roam these parts.

This wasn't what the World Bank had in mind, I'm sure, when they funded these apartment blocks. No, Kodungaiyur dump yard won't appear on the front cover of their annual report. Just another unfortunate by-product of the long march to a globalised tomorrow.

More coverage:

The dumpThe dump

Protesting Indian-style. Nice masks.

Thanks World Bank! Shame about the view!

It'll take more than a massive pile of human waste to keep this lot down. I hope.