Thursday, January 31, 2008

Amritsar - Wagah Border

Last weekend I visited Amritsar, making my first journey outside of NCR in about 2 months. It felt good to travel again. I took the 4:30pm Shitabdi Express train from Delhi to Amritsar. The train was comfortable with the usual services of tea, dinner, water, etc. It stopped at Panipat, Sirhind, Ludhiana, Phagwara, Jalandhar and Beas before reaching Amritsar.


I arrived in Amritsar around 11pm and took an auto rickshaw to the Hotel Astoria which was about 10 minutes away. I checked into my 1st floor room and went to sleep. It was cold in Amritsar, around 0 degrees Celcius, so I grabbed the blanket from the 2nd bed. I also had a blower heater right next to me. It was not enough to fully beat off the cold, but it did help me sleep.


I spent most of the next day walking around Amritsar and taking it easy. After having lunch at the Crystal restaurant, which has a very good selection of Amritsari and international food, I departed for the Wagah border in a pre-booked taxi to see the sunset flag lowering ceremony.



The border is normally crowded, but on that day it was especially crowded because it was Republic Day for India. Republic Day commemorates the events of January 26, 1950. On this day, India ratified its constitution and governing of the country officially passed from England to India. You can read more about Republic Day here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Republic_Day_(India).



The Wagah border is about 30 km east of Amritsar. The ride to the border was quite nice. We passed several universities, numerous military barracks, and lush green farming fields on both sides of the road. At 4pm we reached the border and parked about 1 km from the actual India-Pakistan border. My taxi driver waited in the car while I trekked along with a huge crowd of people to the border. There were popcorn, dvd, and postcard vendors everywhere.



The layout of the border is as follows: on the India side, there is a gate on top of which is written 'India' in English and Hindi. In the center are the 3 lions of Ashoka which can be found on Indian passports. Surrounding this gate are two grandstands for spectators. Further down the road just short of the final gate, on the right, are the guard barracks. The street is lined with lamposts draped with red & black symbols of the Indian army. Finally, at the end of the Indian side is a gate with the Indian flag painted on it.


The space between India's gate and Pakistan's gate is where the actual border lies. This area is 'no man's land'. On the opposite side of this line is Pakistan. Their side looks basically like India's side, with grandstands for tourists.




From 4-5:30, there were various dances, songs, the singing of the Indian national anthem, etc. Crowds kept pouring into the grandstands so it became very difficult to see anything and people were just getting crushed against each other. I kept on waiting for the Indian guards to close off the grandstands and turn new visitors away, but unfortunately this never happened.


Pakistan's side was fairly empty, however. I think this was because it was Republic Day for India, not Pakistan. Still, I could have gotten a much better view of the ceremony and been less crushed had I been sitting in Pakistan's spacious grandstands. I think I will have to return to Wagah border on a day that doesn't have national significance or attend the flag-raising ceremony in the morning to get a better view of the festivities.


Nevertheless, Indians were getting fired up for the ceremony between 4-5:30pm. In each section of the crowd, a spectator would lead chants like: "Vande Matram" (bow to mother earth) or "Hindustan Zindabad" (long live Hindustan) or "Jai Hind" (victory to India). At sunset, a contingent of Indian soldiers marched to the gate to engage in a 'march-off' with the Pakistani soldiers. Finally, both sides lowered their flags, and the ceremony was over.

If you want to see actual video of the border ceremonies, check them out on YouTube:



On the way back to the hotel, I saw a sign for Kashmir, which is only about 500 km to the north. I guess that trip will have to wait for another day.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Delhi Auto Expo (and the ride there)

Flashy cars. Flashy women. Throngs of people. This was the Delhi Auto Expo that roared into town in mid-January. So what's a traveller like me to do? Check it out with some friends, of course.




We drove to the Dwarka Sector 11 metro station, parked the car, and rode the metro to Pragati Madan. This was the first time I had ridden the metro and I was quite impressed. The ride was reasonably priced at 18 Rs per person. The metro and metro stations were also very well kept. Like everyone else, I'm looking forward to the day when the metro comes to Gurgaon. But, I also wonder if metro can handle the demand. In the 3-4 years that the metro has been running, though, the government has been doing a good job of keeping the metro in good condition. In fact, the metro rivals the BART in San Francisco or the T in Boston in terms of cleanliness.



Once in the Auto Expo, we had numerous options. This was the great thing about the Expo. You could see everything from motorcycles, to concept cars, to pratical cars, to luxury cars. And, all the major automakers were represented: Tata, Maruti, Mercedes, BMW, Volvo, Skoda, etc. There was also representation from various other auto companies (automotive PLM software, used cars, etc.). Of course, to see any of these things, you had to fight your way through the crowds of people who were trying to do the same thing.

The biggest crowd was ogling the much vaunted 1 lakh car. The crowd was so expansive that this was the best shot I could get! I wonder how much cheaper the 1 lakh car is than the next cheapest car. I've been pretty happy with my bicycle so far, but for only 1 lakh, I might upgrade my two-wheeler to a four-wheeler. I just hope India comes up with the '1-lakh road' next!

Enjoy the pictures below:

































































Friday, January 18, 2008

Visit to FACE India in Faridabad

Last Sunday I visited Faridabad to scope out sites where medical volunteers could do work. I'm part of a US-based non-profit organization called HealthCare Volunteer (http://www.healthcarevolunteer.com/) which strives to place volunteers who want to do health volunteering in places that need them. I met Manoj Kumar and Asharf Kahn of FACE India who will serve as HealthCare Volunteer's local partners. We visited a school in Sikri, a government clinic in Faridabad, and a slum in Faridabad - all are possible places were medical & dental volunteers could be sent. While it would be nice for our volunteers to start a clinic, this will require a large amount of funding. So, our goal is to send volunteers to existing clinics and have them help out where possible.


The school in Sikri was immense and fairly well kept. It has a pool which is currently dry, but which will be filled with water in the Summer. There are about 3-4 floors in this school. Some of the rooms even house students who live at the school.

The government clinic was old but functioning. We saw the emergency room where the only patient was a baby receiving oxygen. In the back rooms, we saw a group of hospital workers examining TB tests administered at the AIIMS (All India Institute of Medical Sciences). This was the most promising volunteering site, but volunteers would still need to adjust to the environment.

Last, in the evening, we visited a slum in Faridabad. This was my first or second (depending on how you define a 'slum') visit to a slum. Slums are essentially places with extremely cramped living conditions. I peered inside several houses and saw 5-10 people living in a single room. However, most of these homes had small TVs. Behind the houses was a large pond of contaminated water, which probably served as a breeding ground for water-borne diseases. We visited two clinics, which were essentially small, one-room areas on the main street. No doubt the people of this slum could use extra medical care, but the infrastructure is lacking.

The slum contained two 1 room clinics (10 feet x 5 feet x 10 feet (height)). One option is to have volunteers work in these clinics, but we need to find out what kind of medicine is available there first.


We're happy to partner with FACE India as its our first partnership in India. Together, we'll bring much needed healthcare to the neediest citizens in India, starting with the people in NCR.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Life in India vs. Life in the US

Well, ladies and gentleman, the results of my first poll are in. On the question of When will life in India be comparable to life in the US? we had 22 answers. But before I give my take on the results, a few words on the question itself:

Most people observed that the question was vague, and indeed it was. I wanted to leave the question open to interpretation for two reasons. First, I wanted people to use their own definitions of 'life' and 'comparable'. Then, using their definitions, they could vote however they wanted. And by seeing the results, I would have an idea of what kind of definitions for 'life' and 'comparable' they were using. This, to me, was almost more important than the actual results themselves. Second, I didn't want to make the question too long...

1) 5 - 10 years (6 votes)

When this poll went live, I felt that this answer was just too aggressive. I couldn't see the roads improving or the bureaucracy evaporating, for example, in just 5-10 years. However, if I look at how far the country has come in the last 5-10 years, then I have to at least take this answer seriously. I obviously wasn't in India from 1997 to most of 2007, but I can at least guess at how things have changed.

In 1997, I know that SAP opened its office in Banglore. In 10 years, Banglore has become a major office for SAP with thousands of employees. I'm sure that many other companies did the same thing in Banglore at about the same time. 1997 seemed to be the time that 'oustourcing' to India started. Outsourcing really put cities like Banglore and Hyderabad on the international map. Now, we're in 'phase 2' of outsourcing where folks in India are now partners with colleagues from the US and other countries.

In 5 - 10 years, I expect more progress to be made and for cities like Gurgaon to become more like Banglore. But, I don't expect the economic boom to reach all parts of the country.

2) 10 - 20 years (5 votes)

This answer seems a bit more realistic to me. The farther ahead we look, however, the harder it becomes to predict where India will be vs. where the US will be. But, in 10 - 20 years, I can see Indian businesses picking up steam which will create more jobs in cities outside of Banglore, Hyderabad, Gurgaon, etc. The question of course is what happens to the population. If the population growth can be slowed, then I can expect that things will be better in India. If not, then the gap between 'haves' and 'have-nots' will only grow.

3) Never (5 votes)


Depending on your definitions of 'life' and 'comparable', this is also a pretty realistic answer. The two countries are so different that life in one place could never be like life in the other place. Some people even asked a follow up question: 'Do we even need to compare the lives in both of these places?'

And that question has merit. Both countries have different things to offer. It would be much easier to compare, say, the US and Canada, even though those two countries themselves have different things to offer. But, I feel that, yes, one does need to ask this question. If you were choosing a country to live in for most of your life, and US and India were your two choices, which would you choose? This is a question that most Indians who have the option of living in both countries ask themselves. When you answer this question, you have no other choice but to compare. Some people, like my parents, chose the US and never looked back. Others, like my cousin and her family in Chennai, chose India (at least for now) after 4 years in the US. And some Indians choose India from the start and spend their entire lives in India.

So there you have it. 22 votes later, an inconclusive answer to an indefinite question. But aren't those the best kinds of questions?

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Why India is bad for your health

I woke up this morning slightly sick today. As I was lying awake in my bed at 7am, under 4 blankets (1 very thick one), wearing shorts, sweatpants, a longsleeve nylon athletic shirt, a sweater, the sweatshirt that goes with my sweatpants, another light jacket, and my wollen cap, breathing cold air and coughing from a little morning congestion, I felt like I finally had been blessed with clarity on the health issue in India.

Sickness is everywhere in India. It's one of the first things you notice, actually. In my case, I've had roughly the same number of moderate bouts with cold / flu that I usually have in any 3-month period. But, I've noticed the difference in the number of small, fleeting sicknesses that I've had. These include the mosquito attack on day 2 in Bombay, swollen lymph nodes, dryness-induced cough, pollution-induced congestion, and morning congestion which happens because the low ambient temparature weakens the immune system and little bacteria that your body would normally dispatch without any problems actually get in there and do some minor damage for a few hours.

I've seen sickness around me. One of my co-workers is attending to 2 sick family members right now. My maid's daughter is serious to critical condition in UP and I'm praying for the best. At any point in time, I would estimate that 10% of my 70 person group is at least a little sick.

Of course, the problem is much worse in the lower classes. They spend most of their days outside and therefore are exposed to the elements - which, right now, are the dry cold. Granted, we're not talking about arctic tempartures, but even prolonged exposure to slightly chilly weather can weaken your immune system enough for something to sneak in. It seems like everyone in the lower class who is over the age of 45 is afflicted with a chronic cough, including my maid. And what of the Maple Heights guards? They are wrapped in their shawls and patroling the complex, outside in the cold night. We need them, though. Without them, burglary would run rampant in our complex.

And of course the animals aren't doing that much better (at least the Gurgaon animals) . We have mangy dogs and mangy pigs roving in packs. The oxen are struggling to find anything green to eat. All I have to say is after you buy your vegetables at the maket, you better be ready to fend off a curious and hungry ox. The only animals that are doing well are the buffalo. Buffalo are prized in India for their milk and also for the great pulling power. When you see buffalo, you know they can't be stray. They are too valuable to be stray. All of the buffalo that I've seen have been strong.

So why is the health situation this poor in India? Here is my analysis:

1) Diversity of pathogens

Just as different countries have different animals and climates, so too do different countries have different diseases. Certain diseases thrive in certain climates. That's why malaria is a greater risk in India than in California, for example.

2) Ease of transmission due to large population

Most diseases require a host. They don't just 'float' on the wind. Finding a host is not a problem in India because there are people wherever you turn. At work, there are lots of people. At home, there are lots of people. You might be living with 5 other people in the same room. Thus the disease can pass very quickly from one person to the next.

Poor hygiene is another issue. Dishes are shared, utensils are shared, and these items are not sufficiently cleaned.

3) Weak immune system from harsh living conditions

Once you have contracted an illness, you have to fight it off. This is harder to do India because there are so many factors that are conspiring to weaken your immune system. A) Harsh weather B) Insufficient nutrition C) Dehydration D) Pollution E) Fatigue. Since you can't fight it off as quickly as someone who has a much easier life, it lingers on in your body, gains in strength, and then jumps to the next person.

4) Ignorance

This contributes to each of the first 3 factors.

4 --> 1) You don't realize that there are a large number of pathogens all around you and you don't take precautions to protect yourself i.e. vaccinations.

4 --> 2) You don't practice good hygiene and thus the disease lingers long enough to spread. You don't realize that utensils need to be cleaned with a disinfectant, not just given a cursory rinse.

4 --> 3) You don't realize that your body needs rest and fluids to strengthen its immune system nor do you realize that the harsh climate outside is probably not the best thing for you when you are sick.

5) Poverty

This contributes to each of the first 3 factors.

5 --> 1,2,3) You know exactly what you need to do. But, you also need money. And through no fault of your own, you were born into a remote village somewhere in India and you need to make the best of your situation.

Well, the solution to these problems is not easy. It boils down to increased awareness (we need to stop blaming anything and everything on 'weather change') and financial security. Healthcare (your own) takes a back seat when you don't have money. Of course, a stronger economy will help as will a lower population. Diseases mutate, so it's not enough to solve the current set of problems. There will be a new set. The fundamentals need to be in place to handle the new health problems.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

India in 2008

Happy New Year! One of my goals is to spend New Years in as many different places as possible. Some of the interesting places I have celebrated New Years in are Barcelona, Las Vegas, Bahamas, Galapagos Islands, and now Gurgaon. I hope to travel until I can't travel anymore or I run out of money. So what's the outlook for India in 2008? I decided to ask my friends.

The consensus: cautiously optimistic. The economy is growing at about 9% and the stock market is on a tear. Wages are rising and there continues to be good on-shore employment in the sense that there is a lot of business being done between Indian companies. We also won the inaugural 20-20 World Cup, so that should calm the nerves and keep the insecurity a bay for at least 1-2 years.

But when we look at our unfortunate neighbor to the West, we realize how close we are to a total breakdown. According to my friends, the economic boom of India has completely passed Pakistan by. According to another of my friends, Pakistan was leading India in most economic statistical categories until only recently. The economic boom is the main reason why there is a general rule of law in India. When there is money in the pockets, the raging feelings of insecurity, distrust, and bitterness can be kept in check.

But India is not that different from Pakistan. Yes, India is a democracy, and a decent one, at that. But the bright economic prospects are what is keeping this diverse country from splintering apart. South Indians are coming to Gurgaon to work. North Indians are traveling south to Hyderabad, Chennai, and Bangalore to work. Foreigners are coming to India to work. And smart, hardworking Indians are actually passing up chances to go to the US and other countries to work. All of this is good for India because exposure breeds knowledge which breeds tolerance.

So I think that India is moving in the right direction, if slowly. In 2008, I'm hoping for infrastructure development and an increased level of confidence displayed by the average Indian. I'm also hoping for more tolerance and less ignorance. Lastly, I'm hoping that India can fuel its growth through intra-country business.

The demise of my heater

It's pretty cold in Gurgaon now. The highs are in the 60s and the lows are in the 30s. To make matters worse, one of the prongs on the plug of 500 Rs heater decided to blow up when there was a power surge in my apartment. As you well know by now, the power cuts out about 5x per hour. Maple Heights, my apartment, has 100% power back up. So when the power cuts out, the generator kicks in until the regular power comes back. In this transition between regular power and generator power, power surges sometimes occur. The first blow-up happened about a week ago. The surge came and blackened one of the three prongs. But, the darned heater was still limping along. It limped along until yesterday, when another surge came and completely demolished that poor prong. When I tried to plug the heater in again, it blew-up a 3rd time. And then I knew that the plug was done. But, all is not lost. I can still go to Viyepar Kendra and buy a new plug! Then, I can buy a surge protector, and my heater will live into old age...