I did see changes that impressed me this time. The internal airline service is superb. Hot meals, a smiling crew, on time, new and clean planes, and a large choice of airlines. The other is the relatively few number of beggars that can be seen in Mumbai. It is as if people are too busy making money and begging is no longer lucrative.
In 1997, we had invited an American couple to join us. We made plans to take them to Agra. Within a week, the only internal airline changed their schedule without telling us. We had to cancel our plans. While in Mumbai, we could not walk in the street because our friends felt so uncomfortable about the large number of beggars following us. Those days may be gone for good.
For the majority of people, life in India continues to be very harsh with few material rewards. Today 5% of India can afford to do just about anything, 25% can get by comfortably and the rest live in material poverty. Their high tolerance, low expectations, plenty of great food and rich social structures lets the majority of India continue to live in peaceful coexistence.
However, it is this general sense of tolerance and low expectations that may be working against India in rebuilding its grossly inadequate infrastructure, virtually untouched since the British left after the second war. Inefficiencies in local governments add to the lack of progress and modernization. There is little sense of planning of public works and no sense of scheduling. Things begin and are left incomplete, to hopefully get restarted in the near future. India seems to lack the standards and practices to rebuild and expand its infrastructure.
There is a move towards privatizing public projects such as airports. This is probably a good move, but the private sector alone is not sufficient. The private sector focuses on the high end of the Indian economy. Government programs will be needed to address the bulk of India’s basic needs, such as sewers, clean water, low-income housing, elementary education and health services. India needs to dramatically improve the standard of living of the underserved, since this will end up being India’s asset, the world’s largest consumer market.