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India Holiday – Day 15: Ranthambore

Tags: — Allan @ 10:00 pm

There is so much poverty on display in India it is hard to fathom, while also considering that some are very wealthy. According to the OECD, income inequality has grown in the last 20 years: today, the top 10% make an average of 12 times as much as the bottom 10% do.

Of India’s 1.2 billion people, 65% live below the poverty limit, a staggering figure, particularly when you think about what the criteria is: 66.1 Rupees per day in cities, or 35.1 Rupees per day in rural regions. The higher figure translates to £0.76 per day, or around £277 per year – and 2/3 of India’s vast population does not meet this meagre “survival” threshold. It is definitely not a “comfort” threshold!

To put the number in perspective, an employee at a good hotel in a rural area (like the Shapura Bagh we just left) will have a salary around 3,000 Rupees per month (100 Rs per day) and at a super hotel like the Taj Lake Palace, the salary may be 3-4 times higher, at perhaps 10,000 Rs/month.

Even a salaried employee must therefore depend a lot on additiona income such as tips received from guests like us to support themselves, let alone a family. It puts into perspective the impact decisions on how much to tip must have – whether 50, 100 or 500, it really matters to the recipient.

I ask our driver Mr Prakash about his tips too, and he just smiles and says it’s a bit like gambling for him – sometimes you’re unlucky, sometimes you are more lucky, such is life. How hard must financial planning be in such circumstances?

I am convinced that a major thing that holds back India’s progress and furthers inequality is corruption. It is pervasive as every time you need to interact with or get a service from the government, a bribe is necessary to make things happen. A few examples give a taste of just how pervasive it is:

  • When you need to pay car road tax of perhaps 500Rs, the form is just not processed if you don’t also pay a bribe of 100Rs.
  • If you go to a public school, most teachers run “private tutoring” sessions afterwards. Students that don’t pay for those simply don’t get high marks.
  • If you go to a government hospital, there is no guarantee that you will see a doctor or a nurse or get medicine if you don’t pay to get it. Hospital-employed doctors also run private clinics to supplement their income, and encourage patients to use them.
  • If your electricity or water supply doesn’t work, complaining doesn’t help – only money does.
  • If you are stopped for a traffic offence (speeding, polluting, no lights), you are almost always given a choice of “ticket or money now”.

I have asked several people for examples like these and asked if it’s really all the time or just sometimes. One of them summarised it like this: “Donations are definitely compulsory, not optional”.

The above can explain why teachers and doctors are “absent from their workplace” for as much as 40% of the time: they are simply busy making money elsewhere. And because those government jobs are so desirable because they pay well, often come with a place to live, and are hard to lose, they are very expensive to get too: you can only be considered for an opening if you have enough money to pay the right people enough of a bribe.

To my mind, the whole system is rotten from top to bottom, and is a big impediment to things getting better in India. Once again I must plug the book Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which in spite of the odd title gives a great if occasionally depressing glimpse into corruption and its effect on social mobility.

Privatisation seems to be the only option for getting rid of corruption: you can’t typically bribe employees of a private company and complaints have a noticeable impact. In areas where utilities have been privatised for example, service is now much, much better. Can you privatise teaching? Traffic enforcement? The police? What else? Government itself?

As you can perhaps tell, I am feeling better today 🙂 After a bumpy ride, we do arrive safely at Ranthambore and start by packing what we need for the next few days into a single suitcase: when we leave here, it will be by train to Agra, where our driver will meet us with the rest of the luggage and we want to minimize what we need to take on the train.

After a brief lunch, we start the first of several safaris or “Game Drive” tours we have booked – we’re off to the reservation to go Tiger Spotting as Ranthambore is home to the Royal Bengal Tiger! Today’s trip is in an open-top Jeep-like car and we are joined by a couple from Germany/Belgium. They went on a trip this morning and are hoping for better luck this time…

The park is around 400 square km and is divided into 9 sectors that each have a few tigers and where strict limits on the number of cars entering are enforced, to make sure the area does not get overrun by tourists.

At least that is what we are told by the guide – I wish had a TransIndus one, but instead we got one from the hotel. As we approach the park, we are told we have to also have a guide from the park itself even though the jeep clearly doesn’t have room for him, but are told “it’s compulsory!” It amazes me that some silly rules appear unbreakable, whereas other more important ones are broken with impunity…

Our “official park guide” thus ends up wedged between the driver and the hotel guide on the front seats, half on top of the gear stick. He ends up saying exactly nothing during the tour, so I’m not sure what value he was meant to add, but given how many Indians it’s normally possible to pack into a jeep it’s probably ok 🙂

I am happy that we got a Jeep: the other way to enter the park is on a “Canter”, which is a much larger 20-seater. In such a vehicle, some of the narrow winding trails are inaccessible and it is surely impossible to hear what the guide might say if you are not in the first couple of rows.

We enter the park’s Sector 7 and drive around for a couple of hours, occasionally pausing to listen for animal sounds or warning cries to help spot tigers or leopards, but sadly hear nothing of the sort. It’s not quite what I expected: the park has a public road running through it, and most of the time we can hear the usual India noises: car horns, lorry horns and throaty engines. Sigh.

The park is also not quite the unspoilt nature we were hoping for; there are people waling around on foot on the well-worn tracks, and there are even people living inside houses and a small farm inside the park!

We don’t see any tigers, nor much sign of any other animals, sadly. A couple of gazelles and antelopes is the only slightly exotic wildlife – and although we do see cows, monkeys and peacocks as well, we see more equally disappointed tourists than we see animals 🙁

We’re booked for another tour tomorrow morning at 6:39, and we’ll go for that, hoping it’s better in the morning. Are we being stupidly naive, or tenacious and persistent? Time will tell; tune in tomorrow for an update that hopefully has better news 🙂