There is nothing like a short trip outside India to put the country in perspective. Several realisations emerge: the world is not obsessed with India as we seem to think it is, and India is still way behind many other countries in many crucial areas. Even a short trip to another developing nation can have a sobering effect on the rising hubris that India has become prone to.
Last week, on a brief holiday to Thailand, the vast gap between the self-perpetuated myths of Indians and the harsh realities became apparent. Right from the moment one steps out into Bangkok airport, it is clear that India is hopelessly behind in infrastructure. It is not merely the physical attributes of the airport - the size and the scale are overwhelming - but the systems in place, ranging from immigration to customs.
In Mumbai, after getting our papers checked at no less than four points - each time there was a crush and a traffic jam - a passenger went through only to find out that a wrong boarding pass for an onward flight had been stamped. Mistakes do happen of course, but the basic question remains-can't the processes be streamlined? What, for example, is the need for yet another person to look at your passport and boarding pass the moment you have left immigration? The inefficiency of the customs procedures becomes apparent upon return, when long queues form to put bags through X-ray machines, with little or no help from anyone.
Indeed, the entire tourism "product" of Thailand is vastly superior to the Indian one. Though it is undeniable that prostitution (which illegal) contributes to the attractions of Thailand not everyone comes to the country to explore the seamier underside of the beautiful country. It must also be noted that in the last few years, a wide range of crises has hit Thailand-SARS, the tsunami, the military coup and general political turmoil, with activists fighting on the streets and even taking over the airport. And let us not forget the general downturn in the global economy in 2008-09. With all this, Thailand has continued getting approximately 14 million tourists a year, compared to less than 5 million who come to India, and this after the successful Incredible India campaign.
There are many reasons for this, and lack of infrastructure - roads, airport capacity, hotel rooms among them - certainly plays a part, but the fundamental difference is that there is a tourism mindset in the country. From the vendor on the street to the big hotels to the tourism police, which is there for the protection of the visitor, everyone is geared towards making it work. There is great awareness about this crucial sector which contributes almost 7 percent to the economy.
For the traveller, the mixture of cheap hotels (the best one in Bangkok, during the peak season, is available for $160 dollars a night, compared to roughly $350-$400 for the best in Mumbai or Delhi), clean cities, vibrant night life, great food, safe environment, excellent shopping, culture and a friendly people is an unbeatable competition. Just count how many of these attributes we have and you will see the difference.
Now, one could argue that a country's worth cannot be measured by its tourism statistics. True enough. Thailand is a troubled nation where the army has intervened and taken over several times. It is in the midst of a severe political crisis. Corruption is certainly not unknown there. But the point is that while every country has its problems, others do not use it as an excuse not to do anything. Here, there is a tendency to constantly blame everything - our population, our poverty even our democratic system - for our failures. The big ingredient lacking is lack of will and application. Merely talking about becoming a big power is seen as enough.
Which brings me to the other point-do other countries see us the way we see ourselves? If newspaper and television coverage is used as a marker, the answer is a clear cut No. For the week or so I was there, I did not get any news about India in the local English papers (and for that matter in the Herald Tribune that is published from there.) All the stories that were making headlines here, whether scams, visits by international leaders or apparent insults to our hallowed diplomats were nowhere to be found. Thailand media treats us like we treat Thailand-it almost totally ignores us. China on the other hand was in the papers every single day. Is that because of the proximity of China and Thailand? Could be, but it also could be a sign of how seriously the world takes China.
The point of this article is not to bemoan the world's indifference towards India or the relative merits and demerits of India vis a vis other countries. It is only to show where we stand in the world, at least perceptionally and how we still have a long, long way to go before we can match up to others (including several smaller countries) in many crucial areas. There is a tendency among us to pat ourselves in the back at how much we have achieved, but the reality can come as a rude shock. India is not without its strengths, but a sensible assessment of our weaknesses will be very helpful.
This article is written by Sidharth Bhatia. Sidharth is a senior Indian journalist who has worked in print, broadcast and online media. He is a columnist and regular commentator on current affairs for several leading publications and on national television. This article was first posted on Personalfn.
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