Background: Standing at the window of my elegant hotel room in Agra’s Oberoi, I catch my first glimpse of the pale domes and spires of the Taj Mahal floating over the horizon, gleaming dully in the moist dawn light. Foreground: Below me is the sparkling sapphire square of an enormous swimming pool, its arcades and columns a whimsical nod to Mughal architecture. The fringes of colorful umbrellas flutter in the breezes; jasmine spills over pots.  Middle ground: A few acres of empty field, scrawny trees scattered about, the earth hard-packed, dusty and dry. Several barefoot men walk along paths, carrying small water bottles, another dozen are squatting at the edge of an embankment, pants down, shitting on the ground.

The night before I left for India I had dinner in New York with an artist who had recently installed a mural for a ballroom in a 27-story mansion in Delhi. Driving into Delhi from the airport, I pass dozens of building projects, multi-story developments for office parks or apartments. Leaving Delhi for Agra, we pass miles and miles of villages, makeshift homes barely propped up, canvas or corrugated metal hoisted over rope beds.  Elaborate stacks of dung cakes are neatly lined up along the road; they are precious fuel for cooking and heating. I glimpse a young woman teaching a child to mix the straw and cow dung, shape the roundels, spread them to dry. Along the way, tall smokestacks of cement plants and brickworks and power plants belch thick, black soot.

There is nothing to say about the extreme poverty of India--and its contrast to extreme wealth--that has not been said a thousand times over the centuries. I knew about toddlers wandering the streets, pressing their faces against car windows, begging in clogged traffic. About camels and cows and donkeys and water buffalo and dogs and monkeys and pigs rooting through the garbage strewn by the roads. But nothing--no book, no article, no warning--could have prepared me for the shock. Three hundred million people living without access to electricity, or clean running water to drink, much less for plumbing. Think of the millions of gallons of clean water used to flush toilets in middle class homes; our waste has better treatment than do millions people. 

In sharing this journey, I must note the poverty--right up front--because it confronts every visitor, right up front.  I have nothing to add to the conversation about it. But I am somehow honor bound to bear witness. 

While I was watching the sunrise over the Taj, my gaze kept returning to the men shitting in the open field--it took me a long time to understand what I was seeing. I kept wondering, where are the women? A few days later, I happened to meet someone whose husband, she told me, is “obsessed with the subject of waste treatment.” It is always amazing to me how, when you ask the universe a question, you soon get an answer.  I learn that the women shit only at night, under cover of darkness. The chronic diarrhea that plagues the poor is not just a health issue for women; it causes a terrible social stigma as well.

I learn that the government has been subsidizing toilet installation, but that the money either doesn’t get into the plumbing, or worse, it goes down the drain: the toilets are built, and then used for grain storage. Subsidies are useless if people are not educated about why plumbing is good. My new friend’s husband tours poor villages, giving a lecture about sewage; beforehand, he places a pile of human excrement on the ground, and a few feet away, a plate of food. These sit behind him while he talks. Soon enough, flies buzz about, landing on first one plate, then the other. At the end of the talk, the man turns to the plates. He asks the villagers to watch the movement of the flies as they walk on the waste, and then on the food. He shows the villagers how the flies contaminate the food; how the people are eating their shit. How it makes them sick. And they begin to understand.

There is no way to be hard-hearted about enormous poverty, yet it is equally impossible to be always heart-broken. We need, perhaps, soft hearts, hard eyes--a clear gaze? We see how environmental degradation plays out: who gets the clean water and filtered air; who lives under the belching smokestacks and bathes in the sewage. Who eats shit. 

The panel of fabric at the hotel windows are a mere scrim; no amount of embroidery can hide the reality of poverty from the pampered visitor. There is a more powerful way: hotel chains linking their brains, their resources, their contacts, and deciding to better the lives not only of their guests, but of their neighbors. The hotels can bring the plumbing and clean water past their own doors, into the villages. Clearly, the hotels, too, would benefit from Open Defecation Free zones, as the term of art goes.

If anyone understands that we’re all in this together, it has to be the travel industry. After all, the hospitality business is all about sharing this world’s bounty. India and the United States are brimming, booming, beautiful countries. We have a choice about how we will go on living: up to our eyeballs in shit? Or cleaning up the mess we’re all making.


Thea said...

most discussions reference the subject of waste, but you tell it like it is, giving the subject of sewage a realness. wow. so basic to humans, yet so far out of reach.

Thea said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cristina said...

what a punch in the stomach...
...but healthy just the same: one has to know what the "true reality" is, even if it can be disturbing.
once again, thanks for sharing.

Maxly said...

India is a place of contrasts. Seeing it from an Oberoi and a Taj brings the contrasts even further apart.

I love India because of the people.

One of the things I was told on my first trip here was to look beyond and through the poverty and see the hope. That was and is good advice to experience this fabulous, amazing place.

See the hope. And the dignity that transcends the terrible poverty. I wish for you that India isn't defined by poverty but by its amazing resourcefulness.

Namaste, and enjoy.

Anonymous said...

I stayed at Oberoi's as well and as a comparison to real life in India there are no words. The poor in India make our poor look rich on some many levels. I came home with a new understanding of what poor truly looks like and an appreciation that USA really does stand out. Now with that said, we need to do more for the poor around the world starting with our own right here in the US. India changed my mindset about so many things. It was mt ah hah moment.

david terry said...

Dear Ms. Browning,

Thank you very much for that good, necessarily blunt posting.

Anyone interested in women's health issues and the utterly-endlessly-reverberating societal and economic impacts of those issues should take time to read Abraham Verghese's very fine novel "Cutting for Stone". Granted....it's a novel. Still?...Your comments reminded me of his treatment of the causes of and"shaming" associated with vesico-vaginal fistulas. The novel's been, of course, a best-seller.....but I think the word needs to be passed-on.

Oddly enough?...I'm cooking today for a birthday dinner that I'm throwing tonight for the 76th birthday of a good friend who grew up with her sisters in Thailand (she's as blonde-American as it gets) while her physcian father established (under one or another of those various, post-war "plans") the first women's clinics in Thailand and Cambodia. This would have been in the 1950's.

My French doctor partner (who works with/for the WHO, CDC, "Doctors Without Trousers", etc) spent his twenties setting up women's health clinics in Faso Burkina.

My mother, of all people, still refers to Verghese quite familiarly; she's the adopted daughter of a local doctor and came to know Verghese when he was working at the VA hospital in our small, East Tennessee town during the early 1980's....the setting for his first and justly celebrated book "My Own Country".

All in all, I've been schooled in these issues, and most of it was an eye-opener for me.

Thanks for your speaking frankly on Women's Health Issues, poverty, environmental degredation,etc....and all the very sound reasons that none of these things should be filed under separate categories.


David Terry

mary said...

Over the past few months I have been sorting through the knowing that we are all one to get the heart embracing truth that I am my neighbor; that what is done or not done to one person is carried through in my life. This truth is very sobering when viewing the poverty and ignorance that exists in so much of the world.
Thank you for opening the conversation.
Have a safe journey.

William said...

I'm afraid that there is not much hope for things getting appreciably better in India. As a comparison it has roughly 1/3 the land area of the United States and roughly 4 times the population with a 80% of those people - about 1,000,000,000 - living at or near poverty levels. For the expanding middle and upper classes the urban areas have and will continue to improve but the 1,000,000 people left are pretty much screwed. Conceptually some of those people will move to the middle class but it will barely take a nibble out of the 1,000,000,000 number living at or close to poverty, unfortunately.

Sharen said...

Thank you for the sobering post, Dominique. What happens to one brings shame on all of us. Something which may interest you is the MS Foundation School near Hyderabad (you can find it using Google) founded by Tom Holloway from Oxford, England whose team works tremendously hard to help the dalit children. I discovered his school through the World U3A (University of the Third Age) and since then for the last two years we (including our 3 teenage granddaughters each sponsor "little sisters".) Our girls have become much more aware of what is happening in India, and are eager to help. Tom believes in education as the road to improvement and is putting his heart and soul into making a difference. If you look at the faces of the children, you can see why he is so dedicated. Perhaps we cannot all be Tom, but I believe everyone can do something, don't you? Individuals who are changing the world little by little and not depending on large organizations to "do something".

SweetRetreat said...

I am mesmerized by the photo of the woman and child, which to an unknowing observer would seem a picture of contentment. Cows look happy, woman could be showing child how to make castles ... so far from reality. The poverty is simply overwhelming, and women waiting for nightfall to shit hits hard. In London not many years ago, I looked out the window of my very nice hotel and observed a woman doing just that in the park across the street. The image never left me.

Thank you for the honesty. We need jolts of reality, helpless as we are to do much.

pve design said...

Mother Teresa looked upon and helped all walks of life,
all out of love. We need more like her to inspire and love all people, no matter the poverty or riches.

Sara said...

Thanks for the thought provoking post. Every one I know who has been to India has been profoundly moved by the country and its people. I agree with Dave Terry Verghese's "Cutting for Stone" is a fine novel to get you thinking. As well as his "My Own Country."

Dominique said...

I've written about this issue of "hope" in a post that will appear in a day or so, on Gandhi. I have to say, my first response was exactly that of William: I just felt overwhelming despair at how impossible a situation this is. And yet, if you look at the huge numbers of people who have climbed out of poverty IN THE LAST FOUR DECADES, you have to take hope--because many others have forged ahead, with hope and hard work. The same, in a way, holds for pollution issues. I was struck by how the air in Delhi reminded me of the bad old days in LA and NY. Look how far we have come since 1970, with the passage of the Clean Air Act. We still have a long way to go, but things can change for the better. Take heart!

Planning to read Cutting for Stone upon my return; it was given to me as a gift not long ago. Thank you all so much for writing, it helps me more than you can know to get a response, and to feel that I am connecting.

Doreen said...

A trip through Bangladesh and parts of India in the early '80's contnues to inform some of my everyday decisions. Any one of us who have grown up in the U.S. is blessed with more no matter the income- freedoms, material goods, opportunities etc - when compared to a great number of others in the world. It is important that we see this reality for ourselves and let it shape new perspectives and ways of being and doing. Thank you for your sharing - list more images- and for your raw honest commentary. There is a great deal of beauty in India even within the poorest regions. You are so fortunate to be there

Lisa Stockwell said...

I'm thoroughly enjoying all your observations and photographs. It reawakens senses that have been snoozing of late!

One of the best pieces of advice I was given on my own travels in India was that the best way to understand a place is to go out at dawn and watch it wake up. You're there before the hustlers and tourists have taken over and everyone is still relaxed and just greeting the day. One of my favorite moments in India was in a little town called Devi Ghar where I set out around 7 a.m. and watched vendors pull up the colorful metal doors in front of their storefronts one by one to expose baskets of spices, shelves of hookahs, perfectly arranged pots and pans and odd assortments of hardware. I saw camels lying down on the street waiting to be loaded for the day. And then a young boy wandering around insisted on being my tour guide and took me to his home to introduce me to his family and showed me all his favorite spots in the village. It was quite magical and real, and if you are like me and don't normally get out before breakfast, I can't recommend the experience enough.

I'm looking forward to hearing about the rest of your journey!

c said...

Well, Dominique, your post goes so far beyond the superficial discussion of poverty in most of the world, I am finding it very difficult to focus. There are sooooo many issues that need addressing!

I was born, and grew up, in what was then considered a "3rd world nation". I saw poverty up close, and because of that exposure as a child, I am not as shocked as most americans are when confronted with it.

I believe there are certain cultural differences which make it impossible to have all nations live and treat each other as americans do.

When "toilets are built, and then used for grain storage", speaks of such a different way of life, a completely foreign way of thinking, how can we possibly be so arrogant and think we can impose a way of life on people half way around the world?

Your thought - "Subsidies are useless if people are not educated about why plumbing is good" - ignores what is behind the appalling "women shit only at night, under cover of darkness".

When every nation in the world treats ALL its citizens as equals, when we all care for one another, we might see changes. Don't hold your breath, though. As much as I would like to see such change, the cynic in me says I won't see it in my lifetime. Or my grandchildren's lifetimes.

So sad.

Yes, there is hope. But changes will not come from the travel industry. Business is business. Government is the vehicle, but when governments are so corrupt, hope is not enough.

Thank you for such a frank and honest report. Maybe if more media outlets were half as honest, change could be effected sooner.

William said...

I don’t know, Dominique, I’m all for hope and certainly more than all for hard work, but India is not looking good. India is expected to surpass China as the world’s most populous country in just a few short decades with most of the new population being born into poverty - bringing the total number of people living in poverty to over 1.4 billion. That’s close to 5x the population of the United States packed into an area equivalent in size to the amount of land in this country lying east of the Mississippi River. 1.4 billion people living on $1 a day and packed into a relatively small land area. I can’t see a happy ending to this story for the people or the environment.

Layanee said...

I have been waiting to see how you would react to that poverty which is so real, raw, and, for me, inescapably horrifying. I cannot go back to India although to see the Taj Mahal has been a dream. I still find that the feeling of powerless disbelief overwhelms me and it is impossible to express to someone who has not been witness. Travel humbles us and causes us to be most thankful for the abundance in our world. If thoughts were deeds the problems of the world would long ago have been solved. I still feel powerless in the face of government corruption and so much suffering.

karenleslie said...

you're tougher skinned than i am. i know that i could not bear to witness what seems to me like a level of dante's hell... the noxious stimulus of the smog, poverty, people shitting in the open - i'd be overwhelmed by these things and would be hard pressed to see beyond it.

the picture of the young girl and her brother was strangely serene -- a frozen moment, the boy with his neatly cut hair, the girl with her beautifully colored blouse and skirt, the animals in quiet repose... such strangeness in the pictures you take -- evocative as david terry would say. i'm enjoying your trip from the comfort of my home...

Thomas said...

the ordeal of finding and hauling clean drinking water takes so much time and energy that there are a great number of things pushed aside- child care, ability to have a simple garden, keeping an animal for milk and wool- stop and think how many times, as a child, you drank out of a hose ( well we did ,anyway)- My God we water our lawns with drinking water!

kathi said...

heart breaking and worthy of your attention...Bravo!
I read you often, every new post, your insight is much appreciated.

Rochelle said...

Provoking photo and commentary. I appreciate the food for thought, from both you and your audience. I know I will be talking about this photo and post with friends in the coming days.

Safe travels & thank you for taking us with you on your journey. Your candor is refreshing.

Anonymous said...

The toilet issue is cultural as some of your commenters have stated but this current shit crisis is fueled and created solely by population explosion. It's an unexpected equation thats caught everyone off guard. Not unlike the population growth of earlier times in France and England where they too struggled with proper plumbing issues. What makes it so shocking in 2011 is that for much of the world using toilets is very old news. The holy Yumana River is so polluted with raw shit that is dead and has turned to black sludge. India will catch up, but it's going to take mass government intervention.

joan mckniff said...

I was a Peace Corps volunteer 1963-65 and spent rest of my life in development work. Your essay gives me hope that maybe some people are becoming ready to read and listen some 50 years later.

Anita Singh Soin said...

I think despite the poverty and disparity in India, and having travelled the world with friends all over, even the village person living in humble surroundings shares an aura and is happier than many in the Western world. It's hard to explain but their belief in spirituality and God and respect for elders, allows them to respect each other too. We are modern educated Indians and as this reality hits the visitor, the family disintegration and relationships disasters, disturbs us. We have a lot to learn from the organised life of the outside world and I guess the organised world needs to stop and imbibe the values of life and relationships from Indians. In our own home, we live as 3 generations since 25 years and there is a lot of harmony.

Meredith said...

Hello--I agree that we don't want people getting sick as a result of poor sanitation, however, our wasteful Western ways is not the model. Flushing away waste products (and what is "away?") with drinking water is an unsustainable and polluting model. The answer is this: the Earth loves our waste products! Composting toilets are cheap and then have the added benefit of creating a wonderful source of fertilizer. Correctly composting our waste products for 2 years has been shown to eliminate any pathogens. Check out Joseph Jenkins "The Humanure Handbook." He has been composting his family's waste products for 25 years, and growing gorgeous vegetables with the compost. Don't promote our wasteful and polluting ways!!!

Siddhartha said...

Most of the communities in India (such as Bengali), are succumbed in 'Culture of Poverty'(a theory introduced by an American anthropologist Oscar Lewis), irrespective of class or economic strata, lives in pavement or apartment. Nobody is at all ashamed of the deep-rooted corruption, decaying general quality of life, worst Politico-administrative system, weak mother language, continuous absorption of common space (mental as well as physical, both). We are becoming fathers & mothers only by self-procreation, mindlessly & blindfold. Simply depriving their(the children) fundamental rights of a decent, caring society, fearless & dignified living. Do not ever look for any other positive alternative behaviour (values) to perform human way of parenthood, i.e. deliberately co-parenting of those children those are born out of ignorance, real poverty. All of us are being driven only by the very animal instinct. If the Bengali people ever be able to bring that genuine freedom (from vicious cycle of 'poverty') in their own life/attitude, involve themselves in 'Production of Space'(Henri Lefebvre), at least initiate a movement by heart, decent & dedicated Politics will definitely come up. - Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay, 16/4, Girish Banerjee Lane, Howrah-711101, India.