My host, Sanjay and I took a brief day trip to Brighton. He informed me that Brighton was the gay capital of the UK, so just the two of us walking down the main street of this town would not raise any eyebrows, "even if we held hands", he added, tongue firmly in cheek!
We saw some "homeless" persons - who were dressed in jeans, shirts and a cap, fairly well dressed, I thought, by Indian standards, but were kneeling on the pavement and begging for alms. What surprised me was that they were selling a magazine that is supposedly brought out by the homeless in Brighton and nearby areas, in which the advertisements and cover price go to fund some of the homeless. Sanjay told me that the homeless are not necessarily the dregs of society - indeed, he pointed out that in his office, there was one employee who was officially "homeless" - after a messy divorce, he had to leave the marital home, and he defaulted on credit card debt because of the alimony burden. It seems that homeless is a misnomer - they are entitled to, and get dormitory-style accommodation (in some cases, heated!).
In a country that counts itself as one of the richest, this was a glimpse of what they called poverty. Definitely, this was relative poverty, and not the grinding, Rs.32 per day consumption level kind of poverty we encounter in India. While there, I read in the newspapers how many people entitled under the UK laws to accommodation based on their family size would be registered for these benefits in the UK as well as in some other rich socialist country like Norway. They enjoy homes in both countries; and either use one as their vacation home, or surreptitiously rent out the house to other immigrants who have difficulty proving that their stay in the UK was legitimate. Many such persons are employed in so-called "Indian" restaurants, which are actually Bangladeshi or Pakistani owned and operated. This is corruption India-style; the equivalent of our CGS quarters that are supposedly allotted to Central Government employees at various levels. Many of them have their own homes, and prefer to "rent out" or illegally sublet the premises allocated to them, enjoying income that escapes the tax net altogether.
I now understood that the UK had its share of problems. And these problems were being exacerbated by many of the home mortgages that had slowly slid "underwater" in recent years. I was so surprised at evidence of homelessness in such a cold country that I did not capture it on camera.
Then, in Switzerland, everything was almost picture-postcard-perfect. So beautiful, in fact, that we tired of clicking photographs of the landscapes everywhere.
Except for the fact that the Swiss haven't been able to rein in their rebellious graffitti artists who spray-painted and defaced public property almost everywhere.
In a few places, we found that the authorities had spray-painted in white over this graffitti, but it still left the wall looking shabby.
I thought to myself, at least Switzerland seems to be wealthy enough to have homes for all their people. Then, I was proved wrong. I came across a "homeless body", or a "hobo" as they are often derogatorily referred to. Except that this guy looked like he must have starred in a Wild West movie. He carried his luggage around everywhere, and sat (and probably also slept) on bus terminal benches when he tired of walking around.
This photograph was taken in a town called Bulle, in a bus terminal when we were returning from Nestle's Cailler chocolate factory in Broc.
As I returned to India, I thought of when our country will reach a level where poverty and disrespect for public property is reduced to a level that one has to take photographs to record evidence that it exists. I knew it would be decades before it happened, but I am hopeful of good things happening.
- I am proud of the fact that we Indians have come to accept the reliability of Electronic Voting Machines, something that even the US and the UK have yet to adopt.
- I have especially great confidence in the UID initiative being led by Nandan Nilekani - it will become the largest biometric identification database in the world very soon, if it hasn't already become.
- India's banking industry is the strongest in the world today, and I can withdraw money from my account free of charge from any ATM or branch of any bank - something that even the developed world cannot boast of.
- Some time back, I had blogged on the wonderful experience I had in replacing my lost passport. I am sure this is an experience that thousands like me have had.
- Besides, the reduction in corruption that may result from a strong Jan Lokpal bill and an increasing pride that Indians will have in their country, that will lead them to eventually banish the scourge of absolute poverty.
- This very pride will also ensure that public property is well maintained. Have you noticed that the speakers and LCD televisions in Mumbai's new local trains have survived for well over a year without being stolen or damaged?
We are learning, I dare hope, to preserve public property. India is on the move, not-withstanding the troubles that seem to be filling the papers nowadays.