By Saoirse De Bont

UNV Volunteer in India

The caption in tourism advertising for India reads ‘Incredible India’, and incredible it is! There is an intensity of experience, in both a positive and negative sense, which characterizes life in this country of contrast and diversity. With one sixth of the world’s population, India is the second most populous country in the world. It contains more than 2,000 ethnic groups, 22 official languages (in addition to English), and every major religion is represented.

India is a land of varied landscapes, startling wealth and poverty, and comprises a people who are colourful and welcoming. Simultaneously, it is a country that faces significant development challenges, just three of which are discussed below.

The deserts in India, as the camel safari trade in Jaisalmer certifies, are one of the most popular tourist attractions of the country. However, lack of water and subsequent desertification is one of the most significant challenges facing India today. Inadequate rainfall during monsoons especially in 2009 has had a devastating impact on agricultural productivity, leading to the threat of famine in many areas. India has 16% of the world’s population, yet only 2.4% of its total land area and 4% of its fresh water sources.

Gender inequality remains a serious issue in India. The sex ratio in the last census (2001), which was 933 females for every 1000 males, reveals a preference for male children leading to female infanticide, sex selective abortions and girl child neglect. The adult literacy rate varies between 76% for males and 53% for females. According to the 2005-6 National Family Health Survey, nearly 45% of girls aged 20-24 were married by age 18.

This statistic relates to HIV (my field of work) in that girls who are married at a young age tend to have less knowledge about how to protect themselves from HIV and are less likely to have the ability to negotiate condom use. Moreover, young girls who are not physically mature are biologically more susceptible to the virus if they engage in unprotected sex with an infected partner. A range of socio-economic factors influence child marriage practices in India; poverty and gender norms are two crucial factors.

In 2006, there were more than 7 million children of primary school age not going to school. Children do not attend school because of poverty, gender norms, and lack of access to quality, child-friendly schooling. Improvements have been made in recent years regarding gender parity in education with 47% of those enrolled in primary education being female. However, more remains to be done, particularly in ensuring access to education for marginalised populations.

No piece on India is complete without at least a mention of its food and art forms, both of which are world-renowned. Indian cuisine is characterized by the sophisticated and subtle use of spices, herbs and vegetables using a wide variety of cooking techniques. Each state has traditional foods, with the result that travelling around India is an interesting culinary experience. Similarly, different regions of the country have vastly different dance forms, and the steady stream of festivals and events mean that these are on ready display.

I first visited India in 2005, and I left with the belief that it was one of the most amazing countries I had ever been to. Four years on I have come to understand some of the problems this country faces. Nonetheless, ‘Incredible India’ it remains.

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