Chaos, poverty and warm welcomes in a foreign land

HYDERABAD, India — Chaos, truly, is the only way to describe the thousands – perhaps tens of thousands – of people that pack each evening into the open-air market on a small square surrounding south India’s largest mosque.

The carnival atmosphere, replete with wagon after wagon of natives selling their wares, women and children sitting cross-legged on the pavement preparing their products and those begging for spare change from the hustling crowd seemed unfazed as the rain poured down an evening this week. Cars, scooters, bicyclists and tiny motorized doorless carts that serve as taxi-cabs in this crowded city weave in and out, beeping their horns incessantly, with no regard for lanes or speed. Why should they? Police do not patrol the streets looking for traffic violations, after all. And when a scooter collided Thursday with an automobile, knocking the rider to the ground, the only person who seemed to gasp was me. The rider simply righted himself and his vehicle and hopped right back into the fray.

So goes the daily sights and sounds of India.

My week here with a group of American journalists invited by one of India’s largest conglomerates, the Tata Group, is winding down. Tata owns Thomas Steel Strip in Warren, and this week I’ve met at length with leaders of several arms of the company and toured multiple manufacturing facilities, including Tata’s original integrated steel mill built in 1907 in Jamshedpur, India, with requested guidance and direction of American steel makers of that day.

Our group covered expansive territory and consumed an enormous amount of information about Tata’s past and present. But what may have provided the most insight was, more simply, the opportunity to observe varying culture from region to region.

As we drove for hours through rugged, remote countryside, the poverty was overwhelming.

A drive that began before sunrise from Jamshedpur to the airport in Ranchi, India, revealed early morning rituals of families that live without running water. The women could be seen rushing off to communal wells, carrying large pots of water on their heads, often for long treks. Men walked along roadways wearing only towels and brushing their teeth with homemade toothbrushes after having bathed in nearby rivers and streams. Still yet, children in poor areas, dressed in tidy uniforms, hustle off by foot or bicycle to tiny public schools.

Locals tell me the quality of education in the public schools falls far short of the education offered to more wealthy residents at private schools in the country.

In the cities, like Mumbai, the country’s poor occupy shanty towns that stretch for miles. With no place to go and nothing to do, residents often are found sitting alone along roadsides, likely in an effort to find some sort of personal space which, in this country of nearly 1.3 billion people, is not come by easily.

And in Hyderabad, where the market occurs each evening, people make their living working on building projects like the construction of new manufacturing plants for Tata’s growing aerospace business, or working inside those new plants popping up in the region.

In my week here I found every Indian I came in contact with – vendors, drivers, beggars, waiters, business people, manufacturers or top company executives – to be warm and welcoming, despite their varied levels of wealth. And with the room to grow in India’s economy, it’s the people that will make all the difference.