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Dominique Browning Headshot

Taking Notice of India's Extreme Poverty

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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 echo of 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 through Delhi, I pass dozens of building projects, multi-story developments for office parks or apartments. As soon as we leave the suburbs, we pass miles and miles of villages, makeshift homes barely propped up, canvas or corrugated metal hoisted over beds. Elaborate stacks of dung cakes are 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. The 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. I had read about 300 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 of people. But nothing -- no book, no article, no warning -- could have prepared me for the shock.

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. There is no hiding it from view. Fancy hotels provide a mere scrim.

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 the people are not educated about why plumbing matters. My new friend's husband tours poor villages, giving a lecture about sewage, during which he places a pile of human excrement on the ground, and a few feet away, he places a plate of food. Soon enough, flies buzz about, landing on first one plate, then the other. After the lecture, the man turns attention to the plates. He asks the villagers to watch the movement of the flies. He shows the villagers how the flies contaminate their food; how they are eating their own shit. And they begin to understand.

There is no way to be hardhearted about enormous poverty, yet it is equally impossible to be always heartbroken. We need, perhaps, soft hearts, hard eyes. We see clearly how environmental degradation plays out: who gets the clean water and filters their air; who lives under the belching smokestacks and bathes in the sewage.

No embroidered panels can hide the reality of poverty from the pampered hotel guest. It is a powerful idea: hotel chains linking their power, their brains, their resources, and deciding to better the lives of their neighbors. They can help bring in plumbing and clean water -- and they can market those improvements to those who most need them. We need more 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've all made?