From being a comparatively poor country at Independence in 1947, India has become a fast-growing major economy. It's a hub for worldwide information technology services, and plenty of call centres. Labour is cheap.India has a space programme which includes several planned or completed extra-terrestrial missions and is a nuclear weapons state, ranking high in military expenditure. It has ongoing and long term disputes over Kashmir with its neighbours, Pakistan and China.
Indian movies, music, and spiritual teachings play an increasing role in global culture. India has therefore substantially reduced its rate of poverty. However, it still faces the challenges of gender inequality, child malnutrition, and rising levels of air pollution. The extreme poverty rate in India is now down to 3%. but that is still nearly 50 million people.
There are more road deaths in India than any other country in the world. Officially, about 115,000 people die on Indian roads each year - though a recent British Medical Journal study suggests that the true number of fatalities is closer to 200,000.
I have a love- hate relationship with India. It is an endlessly fascinating assault on the senses: colourful, vibrant, and wonderfully spiritual. The festivals are joyful and amazing. the landscapes temples and architecture are astonishing
The crowds and disregard for personal space are wearing, the poverty is difficult to deal with, (though numbers of people living on the streets appear to have diminished dramatically over recent years). The treatment of women as second class citizens is still a huge challenge in many places.
I have visited ten times and have still only seen a small part of India’s incredible diversity.
Almost the moment we fly into Kashmir from Amritsar (after crossing the border from Pakistan) the FCO changes its travel advice from 'Don’t go into the town' to 'Don’t travel to Srinagar at all'. There have been incursions on the border and some riotous behaviour. The roads are all barricaded with barbed wire, all the shops are shut, there is no money in the ATMs and there are interminable searches.
Kashmir, the northernmost geographical region of the Indian subcontinent, has been a disputed territory, since the partition of India in 1947. It had previously been part of the Sikh Empire. Now, it is administered, not at all peacefully by three countries: India, Pakistan, and China. We've passed through some of Pakistani Kashmir on our way down the Karakorum Highway. It's a large area, only slightly smaller than the UK, and it's mainly mountainous, divided by rivers and lakes. It's also very beautiful. The Indians and Pakistanis describe Kashmir as 'Heaven on Earth'. Sadly, ongoing conflict has rendered the area off limits to tourists for many years. I had understood that it was now safely accessible, but that doesn't seem to be the case.
Srinagar is the largest city and the summer capital of Jammu (an area now designated as being part of Kashmir) and Kashmir. It lies in the Kashmir Valley on the banks of the Jhelum River, a tributary of the Indus, and the Dal and Anchar lakes. Srinagar is known for its natural environment, gardens, waterfronts and houseboats. So, I'm told. We're not allowed to go and see.
The houseboats are still there. Lake Dal would be idyllic. Everything in upside-down duplicate, the water is so still. The mountains shimmer, the fish tailed boats are colourful, kingfishers dart by and the water flora are abundant. But it all feels abandoned. The little stilted stalls are mostly empty.
We are told that our boat is the best one. A palace on the water. Eight ornate bedrooms. It has a butler cum cook cum houseboy, who lives on the empty boat next door. There isn’t much food available. He has to scavenge somewhat - most of it is cooked in the house on the shore. Or is it an island?
A succession of uninvited vendors liven things up, arriving in a stream of small boats. They are pitifully persistent – no other tourists here. We are allowed to pootle round the lake in small boats, past some of the almost deserted shops. We disembark at a couple of gardens. The Chashme Shahi is one of the Mughal gardens built in 1632 AD, around a spring, by governor Ali Mardan Khan, under the orders of the orders of the Emperor, Shah Jahan. It was a gift for his eldest son Prince Dara Shikoh.
So we sunbathe on the roof of the boat. The Portuguese lawyer is considering what might transpire now the five of us are all marooned afloat in Kashmir. Two of the five are deranged. (See Pakistan). This could be murder on the Orient Boat - Arsenic and Old Lace. The teacher would be Miss Marple - even the Christian name is right. We have a butler, but no billiard room – could the weapon be the cocktail shaker?
Eight people died in shootings last night - another lecture at breakfast as our guide rants on about the iniquitous Pakistanis.
Supplies are running low, the food is a weird concoction from cans and we have drunk all the gin available.
One night left to survive. Who dunnit? Perhaps we all did? Now I get to go home.
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