I'm four days into a whirlwind tour, my first ever visit to India, having touched down in Chennai, Mumbai and now Delhi.
I've been a bit reluctant to record my observations so far. I'm delighted to report that The Interpreter clearly has a sizeable and loyal readership among the Indian foreign and strategic policy community, but when you meet such people face to face, you suddenly become acutely aware of how little you know about this country and how condescending they would find it to read the judgments of a man who has spent a bit less than a hundred hours here flitting between offices, conference rooms, hotels and airports.
So just a few stray observations, then, which will inevitably be superficial but hopefully don't stray into cliche:
If you're a media junkie, this is your country
Western observers of the media industry are now thoroughly familiar with the story of long-term decline in their own countries, but that's not happening in India. Of course, there is a massive shift here from print to online, but India boasts some of the world's biggest and most successful newspapers; in fact, the entire industry is booming. I'm told this is especially true among non-English newspapers, which are some of the most profitable. There is a well established newspaper-buying habit even among the poor.
But even if this country is one of the last bastions for 'dead tree' journalism, the journalists and editors I have talked to tell me that there is very much an 'online first' mentality. Rather than Twitter, which is popular among Australian journalists, reporters here prefer to use WhatsApp for breaking news. And whereas Australian journalists will set up their own Twitter accounts to post breaking stories and thereby build a personal brand, Indian journalists use WhatsApp accounts under their employer's name. All their posts are edited before being published.
There's also a rich selection of high-end news magazines in India which I had not been aware of. Open, for instance, is just six years old and is doing well in a competitive market. For more high-brow reading, take a look at The Caravan.
As for TV, you may have heard about the boom in 24 hour news channels in this country. Five minutes of channel flicking in my hotel room confirmed all the stories I had read about their raucous and tabloid-y nature. But I heard from one well-placed source that these channels get very low ratings and tend to be supported by subsidies of various kinds.
Indian infrastructure is actually pretty good, considering
True, there is little of the Chinese-style breakneck development of roads and railways. And yes, road congestion is horrific. But in recent years New Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai have begun building modern light rail systems and highway networks. It's also important to put India's shortcomings into context. Consider what the country is up against. How could any nation, let a lone one at India's stage of development, keep up with this pace of urbanisation without suffering from congestion (I was told that around 1200 families move to Mumbai every day)? It's also worth mentioning that the major airports I have visited are efficient and easy to navigate, and the local airlines offer first-rate service with modern fleets.
Of course, infrastructure is not just about transport. India faces massive challenges in providing clean water and sanitation in its cities. I visited the Observer Research Foundation in Mumbai, which has made a big effort to expose the 'toilet torture' in India's slums. Here's a trailer for a documentary produced by ORF:
Indians might not be as cricket mad as I thought
I really couldn't have timed this trip any better. I'm a cricket lover and in any conversation with an Indian, the World Cup is the ultimate ice-breaker. It helps that both India and Australia are playing well, though I tell Indians that, whatever happens from here, Australia has in a sense already lost the tournament. As we all know, the Golden Rule in Australian sport is that anything is permissible as long as we beat New Zealand. So even if we lift the trophy now, the gloss has slightly gone off it.
But although there is clearly deep interest in the tournament here, and I see lots of World Cup-related advertising as well as matches constantly being replayed on TV, there's no sense on the street of the cricket fanaticism I was expecting. And cricket stays confined to the back pages of the paper; it doesn't creep to the front as it would on big occasions back home.
As I write, India is struggling to overcome a feisty Zimbabwe in its last pool game. It will be interesting to read the national mood should the men in blue lose.
Photo by Flickr user Eddie O.