India: Change and constance

A striking feature of India is its long and continuing tradition of tolerance and the free exploration of ideas.

English-language newspapers publish numerous opinion pieces and editorials on all manner of topics - from the state of roads or the water supply to the environment and politics, culture and mores - and bookshops are full of books examining various aspects of Indian life, thought, religion, economics and politics at greater length.

Dissenting voices are an important part of democracy and the diversity that is India, according to Lavanya Sankaran.

"In India you have this enormous tolerance for diversity of behaviour," she says.

"If you have an urge to be by yourself and explore alternative lifestyles, be they spiritual or not, you can.

Where it tends to rub corners is if you politicise it - this is an observation a gay friend of mine made.

He lives with his partner very openly, they run a restaurant and they are socially quite prominent, and you wouldn't think it possible in a quite conservative society.

But he said people accept them completely as long as they don't go out there and start making political statements.

So it's this ability to turn a blind eye, do what you will but don't try to change the entire system to suit you."

Turning a blind eye (or being encouraged to do so) seems another ingrained part of the Indian system.

Because of the heavy pollution, it's now mandatory in Delhi for rickshaws, taxis and buses to run on cng and vehicles have to have an emission check every three months, according to Delhi businessman Himanshu Maheshwari.

However, there's no mechanical check - the brakes are left to the gods and under-the-table money works wonders, he said.

The pollution in the bigger cities is horrendous and respiratory problems are rife among inhabitants.

Pollution is eating at the marble and stone of many historic monuments such as the Taj Mahal.

A pedestrian-only zone around the Taj and encouraging signs declaring "Clean Agra Green Agra" are at odds with the smoking vehicles, hazy skies and piles of rubbish.

Nitin Chordia, who is importing New Zealand food to India, says there's an awareness about the environmental impact of paper, plastic and other pollutants, but Indians have not really got their act together to do anything about it.

For a few weeks Mumbai tried to ban plastic bags, and everyone took their own shopping bags, but the plastic bag manufacturers protested and the ban faded.

With the booming economy, shops are springing up everywhere, whether they are small stalls selling saris or modern malls with global brands.

Advertisements proclaim the desirability of everything from insurance and investments to cellphones and soap powder.

Marketers, importers and business people talk about "aspirational" products, whether it's an imported ice cream, a bottle of wine, or a new car.

However, the consumerism has a cost.

The piles of green waste that have always accumulated at roadsides are becoming increasingly polluted with plastic and other modern detritus.

Some of the very poor make a living sorting the rubbish, but there is obviously more than they want or can handle.

There's a lot of soul-searching going on about how much is too much, according to Ms Sankaran.

"How do you tell people who have been poor all their lives and now are earning not to spend?"she asks.

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