Some thoughts on living in India and Sri Lanka

Per capita GDP is a bad measure of human development.


I started writing again on the blog about a month ago, after a hiatus of almost a year. Many things happened while I was away, not the least interesting of which was my voyage to the middle of the Bay of Bengal and my trip through Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a wonderful country in many ways, and the week or so I spent there was thoroughly enjoyable. I wrote the following while I was in Sri Lanka, circa December 15, 2013, and sent it to a few people I thought might be interested. I haven’t attempted to edit the essay from then.


Some thoughts on living in India and Sri Lanka

I guess most of you know about this, but the supreme court of India judgement on section 377 was handed down a few days ago. The supreme court reversed the stance of the Delhi high court that 377 has to be struck down because what happens in private between consenting adults cannot be punishable. Sri Lanka is very similar to India when it comes to how it deals with homosexuality. There is no gay-marriage, no civil unions. And, says wikipedia, there is a Sri Lankan law (like 377 a relic from the colonial age) that prohibits “grossly indecent” behaviour, something that’s conveniently left undefined (again, just like 377’s language of “against nature”).

What you may not know about the case is that nobody has ever been convicted under either the Sri Lankan law or the Indian law that make homosexuality punishable… Which is what makes the supreme court’s decision that much more frustrating. The court is seemingly saying that no matter how obviously unconstitutional a law in the (seriously outdated) book is, they will not strike it down, asking instead that Parliament pass a law amending section 377.

Jurisprudence comes in a spectrum, I guess, and there’s a case to be made against judicial activism (to wit: it interferes with the separation of powers). But judicial activism isn’t what we’re talking about here. Unless the supreme court of India professes to believing that every section of the IPC written in 1860 is magically compatible with the Indian constitution (i.e. that the Indian constitution is somehow magically backward-compatible with every section of the IPC), some parts of the IPC are going to be unconstitutional and it’s somebody’s job to clean up the mess. Shouldn’t it be the courts–the interpreters of the constitution–that do the striking down of decrepit laws when such laws are brought to their notice? Not that the supreme court is consistent in the matter of whether judicial activism is good or bad, by the way. In the 2G spectrum case, the court not only annulled what the government had done, but basically wrote procedure for an arm of the executive (saying public auction is the way to go, or else).

The mention of Sri Lanka comes from this: I’ve been in Colombo for less than three days now (a day and a half before I left for the ship, and today since the afternoon after I got back). I’d heard very good things about Sri Lanka before I came here. I also knew that Sri Lanka outranks India and the rest of the South Asia region by far when it comes to human development, even though Sri Lanka only has two-thirds the per-capita GDP of India.

The HDI shows on the streets of Colombo, I don’t think I’m being (very) obtuse in saying.

I went out drinking with friends from the ship tonight. Bars in Colombo are open until 12:30, clubs until 2:30am. There were no signs of the crowd thinning when we left the bar at close to midnight. The woman in the group says she didn’t feel a creepy stare because she was drinking or smoking or out past a ‘respectable’ time, I guess because she was by no means the only woman around. We went around midnight to a pier next to the bar. We again saw men and women of assorted ages at the pier, and no cops asking them why they were there. I took a bus (several of which run even past midnight) to my hostel from the bar. The cops were in their posts on the highway the bus takes checking for drunk driving, a vastly better use of police manpower than accosting people on the beach. I’ve also noticed that cars on Colombo’s streets stop for pedestrians instead of threatening to run them down (and everybody obeys traffic signals, which to somebody from Hyderabad means more than you think).

In summation, then, two points. First the obvious preach to the choir:

Colombo isn’t a cesspool of vice for allowing it’s bars to be open past 11. Or for allowing its women the freedom to do what they want. Or for making its policemen do what they’re meant to do.

Secondly, all this has still not meant that Sri Lanka’s “section 377” is struck down. a) The gift of colonialism just keeps on giving. b) Popular opinion can change this in a hurry, one hopes, given how quickly progress has happened in the US recently. (Obvious caveat: the US was dealing with gay marriage rights, not gay existence rights.)

PS: The highest contribution to India’s HDI is from health, apparently. Which to anybody who knows what government healthcare in India looks like would be funny if it weren’t tragic. Our education index is well below our already pitiful overall HDI; Sri Lanka’s education index is on par with its overall HDI.

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