Go for a 30-minute walk in a random tier-1 or tier-2 city in India and you will come across the huge inequality of this immense country. Lush airy streets with huge bungalows are often built next to small one-room houses, which are occupied by huge families. A significant percentage of the population in India is very poor, with an average monthly income of 15.000 INR per month or less, roughly 170 euro’s. The upside for these less privileged families is the cheaper cost of living conditions. Groceries could be bought for a fraction of the cost when compared to the western world and rental prices are comparatively low. Furthermore entertaining your family is also very cheap. One could buy a cinema ticket for less than 50 INR (0,75 Euro). And visiting a museum, heritage buildings or wild parks are very affordable, entry fees are often a little more than 10 or 20 INR (12 or 24 Eurocent).
India is one of the most diverse countries in the world, a melting pot with Muslims, Hindus, Christians and other religions living side by side in a peaceful way. However, it’s also one of the most variable countries on earth. The difference between the ‘have’ and ‘haves not’ is often huge, while the proximity between those groups is relatively very small; there is a huge slum-area not far from Mukesh Ambani’s flashy tower house in Mumbai, the most expensive home in the world. The government in India is doing a lot in helping challenging families to improve their living conditions. Healthcare in India is free, and ‘the poor’ are often depended on government-run hospitals or medical posts. While the healthcare services in those hospitals are often very good, most people try avoiding these places because private hospitals can serve people faster.
The zero tax policy also helps a lot of the underprivileged people, although a growing group of tax payers in India is actually in favor of introducing liberal tax laws. They want to expand the group of people who should pay taxes. Some people told me that the ratio of taxpayers in India is very low; only a small percentage (less than 5% of the population in India) actually pays tax. Paying (income) tax is not a big thing in my country. Every Dutch citizen pays some tax, even if you are dependent on some kind of welfare fund. Although the high taxes in my country are being criticized by a number of people – the highest tier of my salary is taxed at 52% – I’m still in favor of this People with more money, pay more tax and I don’t mind supporting the people who have been less fortunate.
A lot of other basic needs in India – public transport, food, goods – are also relatively cheap. Driven by low wages, the cost of vegetables, meat, drinks and other necessities are comparatively lower when compared to similar products and services in western countries. And there is more: a lot of museums, landmarks or parks are open to the public for a small fee. Entry fees for museums are mostly not more than 10 or 20 INR (0,12 or 0,24 Euro). However, there is a catch; this is the entry fee for ‘Indian’s’, the entry fee for foreigners is much higher. I have seen multiple examples of entry fees being more than 10 – 30 times higher than the fee for an Indian. Let me give you an example. The Aga Khan Palace in Pune is one of the ‘highlights’ of the city, a well-maintained 1800-century palace which was once the home of Mahatma Gandhi. The palace was built in 1892 by Sultan Muhammed Aga Khan and was in use as Mahatma’s prison. He stayed there between 1942 and 1943, a sad period where he lost his wife and political assistant. The entry fee for this landmark is 20 INR for Indians (0,25 euro). A sign at the ticket counter points out the entrance fee for others: the fee for ‘foreigners’ is 200 INR.
Living and working in India as an expat is comfortable and everybody knows it; employers generally provide employees with luxurious accommodation. And traveling from A to B is easy, because the jobs most often also come with a car and personal driver. And let’s not forget the financial perks. Expats generally receive good pay. The salaries are high and many companies offer their employees a ‘hardship allowance’, a bonus on your salary in lieu of the challenging conditions of living far away from family and friends. I am fully aware of my privileged conditions. I am definitely part of the ‘have’ group and therefore am more than willing to pay a little extra from time to time. I generally pay a lot more for many things, but that is by my own choice: although I am a big fan of Indian street food, I generally dine out in upscale places. And I also do my grocery shopping at more fancy shops or supermarkets.
Visiting an Indian landmark is – however – different. The actual landmark and its service is actually the same. So my question here: why should I pay much more than the Indian visitor? I want to share two views on this topic:
1) Varying entry fees based on background or Nationality is discriminatory and should be stopped.
The policy of charging higher fees for foreigners is not new; I assume it has been there for decades. I have encountered this during many of my previous travels through the country. My first thoughts about it were actually not negative. It is progressive: assuming that foreigners have more money than the average Indian national, one could argue that it’s not a big deal to pay a little extra. Having lived in this country for some time now, I have actually changed my view. As a foreigner – being a traveler or employee – I am already paying a lot of taxes. The visa fees are still very high, which brings in a lot of foreign cash. Furthermore: working here for more than 182 days a year, I am obliged to pay taxes in India. In addition, one should not forget that India has become a popular travel destination, funneling in a lot of foreign money into the economy.
2) If they want to continue with this weird policy, they should start checking all visitors ID cards or passports
Some fancy nightclubs refuse people entry at the door with a fabricated story. A lot of you would be familiar with this phrase: ‘sorry, members only tonight’. I do not mind being refused, but I hate to see people entering a club without showing any membership card. The same goes for the Indian landmarks. They will charge the fees based upon someone’s appearance. If you look Indian, you are ok to enter paying the Indian fee even if you do not speak Hindi or one of the local languages. As a result, a lot of tourists from Nepal, Malaysia, Indonesia and a lot of other South Asian would only pay the local fees. This is weird and sad at the same time. The government should only implement policies if they have also implemented a solid control mechanism.
The Indian government launched the Aadhar card, a nationwide ID-proof system which seemed to be one of the largest personal data projects in the world, a program to track data of more than one billion people. A lot of people carry this card as proof of their ID. I was one of the lucky ones to get one and I carry it with pride. I do not carry my passport for domestic trips; the Aadhar card does the trick for me. And here’s my point: I can also use my Aadhar card to buy a ticket for the ‘Indian’ tariff. It does not work everywhere though. Some officers actually tell me that I am still a foreigner, which is true. Using my Aadhar card is fun and I always get a positive feedback. Airport security guards more than often asked me ‘Oh, you’re Indian’, not realizing that this card is actually ID-card and not a proof of being an Indian National.
For more wonderful stories about India, through an expat eye please visit Jasper’s personal blog: https://bustlingpune.com/