America, the new third world?

I landed in India and it took me a grand total of 15 minutes to go through Indian immigration (I am an American citizen). The customs officer waved me and many others right on and cheerfully yelled “Welcome to India!” The new Bangalore international airport was ultra modern and fancy. In some ways it looked better than many American airports. Everything was maintained, sparkling clean, kept up to date. The luggage had arrived on time, everything was speedy fast, and I had spent just under 30 minutes and was out of the airport after a long international flight!

I remember the India from about 20 years back. That visit had been horrendous. Immigration lines were incredibly long. I was harassed at customs who clearly hinted to me that a bribe would get through the line at a faster pace. I stood for an hour at the customs while the customs officer rummaged through my luggage, made a mess, and then wanted me to pack up and be off his face in just a few seconds. I was disgusted by the entire incident.

The new India that I landed in during my recent visit was a vibrant India full of hope, optimism and opportunities. The city of Bangalore looked like an international city with fancy buildings and structures bearing the names of Google, Microsoft, HP and plethora of European companies. Everywhere I could see there was construction going on for new buildings, new flats, new gated communities that looked like communities in the American suburb and a metro rail system work-in-progress that connected different parts of the city. Almost every person I spoke to spoke of multiple opportunities for success and advancement they had at hand. Back in America almost every conversation invariably turned to the poor state of the economy, joblessness, lack of opportunities, destruction of manufacturing base, outsourcing and severe cutbacks in government services. Then irony was that while China and India were investing in infrastructure and education, America was cutting back these in the name of a large deficit. Day by day I felt we were falling behind.

Nothing prepared me for the scene I encountered when I landed in LAX (Los Angeles International Airport). The immigration line was an hour long. The customs line was so big that it wound over four times around a series of luggage carousels. No one had any clue where the line ended and people were screaming at each other for line breaking. After well over an hour I came across a customs officer who would either point me to the left for yet another line where a cadre of customs officers would search through your luggage for items on which they can collect duty or wave you to the right which meant an exit from the airport. The customs office looked at me and began an interrogation.

“What do you have in that luggage? Surely, you must have brought gold jewelry back from India? Oh, come on! Everybody buys jewelry in India!” he said with a sarcastic smile on his face.

“No. I have no bought any gold jewelry back. There is very little of value in my luggage. Most of the things I have brought back are small trinkets not worth a whole lot.” I replied.

“Oh, come on!” the customs officer waved his hands at me in disbelief. “Surely, you must have brought back a lot of things! Tell me and save me the hassle, what all have you brought back?” He looked almost ready to wave me through to the line on the left where a secondary check was being performed on the baggage of several passengers. I saw items spread over tables and a cashier booth in the back where personnel stood ready to collect import duty. The whole scene was a stark reminder to me of the India from 20 years back where an unaccountable government extended very little respect to its citizens or visitors. I could not but feel that our services had degraded to the point where they were coming close to third world standards whereas the third world now looked ready to leap past America.

 I looked wearily at the customs officer and simply shrugged my shoulders. I was disappointed at the system. I could care less if they opened my luggage because they were simply wasting their time. The customs officer looked at me for a minute.

“All right, go!” he said as he waved me to the exit door. Behind me was a long line of hundreds of passengers that stood just like that long line of weary people I had seen when I had landed in Bombay, India over 20 years back. I felt sad as I left the airport. If this was the way things were going in America today I shuddered to think what it would be like in another twenty years!

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