A Time to Think - Being Indian in the Twenty-First Century - Part I

How can one understand a country that has attempted to leap into the future by unshackling itself from its past, from most of its own people, and placed all its hopes on the genius of private enterprise and the drive of the free market to eliminate poverty, deprivation and despair? Behind this leap, I also believe there is a desperate prayer: that the people who get left behind will someday, somehow, enjoy the benefits which about five percent already have and another ten percent are rapidly acquiring: a total of fifteen percent. Fifteen percent of one billion people works out to a hundred and fifty million people. A lot of people! If one goes by the figures of the optimists, there are perhaps, another ten percent who are waiting impatiently in the wings. In other words two hundred and fifty million Indians are on the road to salvation.

So let me start.

At one level India is developing at an incredible rate. The communications, information technology and pharmaceutical industries have grown at a speed that leaves one speechless. Jobs have been created that never existed before. Our space research and technology has taken the world by surprise. Gems, Garment and leather exports have expanded enormously and the growth in the automobile industry and its ancillaries has been spectacular. The news and entertainment industry is the second largest in the world and more than three million people are employed in it. Other Indian companies are turning multinational and the country now boasts an economic growth rate of eight to nine percent annually.

The world has taken note of these phenomenal figures. At the World Economic Forum held annually at Davos, Switzerland, ‘captains’ of Indian industry and technology are feted and their views taken very, very seriously. Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Pune, Delhi and its environs, Bangalore, Surat, Coimbatore, Kolhapur, Hyderabad, Chennai, Kolkata and Chandigarh are experiencing change and development that is visibly astonishing. Huge shopping malls in these cities of India are racing to match up to their counterparts in the developed world. Night clubs, restaurants, discotheques, high-priced clothes boutiques and food supermarkets are opening in these towns too. Fashion shows and beauty contests make the headlines. International Corporations and Banks have opened their offices in magnificent edifices across these cities and are ready to do business with a resurgent and dynamic nation. The stock market is booming and real estate prices in the metro towns have reached absurd levels. The burgeoning rich, and the upper and middle classes are having a great time and servicing their needs at all levels, whether it’s professional, social or personal, is another class that numbers in the millions. All told, the figures involved in this dramatic change would be close to two hundred and fifty million people.

Unfortunately in these very same centres, the infrastructure of roads, transport, sewage, water and power supply and other social amenities have been strained to extreme limits and are collapsing as rapidly. Sprawling slums, overflowing sewers, annual flooding, un-cleared garbage heaps, unauthorised and illegal construction, bad roads, power cuts, filth and general mayhem are growing rapidly too. And, overarching all of this is the corruption that has spread to every nook and corner of the system. It has even ceased to be embarrassing. But, say the optimists, things will improve and, most probably, they will over time. And yet, what is it that disturbs me about this growth?

The population of India is over 1 billion people and the people involved in the feast of this dramatic growth are about a quarter of the total. It was the same 60 years ago. The percentage is the same and yet the numbers have trebled. Today, there are nine million young people who graduate from colleges every year and most of them have dreams about jobs and a future and yet only about a 25% of them are absorbed into the regular work force. The rest have to make do with anything that comes their way and so many of them remain jobless. Across the country, many millions more complete some level of school and, unwilling or unable to study further, are on the lookout for work, any work. And, what nobody really notices is that the biggest employers are not the blue chip corporations that have fuelled this so called growth but security companies that provide the personnel to guard factories, industrial plants, and the thousands of co-operative housing societies and rich neighbourhoods of the boom towns I have mentioned earlier. Providing security as a business has been the biggest single employer of all.

A question needs to be asked: Who are the booming, happy middle and upper middle-classes frightened of? And why?

Those Indians that get jobs are the lucky ones but what do the rest do? With the onslaught of globalization, an ever increasing number of small and medium scale industrial and manufacturing units and other workshops are being forced to close down all over the country. Thousands of poor farmers in states like Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra are committing suicide because of they are in debt and are unable to repay loans. Millions more are getting off the land and heading for the cities in search of work. Two examples will illustrate my point. About two years ago the army went on a recruitment drive in two states. What they didn’t anticipate were the incredible numbers of young men who would volunteer to be recruited. Riots and mayhem followed as those who were rejected decided to protest. A police recruitment drive in Maharashtra ended up in chaos as more than ten thousand young men arrived to fill up just two hundred vacancies. For a nation that has more than fifty percent of its population below the age of twenty -five, these figures are not shocking. Every single year, on passing out of school and college, these young people will relentlessly appear looking for work. Is the country prepared for them?

If we are not, try to imagine the social upheavals that can follow.

Let me present some statistics. In 2007, the National Commission on Employment presented a report that was alarming. It said that seventy-eight percent of Indians could be considered poor. What was more disturbing was the fact that more than fifty percent of this figure constituted people who were earning a per capita income of less than twenty rupees a day. Twenty rupees is about half a dollar. P. Sainath in his 2004 paper ‘Globalisation of Inequality’ writes that according to the United Nations report on the Human Development Index, the bulk of India’s population lives under conditions worse than those found in Botswana or even the occupied territories of Palestine. He goes on to add that ‘while some of the world’s richest people live in India, so do the bulk of the world’s poor.’

I could go on but I say all this to reach elsewhere. There is another phenomenon that is occurring in India that is much more sinister…much more terrifying. It is the rising aspirations and the growing anger between social groups that have taken up positions that can only lead to confrontation. Recently in the states of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana a strange spectacle took place. The Gujjars, a fairly prosperous farming community, took to the streets to demand that they be declared a Scheduled Tribe. This would help their members get government jobs and gain admission to government aided institutions – as part of India’s Affirmative Action Policy. Opposing them were the Meenas, another community that felt threatened that its own share of these prized options would be reduced. The battle between them raged on for weeks as buses were burnt, roads were blocked, people were beaten up.

Two months ago in Maharashtra, a right-wing, neo-fascist outfit railed against people from the Northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar attacking them in places like Mumbai, Pune and Nashik. Most of the people attacked were auto-rickshaw drivers, construction workers, farm labourers. In the city of Nashik alone, about twenty thousand people fled in fear. There is simmering tension between the people of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in the South, which periodically erupts over issues that could so easily be resolved through dialogue. In Andhra, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka quite a few political groupings have emerged that have specific Caste or Community interests. In the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, the battle lines have also been drawn between castes and communities. In all these upheavals and collisions, the state has remained a mute spectator, not knowing what to do, where to turn or how to resolve these issues.

What is this anger and rage that is simmering just below the surface? There seems to be just one answer and it is linked to economics and poverty. Beyond the boom towns that I have mentioned, the rest of the country feels it has been left behind. In the lop-sided development that India is going through, vast areas of the hinterland have been ignored. I need to talk about these hinterlands.

End of Part 1/2

A Time to Think - Being Indian in the Twenty-First Century is the text of the Solanki Lecture delivered at CSU, Long Beach in May, 2008.

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