It's already the world's largest democracy and within the next 30 years its economy will rival America's and its population outstrip China's. But what does that mean for the rest of us? Novelist Siddhartha Deb introduces our special on the world's next superpower
Sunday November 26, 2006
Siddhartha Deb was born in 1970 in northeastern India, a wet, mountainous region that forms the backdrop to his novels, The Point of Return and Surface. He has worked as a journalist in Kolkata and Delhi, has an MPhil in comparative literature from Columbia University, and is currently writer-in-residence at the New School for Social Research in New York. His interests as a writer reflect his mixed apprenticeship, and although neither an academic nor a journalist, Deb writes on ideas, politics, places and literature. His articles have appeared in the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Times Literary Supplement and New Statesman. Although he is attempting to begin his new book in New York, he fantasises about being able to retreat to the foothills of the Himalayas or to the banks of the Narmada river in central India to continue work on it.
To the east of Delhi, across the sewage-filled Yamuna River, is a relatively new neighbourhood called Patparganj. I stayed there a decade ago when I first moved to Delhi from Kolkata, and one evening Ramesh, a young man I had just met, took me around on his scooter. I already had some sense of Patparganj as an expanse of concrete, a collection of middle-class flats with shops clustered around the ground floor and surrounded by high walls. I experienced a far more varied scene when I went to my newspaper office in Delhi, the bridge crossing the Yamuna as likely to carry an elephant proceeding at a stately pace as murderous buses with shrieking horns, the air-conditioned offices and shops of Connaught Place often hiding back alleys where unshaven men gathered to buy lottery tickets and pint bottles of whisky.
But Patparganj was an idea as much as a place, and I only grasped the extent of that idea when Ramesh drove away from the inhabited flats and the lamplit roads. As we entered an extended stretch of darkness, an endless wall appeared on the horizon. Ramesh parked his scooter and turned his headlight on the wall. Block upon block of flats stood before us, with vast courtyards and parking lots. Ramesh told me the flats had been built illegally, without the proper permits. Most didn't have electricity or water. The lifts didn't work. The sewage lines didn't lead anywhere. We saw not a single human being, although an occasional ground-floor unit appeared occupied, with the solitary flicker of a lantern at the window or a line of washing strung out on the balcony. Even Ramesh, a phlegmatic businessman, grew uneasy as he contemplated this vast necropolis where we seemed to have arrived through the twists of a disconcerting dream. It was 'unnatural', he said, and hastily turned around.
That was a decade ago, at the cusp of the great transformation of urban India, but the memory came back to me when I recently visited the Delhi suburb of Gurgaon. Gurgaon is about a 40-minute drive from the southern fringe of Delhi, along a highway that passes the palatial 'farmhouses' of industrialists and arms dealers, and then erupts in a proliferation of shopping malls, condominiums and office parks. The names of places (Beverly Hills and Manhattan Apartments), the security guards talking into the intercom before letting a visitor in and the global franchises at the malls are much more glossy than anything at Patparganj. But Gurgaon is the fulfilment of an idea that Patparganj had realised with only mixed success, an idea expressed by billboards advertising a 'modern lifestyle'. It involves a concerted effort by affluent Indians to dissociate themselves from the squalor, diversity and frustratingly unmodern nature of their country. Gurgaon is Patparganj with the lights on.
The news that comes out from India these days tends overwhelmingly to be about areas like Gurgaon. These places transfix the gaze of the west, appearing as floodlit expanses that have emerged from what was once considered an area of darkness. They bear the promise of India's being the second-fastest growing economy in the world, poised to overtake all European nations by 2020 and even the United States by 2040. But the new India represented so frequently in the western media is more than just the back office of the world or a promising destination for investments. If urban, professional India signifies the triumph of western capitalism in all its aspects, from business practices to consumer lifestyles, it also harbours ambitions that exceed the role envisaged for it by analysts at Goldman Sachs and the CIA.
Driven by an ambition that often expresses itself in breathtakingly literal forms, this India aims to be a superpower, to turn the present century into an Indian century in the same way the last century was an American one. The mother of all malls? Gurgaon plans a Mall of India that will be bigger than the Mall of America in Minneapolis. The world's tallest building? Noida, another suburb in Delhi, intends to overtake Malaysia and Dubai for that honour. India wants a permanent seat on the security council of the United Nations and its man as secretary-general. When an earthquake struck a remote part of Kashmir a year ago, it turned down foreign aid; when Hurricane Katrina drowned New Orleans last year, India offered an aircraft and medical personnel. Everything gets drafted into the service of its superpower aspirations, from beauty contests and Bollywood films to Indian novels written in English. And while new India has no great interest in the past, it does occasionally turn to its near-mythical antecedents, to the time when the long arm of Indic civilisation reached out to Java and China.
This is an aspect of India that the west will become even more familiar with in the years to come. Because as much as the west is in India, exporting its business models and outsourcing its service jobs, India is increasingly in the west. A sense of destiny has flowered in great parts of the Indian diaspora in Britain and the United States, among people who now add civilisational pride to their hard-won affluence. But it gathers even more impetus in the class of mobile professionals from India who make their presence felt increasingly in airports, hotels and in cyberspace. Like Americans in the past half-century, and like the Europeans before them, this class of Indians seem to believe that the good life at home is inextricably bound to a mission abroad to put itself at the centre of the world.
Yet the good life of the shopping malls and software companies, the sense of wellbeing that elite Indians call 'feelgood', is an attitude cultivated against the grain of a larger reality in the country. Away from the well-lit areas of Delhi, Bangalore, Mumbai or Chennai (Madras), there is another India engaged in an entirely different set of struggles. The software industries and call centres in India employ more than 1m people, but agricultural India is still the largest sector in the country, with more than 400m people working in it. The Indian farmers, who once noisily invaded urban spaces and the parliament lawns with their buffaloes, are now left to die out of sight, drinking pesticide to escape debts and the plunging prices of their crops on the global market.
Between the farmers and the software workers fall other groups who have received none of the benefits of globalised India. These include the drivers and security guards I met while working on an article on the call centres, people who make 4,000 rupees (pounds 50) a month with no days off, and whose voices are distorted by rage when they have a chance to express their opinions. To them, one should add the migrant workers living in the shadows of the cities; the peasants displaced by big dams in ce
ntral and western India; Muslims who suffer the increasing hostility of a resurgent Hindu chauvinism; tribals from India's northeastern states, Dalits (or the oppressed castes) and entire aboriginal populations, all discriminated against by the upper-caste Indians who control the levers of the economy. If one looks at the inequality in terms of numbers, the disturbing truth is that about 350m Indians still live on less than $1 a day; half the children are undernourished; 80 per cent of the population have no access to safe drinking water with more than 1m children dying every year from unsafe water.
In the eastern part of India, extending all the way into the hill states where I grew up, insurgency, crime and unemployment remain the main issues. Further to the south, in the states of Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh, ultra-left guerrillas have carved out a 'red corridor' in rural areas that are mired in caste and class hierarchies. Even largely prosperous states such as Gujarat, in the west, seem unable to combine economic growth with an inclusive social vision. Instead, wellbeing for the Hindu middle-class in Gujarat has meant steady violence against the Muslim minority, as in the killing of more than 2,000 Muslims in 2002.
This other India, complex, mutinous and often counter-intuitive to simple notions of progress, is likely to remain obscure even as affluent India dominates the headlines with its dream of global power. Ideas of unlimited expansion, infinite growth, perpetual consumption – all the fantasies of past gilded ages – may still exist in the west, but they come with at least a tinge of uneasiness. Indian extravagance, on the other hand, seems particularly attractive because it arrives with the apparent innocence of a latecomer to the party, someone who has woken up to the bounty of the world after a long Gandhian fast.
In contrast to this, the country where the majority live will demand a more thoughtful engagement from the west. This India will be revealed in times of natural disasters or sudden crises, and it will sometimes be depicted by individuals, Indians and others, unwilling to buy into the dominant myth of 'feelgood'. Because this other India is large, populous and diverse, it will be worth paying attention to, and over the years people in the west may come to see a reflection of their own hopes and fears in the struggle between the two Indias. They will find all the unresolved problems that affect them – the environment, consumption, work, health, immigrants, the state, corporations, terrorism – displayed on a greater scale in India. The responses that will take shape will often be violent, but sometimes, I hope, they will also be creative and humane. In that sense, we are all Indians now.
India vs the world
· India has the world's third-largest mobile-phone market (more than 1m new users a week), second-largest small-car market (1m sold a year) and largest whisky market (sinking 60m cases a year)
· Thirty major UK firms, from Lloyds TSB to Virgin Trains, only use Indian call centres. Blood tests and CT and MRI scans are sent from UK, US and Middle East hospitals to India for diagnosis, and UK legal firms are starting to outsource work to Mumbai and Delhi
· India is now outsourcing its outsourcing. Giant IT firms Infosys, Wipro and TCS are building 'outsourcing campuses' in China, Vietnam and Romania to cope with demand
· In 2005, India welcomed 150,000 medical tourists who fly in to have procedures from liposuction to open-heart surgery, which can cost 5 per cent of the domestic price. Deals involving UK health insurers flying customers to India for treatment are expected soon · India's outbound tourist numbers were up 15 per cent last year, with 6.2m holidaying abroad. Some 700,000 will visit the UK this year
· India has the second fastest-growing major economy in the world (after China). The Indian stock market is up 200 per cent over the past five years, and it has the sixth-largest foreign currency reserve in the world: $167bn
· Indian firms spent more than $7bn acquiring 112 foreign companies between January and September this year. With Tata taking over Corus, three of the 10 largest steel companies in the world will be under Indian ownership
· India's textile industry is expected to export $50bn worth of goods by 2010. Indian fashion has taken flight this year, with a dozen domestic designers showing at international fashion weeks and 70 international buyers turning up for India Fashion Week last month. The domestic market is expanding at 11 per cent per year, now attracting Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Giorgio Armani stores
· More Indian than British films were released in the UK last year. Bollywood annually sells 1bn more tickets than Hollywood
· India is the second-largest contributor to UN peacekeeping forces, with 10,000 troops
India vs China
· The Asian giants became modern republics within a year of each other – China in 1949, India in 1950
· One is Communist, historically Buddhist and an independent nation for six millennia, the other democratic, predominantly Hindu and emerging from centuries of British colonialism
· India is just over a third the size of China, with a population of 1.1bn to its 1.3bn. It is estimated that India will be more populous than China within 30 years
· The world's largest democracy is important to the US as a regional counterweight to China – whose strength the Americans fear. Bush has announced a bill to accept India into the official nuclear club
· India has 115 nuclear warheads; estimates of China's arsenal range from 80 to 2,000
· China has just one recognised political party, India has at least 62
· China executed an estimated 10,000 people last year, while India hanged just one
· China monitors its 14m foreign tourists, India leaves its 4m free to roam
· Despite mass rural-urban migration, agriculture still provides a living for half of the Chinese and 60 per cent of Indians
· China's economy has grown tenfold since the late-Seventies, while India's spectacular growth started in the Nineties
· China's economy is the second largest in the world (India's is fourth), its per capita income is double India's ($6,800 to $3,400), and only 12 per cent (150m) of its population is below the poverty line, as opposed to 25 per cent (275m) in India
· Indian illiteracy and ill health is greater. But India's freer market perhaps explains its 23 billionaires to China's eight
· Indian culture exports better. Bollywood films dominate in the Middle East and North Africa and surprisingly Eastern Europe. India is also favourite for outsourcing thanks to its 350m English speakers.