Last year October I made my first visit to India. I had heard a lot of stories and read numerous articles about the ‘Rise of India’ (Thomas Friedman probably topping the list in terms of optimism). So…I arrived with high expectations. After arriving in Delhi Airport, staying three days in Delhi and travelling two weeks through Rajasthan, I was becoming more and more fascinated and disappointed at the same time.

Of course I hadn’t expected India to have turned in to one big IT science park in just one or two decades (although some publications seem to give that picture). But I had expected India’s optimism, ambition and rupees to have trickled down to other sections of society…at least a little bit. I have not been in the booming cities of Bombay, Bangalore or Chennai, but judging from my experiences from Delhi and Rajasthan, there’s a lot of work to be done, in terms of public facilities, but especially in terms of equality.

Delhi’s airport was in many ways worse of than the smaller regional airports I had just seen while visiting Indonesia and Malaysia the two months before. The roads and other public works were definitely a lot worse. Steve Hamm of Businessweek fears that the lack of investment in public space might hurt India’s progress:

The infrastructure deficit is so critical that it could prevent India from achieving the prosperity that finally seems to be within its grasp. Without reliable power and water and a modern transportation network, the chasm between India’s moneyed elite and its 800 million poor will continue to widen, potentially destabilizing the country. Jagdish Bhagwati figures gross domestic product growth would run two percentage points higher if the country had decent roads, railways, and power. “We’re bursting at the seams,” says Kamal Nath, India’s Commerce & Industry Minister. Without better infrastructure, “we can’t continue with the growth rates we have had.”

In Businessweeks ‘Covercast‘ Hamm explains why the private sector not investing in India’s public facilities, even though it is dependent on good roads and airports for its own progress. One of the reasons is the bureaucracy in India. Compared for instance to authoritarian China, it’s a lot harder to get things done in democratic India. As a chief executive of Novartis explains:

“If you have to build a road in China, just a handful of people need to make a decision. If you want to build a road in India, it’ll take 10 years of discussion before you get a decision.”

And obviously, corruption is still a big problem:

Nearly all sectors of officialdom are riddled with graft, from neighbourhood cops to district bureaucrats to state ministers. Indian truckers pay about $5 billion a year in bribes, according to the watchdog group Transparency International. Corruption delays infrastructure projects and raises costs for those that move ahead.

But what I’m more troubled with is the trickling down (or better, the lack thereof) of India’s new economic prosperity to other segments of society. The division between India’s new knowledge professionals and India’s poor seems to have created different Indias. In a recent article in Theory and Society(*), Simitha Radakrishnan, a UCLA sociologist, illustrates this:

Rather than having successfully produced a “new middle class,” as touted in media representations of India’s success, emphasis on knowledge for development and a knowledge economy in India has had the effect of producing an elite with formidable economic strength, as well as the cultural dominance to re-imagine and negotiate meanings of Indianness.

(…) So long as those engaged in the knowledge economy are blinded by the belief that their success reflects the progress of the nation as a whole, and that their class positions are not privileged, the possibility for sparking true social and economic change greatly diminishes.

This dilemma is outstandingly portrayed in a 4 part radio documentary of the BBC’s “The Changing World“. India’s economy is booming. Salaries in the big cities are rising, and consumer spending is exploding. Economic opportunities abound in India – but not for everyone. This documentary series explores the effects globalisation and a decade of economic reforms are having on India. In each of the 4 parts it highlights another aspect of the rise of India:

Part 1 (25:00 ; MP3 10MB)
A new materialism and consumerism is an obvious sign of India ’s growing middle class. The BBC’s George Arney has been visiting India for nearly three decades. He says that India used to spiritually rich, but materially very poor. Now, Arney reports, it’s a very different story.

Part 2 (25:00 ; MP3 10MB)
This part focuses on the Indian state of Bihar. The squalor there is obvious. Bihar is glaringly left out of India ’s economic revolution. The BBC reports from a region known as India ’s Heart of Darkness.

Part 3 (25:00 ; MP3 10MB)
As India’s economy rises, its entertainment industry is also taking off and an urban culture emerges. In this part Arney takes a close-up look at the nation that lies behind the shiny façade of modern India.

Part 4 (25:00 ; MP3 10MB)
The environmental and social costs of India’s rapid expansion.

It’s definitely a revealing documentary, with all 4 parts picturing contemporary India in a lively manner and with all its paradoxes. It contains several observations and interviews that clearly confirm Radakrishnan’s point.

(*) Smitha Radakrishnan (2007) Rethinking knowledge for development: Transnational knowledge professionals and the “new” India. In: Theory and Society

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