Notes on two very distinct India’sPosted: June 9, 2011
Few places we’ve visited over the past several years offered such stark contrasts as does India. For while places like Gurgaon, just outside of Delhi, or Mansoravar, on the outskirts of Jaipur, offered glimpses of the India that is leap-frogging into a modern future, much of the rest remains decades behind.
Those two suburbs are great examples of the India of the future – one with towering office buildings, throngs of bilingual, suited professionals and modern urban infrastructure. Home to every international and domestic heavyweight company imaginable, they’re at the heart of India’s outsourcing economy and a large part of the country’s accelerated growth rate since the late 1990s. And both are served, at least in part, by modern infrastructure. For example, Delhi’s subway puts Toronto’s to shame; construction began in 1998 and in the twelve years since they’ve put together 180kms of air-conditioned, bilingual and digital service, including a link to the airport. Evidently, as this NYTimes article notes, there’s much to be desired from the government’s service provision in Gurgaon, but relative to the rest of the country, it’s an oasis of modernity. Jaipur hopes to do the same as it builds a new 32km subway system to serve over 3.5 million citizens who are witnessing entire city blocks being rebuilt to office towers and shopping centres.
And while these cities are geared in part towards foreign multinationals, one of the most striking aspects of India’s marketplace is the strong set of domestic companies that seem to dominate the consumer space. From automobiles to textiles, domestic brands are front and centre. For example, I’d estimate that over three-quarters of the cars and trucks on the road are domestic led by Tata Motors, Mahindra and Maruti-Suzuki. Foreign brands seem very limited, with Hyundai the only one to stand out. The same rings true in infrastructure, construction, beverages and telecommunications where big names such as Tata, Reliance, Kingfisher and Bharti dominate on billboards and television advertisements throughout the country. Together, the domestic and international presence in India has contributed to a burgeoning middle class of between 50 and 200 million Indians (depending on the metrics used to define “middle class”, and a grouping that comprise over 40% of India’s population by 2025.
However, this picture of India marked by modern mega-suburbs, impressive research and development centres , and a growing middle class contrasts with the stark reality of much of the India we saw. This “other” India was far less developed than I had imagined, and was far more reminiscent of a sub-Saharan African standard of development than a Chinese one. And given India’s impressive post-1990s growth rate (average 8% growth since 2000) and its over 300 billion in foreign exchange reserves it’s easy to overlook the dramatic developmental challenges it still faces. Notably, and despite impressive efforts at decreasing poverty, it’s still home to the world’s largest number of malnourished children (very visible on the streets of Delhi) and approximately 40% of the population qualifies as living in poverty. Moreover, despite the bright lights and air conditioning that adorn India’s burgeoning corporate offices, energy demand far outstrips energy supply as witnessed by blackouts in each of the five cities we spent time in. And unlike my experience in China where I saw very broad and quite spread out development across both major and minor centres, India’s development is much more “spikey” and seems to have completely neglected non-urban centres. In contrast, throughout China I was consistently surprised at the scale of development and reconstruction in small cities, especially those far removed from the eastern seaboard. And finally, and perhaps most indicative of the cultural uniqueness that exits in India, was the continued relevance of caste amongst people we met, and their self-identification as belonging to one group and others from an another.
And thus while India’s massive demographic weight alone supports its rise as a superpower, doing so in a sustainable manner will largely be determined by the country’s ability to meet the concomitant challenges of poverty alleviation, broad nationwide development and energy security. The country’s infatuation with security issues emanating from its northern neighbour, and a very heavy media focus on political corruption will be equally formative.
Ultimately, India’s rise is much more nuanced than I believed prior to my visit. For India’s aggregate economic figures, and the focus on its so-far successful democratic and federal model, conceal issues related to poverty and inequality that need to be addressed for the country to continue its upward trajectory. As Indian author Shashi Tharoor writes in the the Elephant, the Tiger & the Cellphone , “India in the first decade of the twenty-first century is a young country, an optimistic country, a country marching confidently towards the future…but it is still a land of land of contrasts, where millions lives wretched lives amid poverty and neglect… We must do much more to promote education, health care and an end to caste and gender discrimination. Only then can we produce Indians truly ready to take India to the top in the twenty-first century.”