India's 200m-strong middle class is the most economically dynamic group on the planet, but is largely uninterested in politics or social reform. Until it begins to engage politically, India will suffer from a lop-sided modernisationby Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad / September 30, 2007 / Leave a comment
Replies from Ashish Bhatt, Yasmin Khan and Dhiraj Nayyar.
Jaya Mary is a cleaner. Tall and thin, with some English, and at least two Indian languages, she quietly challenged her main employer, a medium-sized company, when it recently threatened to fire her without the pension to which she is entitled. When she works in a private house, she has no contract, and depends on the goodwill of the householder. She is a Christian, but also adheres to many cultural expressions of Hinduism. Her husband left her with two small children, and she relies on the support of her mother and brother. Her boy is in a local-language state school, but her clever daughter is in a private English-language school, which costs Jaya 20 per cent of her income. She has an empty bank account, but acquired a mobile phone from her scooter-driving brother (whose wife, a sworn enemy of Jaya, has just left him). Languages, religions, integrity, suffering, family stresses and ties, education, dependence, global aspiration—she encompasses them all, she is a Mother India. (And she is a very real person.)
As the actual Mother India celebrates the 60th anniversary of her independence, there is—as in Jaya Mary’s life—both surging optimism and crushing despair about her future. As the saying goes, everything and its opposite is true in India. The seven Indian Institutes of Technology rank near the top of global surveys, and job offers to graduates from the Indian Institutes of Management rival those to graduates of the famous US business schools; yet a third of the country is still illiterate. Three hundred million Indians live on less than $1 a day—a quarter of the world’s utterly poor—yet since 1985, more than 400m (out of a total population of 1bn) have risen out of relative poverty—to $5 a day—and another 300m will follow over the next two decades if the economy continues to grow at over 7 per cent a year. Population growth, even at a slower pace, will mean that there will still be millions below the poverty line, but the fall in number will be steady. At the other end of the scale, India has the largest number of dollar billionaires outside the US and Russia.
Historical success led India and China to their current demographic challenges. Their populations grew into the tens of millions because they were so economically advanced at the start of…