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Reconciling the Two Indias

How has India’s development caused its society to split in two — and how can these parts be reconciled?

Takeaways


  • Depending on which cities we count, India has grown nine of ten big ones in the six decades since independence.
  • In the middle of our century, a half-billion Indians are still likely to dwell in the villages that are supposed to disappear.
  • Urban drift is hardly new in developing countries. But in India after the reforms, it approached the proportions of a flood.
  • Indians have no habit of ripping down their old cities, as the Chinese do. The old cities bulge, each crumbly street a tournament of horn blowers.

Villagers don't want the village," a writer in Delhi named Dipankar Gupta, who is noted for his studies of the countryside, once told me.

Urban drift is hardly new in developing countries. But in India after the reforms, it approached the proportions of a flood. There are slightly more than 600,000 villages in India, and not quite three-quarters of the nation's 1.1 billion people live in them. But roughly eight million Indians move from village to city in a typical year — a new New York City per annum.

Indians have no habit of ripping down their old cities, as the Chinese do. The old cities bulge, each crumbly street a tournament of horn blowers — incessant horns being the quintessential sound of Indian aspiration. And next to the old cities come new ones, where the life of the new India gets lived.

Hyderabad ranks with Bangalore as a center for information technology. But none of that is in Hyderabad proper: It is next door, in the new city known locally as Cyberabad. In Hyderabad you find the old city halls, the lively markets, the 16th-century mosque, a gleaming Hindu temple to compete with it.

Cyberabad is made of tinted-glass boxes and not-quite-finished expressways. In between are communities that resemble California suburbs. By day, an office in Cyberabad, in the evening, a visit to the old city — dinner, perhaps, in the picturesque India one no longer lives in.

In Delhi, I once attended an urban-planning seminar at the invitation of a friend. The room was full of scholars, bureaucrats, bankers, lawyers, executives, experts in the life of cities. The talk was technocratic, but I found myself jotting down a few of the observations made.

"The need is to shift from poverty eradication to planning for prosperity," a professor of urban studies said.

"We don't really have an urban plan at all," a housing expert said, "but if we want to develop, we will urbanize."

A scholar from Harvard talked about "verticality." He said, "In Shanghai they are building upward. In New York we are building upward."

A banker said, "The idea that India will remain a rural environment is simply not realistic."

Then the housing expert again: "We have to start moving people faster and faster."

This is the new India thinking aloud. It is sequential India. It finds itself caught up in a process, and there is no talk of managing the process itself — only of how to cope within the process, as if the process were immutable. No one stops to think that human agency made the process, and human agency can alter it.

The process is Western and it is inevitable: We are reminded, by way of its absence, that among the great gifts of the eccentric tradition has been the gift of imagination as it arises from the Indian ground.

Dipankar Gupta, the Delhi writer and scholar, once told me about a talk he gave to some NRIs — nonresident Indians, expatriates in New York. He spoke about the Indian middle class, which is commonly said to number 300 million. What does this mean, Gupta asked, when one is counted middle class with an income of 87 U.S. cents per day?

What does "upper class" mean when $2.30 daily makes one upper class? What does it mean that the IT industry, the beating heart of the new India, employs but three million people, or that all of 3% of households own cars?

Gupta was received badly among the NRIs. They objected to his numbers and questions. They flinched in the face of India as it is. He remembered as we spoke, a hot day in Delhi much later, how his audience sighed, asked no questions of their own and left early with scarcely a murmur among them.

It is remarkable to discover the extent to which Indians — the technocrats and the executives and the urban elite — can fool themselves about the new India, "Incredible India." Stop worrying about poverty and prepare for prosperity? As Gandhi liked to put it, people with such thoughts do not know their India (which many Indians will admit, given there are so many Indias to know).

The vision of a middle-class nation as India has come to have it is just this — a sort of vision. On any serious examination it is impossible that it will come to be, let alone be sustainable. Without bringing a lot of social science into it, the middle class in India probably numbers about 5% of the population — 30-50 million people, a tenth or so of the official statistic.

It would require the energy of another planet — one at the least — to bring the reality into line with the vision. Depending on which cities we count, India has grown nine of ten big ones in the six decades since independence. In the roundest of figuring, is it to grow 80 or 90 or 100 more to "urbanize" in the next half century?

Migration to the cities has come to about 200 million since independence. This, too, is unsustainable. In the middle of our century a half-billion Indians are still likely to dwell in the villages that are supposed to disappear.

Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from Patrick Smith's book, "Somebody Else's Century," published by Pantheon on August 31, 2010. Copyright Patrick Smith. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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