Just the other day, I was sitting in Cafe Coffee Day with a friend of mine. While discussing about our respective future plans, she was talking about going to the U.S.A. Asked why she wanted to go, she replied that it was largely at the prodding of her brother and had no specific reason for wanting to go there. In fact, she told me, she would prefer remaining in India. In many ways, this friend of mine (who's 6 years younger than me by the way) symbolises the new India.
Let me take you back to the late 90s/ turn of century when I was in college. I still remember the obsession for going to the U.S.A for an MS in those days (which to a great extent still persists, I may add), I still remember the number of students, especially engineering students, carrying a GRE or a TOEFL book in their hands all the time. Going to the U.S.A was be all and end all in those days. You only had to hear college students of my generation to catch that mood. Most people seemed to believe that just going abroad (read: crossing the Atlantic) would be the solution to all problems. And you could bet your bottom dollar that those very people would have criticised India at the first available opportunity.
So what has changed between then and now? Is it premature to talk about a new India?
Going back to the conversation with my friend, she was telling me that a lot of old timers fear that the sudden growth in India is not sustainable and in a few years we might be back to square one. I could not help replying that we are now firmly on the path to progress; the developments around us: the shopping malls, multiplexes, 15-20 storey buildings, state-of-the-art offices, massive pay-packets, etc are here to stay. Having held ourselves back for half century under a myraid of draconian laws, we have suddenly broken all shackles and realised what we are truly capable of achieving. But amidst that optimism, let's not overlook the problems that still persist.
My work involves a great deal of travelling; I have been to several cities across India over the last year or so. I have myself seen a village in M.P where there is not even a proper school- its open air, there's no electricity and there isn't even the pretence of a proper road. I've heard of villages in M.P where poverty is so rife that fathers and brothers themselves pimp girls for a living. I have seen incredibly backward places in Bihar where you can see how badly people are crushed by poverty and by the heartless class system that degrades men to abysmal depths. I'm told that the poverty in those parts is so overwhelming, that people kill for a few hundred rupees. I have read that there are 44,000 villages or so in U.P without power, where healthcare facilities are non-existent and mortality rates are comparable to sub-Saharan Africa. And so, I have also seen how bad things are out there.
And yet, I remain optimistic. Why, you might wonder, after seeing all that.
Let me take you still further back to my childhood, back in the late 80s, to the days when there were just 2 T.V channels. I can still remember the excitement of a 7-year old, when Doordarshan started afternoon transmission in `88, the excitement of watching Chitrahar on Wednesdays and Chayageet on Thursdays. Sundays mornings were ours (we kids that is): after Mahabharat, you would have cartoons right upto the afternoon. Had you gone out in those days, you would have seen only Fiats or Ambassadors on the road with the odd Contessa or Standard-2000 and yes, the Maruti-800 was state-of-the-art. Any shop that had an air-conditioner was a supermarket. Watching the latest movies on pirated video tapes was the ultimate in entertainment. Anyone who had a telephone connection was considered well-off.
Then there was 1991. Suddenly, everything started changing. You suddenly had something called cable T.V; there suddenly burst forth a plethora of T.V channels. Suddenly, you had multinationals from all the developed countries queing up to do business in India.You had new brands of automobiles like Opel, Ford, Peugeot, etc which one only heard or dreamt about formerly. Everyone came to have a telephone line and you suddenly had something called a mobile phone turning up in the mid 90s. Having a mobile phone now became the new status symbol. Today, barely a generation later, a mobile phone has become incredibly commonplace. Technology has changed dramatically, economic models have undergone a dramatic transformation. With all these, even mindsets have changed.
I have a colleague called Reena. She's 24 now and expecting to qualify as a Chartered Accountant in another year or two. She once told me that she's one of the few graduates in the family and the only person in her family to have gone beyond graduation. There may be nothing extraordinary in all this and yet, it symbolises how India is changing. The heartening fact is that her family is encouraging her to study further; one generation ago, they might have been pressurising her to get married. That one fact speaks volumes as to how mindsets are changing. And that is not the only thing that's begun to change. Even the demographics of urban India are rapidly changing.
Let me tell you about another colleague of mine called Vivek. He's a native of coastal Maharashtra, hailing from a family of agriculturists. Vivek is the first member of his family to complete graduation- not just in education, but also the graduation from blue-collar worker to white-collar worker. People like Reena and he are what I'd call the first-generation middle class- they belong to the new middle class that has emerged post liberalisation. The last decade and a half has seen thousands like them rise from poverty or near poverty and enter the middle class. These are people who were workers or farmers barely a generation back and still retain connections with their roots.
To me, the new middle class is the future of this country. Their numbers are growing year after year. The middle class forms about a third of India's population today and that percentage will keep growing. Market demand, political voting patterns, education, everything will be decided by the middle class in another generation or two. When I see young people from smaller cities, like the contestants of Indian Idol rubbing shoulders with their counterparts from the bigger metros, I feel that the future of the country is in safe hands. The old middle class from the major cities have played out their historical role. Its the new middle class from the smaller cities who will take India forward.
True, problems are still plentiful and in many ways, India still remains a backward and third-world nation. And yet, there's boundless talent and more importantly, a belief among the people. Its this belief in a glorious future, this new-found energy, this enthusiasm that makes me optimistic that India has finally arrived and begun to attain its rightful place in the world.