Wednesday, 28 April 2010

India- a society in flux

I doubt if there are more than a few thousand Indians for whom the 24th of July would mean anything beyond a mere date. And yet Wednesday, 24th July 1991 is a day that History should remember as India's second independence day- the day when delicensing and economic reforms formally took off. The sweeping reforms introduced that Wednesday changed the course of Indian history. The objective of this article is to try and present the perspectives of an urban Indian on the socio-economic transformation in urban India over the last two decades.

Historically, economic transformations have always fostered social changes. So is the case with India. At the heart of this transformation is a burgeoning middle class. As of today the middle class is about 200 million strong, which constitutes not even 20% the population. However, given an economy that is expected to grow at 7.5% to 10% over the next twenty years or so, it is likely that the number of people below poverty line will shrink as millions will improve their economic circumstances to enter the ranks of the middle class. Several studies (notably those of Deutsche Bank and Mckinsey) estimate that the size of the middle class by 2025 will be about 600 million, which would be close to half the population by then.

There is however one massive difference between the new middle class and the old. whereas the old middle class barely made ends meet, the present generation has purchasing power far exceeding even the wildest dreams of its predecessors. One inevitable effect of the purchasing power available to today's generation (to which this writer belongs) is a seismic shift in lifestyles. The shopping malls that are there in the major cities make for a shopping experience far removed from what our fathers could even dream of. Eating out in an upscale restaurant, which was beyond the dreams of our parents, is something today's generation takes for granted.

Education has become a booming business with thousands of courses mushrooming up, largely because parents today have little hesitation in spending lakhs on the education of their children, hoping that they could get a much better quality of education than we did in our time.

Another noticeable change that has happened is the ability to purchase one's own car. Whereas for my father's generation cars were unaffordable, today most people of my generation who are even reasonably well to do have their own cars. In fact most people in the mid to late 20s have their own vehicle and house- the kind of thing our predecessors could do only towards the end of their careers. The inevitable consequence of the burgeoning demand for vehicles is that Indian roads have become incredibly congested, with traffic snarls the order of the day. Similarly, real estate prices have gone skyrocketing, with real estate prices now beyond the reach of most Indians. Bombay, where I live, is perhaps the worst affected city on both counts.

Consumerism is becoming one of the pre-dominant developments in urban India. One unexpected outcome of the mall boom that growing consumerism has fuelled is the employment opportunities it has provided for the people who work there. Most of them come from slums, belonging to families in economically straightened circumstances. In fact the vast majority of them are the first generation in their families who have made the transition from blue to white collared labour. The combination of education (of admittedly pretty doubtful quality) and the opportunities that having a degree presents has produced a generation of youngsters several million strong, determined to change their lives for the better and naturally hungry for success.

Empowerment of women is one of the major outcomes of the economic transformation. Back in the old days, jobs were hard to come by even for men and a single income was enough to keep a household running comfortably. The vastly increased cost of living that has made double income a necessity rather than a luxury, combined with the incentives for female education given by the government over the past several decades has given Indian women the opportunity to leave the four walls of their houses and compete with the men. Inevitably, perhaps, women finally have financial independence, which in turn means that they can be a lot more assertive than their mothers could have ever dreamt of being. Admittedly, liberation of women is hardly uniform and those in the bigger cities, especially in the South, generally enjoy far greater liberties. Nevertheless, the lot of women even in metropolitan India is vastly improved as compared to their predecessors in the old century.

That, in turn, is leading to a change in social attitudes. Barely a generation ago, an Indian woman who dreamt of a career, who believed in a life beyond mere household duties was looked down upon as unfit to marry and have a family. 24-25 was the age when women were supposed to get married and you were getting old the moment you hit 26. An unmarried daughter whose age was anything over 25 was enough cause for parents to have sleepless nights. But all that has changed today in the bigger cities and it is only a matter of time before such attitudes spill over to the smaller ones. Women are every bit as career oriented as men and it is perfectly acceptable for them to dream of having a career in today's India, a far cry from even a decade ago.

As economic growth is spreading beyong the ten biggest cities, jobs are springing up all over the country- and I'm not even talking of jobs abroad. Labour mobility is increasingly becoming common, with the result that thousands of couples are relocating to other cities in search of better opportunities, with the inevitable consequence that families are increasingly becoming nuclear with just couples having one or two children (its incredibly rare to see urban couples having more than two children). As families become increasingly nuclear, people are naturally becoming more and more individualistic. Although Indian society still remains essentially collectivist, people are increasingly becoming aware of the concept of privacy and having a personal space- something that was virtually unknown a generation ago. Old family values are rapidly disintegrating, leading to a massive generation gap between the fathers and sons in today's India.

Another transformation in the making is the change in attitudes towards sex. Indian society has traditionally been a prudish one where sex as a topic is taboo, as it still remains in many ways. And yet, its impossible not to notice how freely one can talk about sex today. Remember, we're talking about a society where a song which had the word 'sexy' got into hot waters as late as 1994. Fast forward to 2009, not an eyebrow was raised when the lead character in the movie Paa decided to have a child out of wedlock and was shown living a perfectly normal and respectable life thereafter- something that was unthinkable for the lead actress of a Hindi movie barely ten years ago. The difference in public reaction speaks volumes about the extent to which attitudes have changed between then and now.

Barely a couple of years ago, I remember reading that some high court decreed that a live-in partner would enjoy the rights of a spouse. As of now, there is a governmental initiative to amend the Hindu Marriage Act to ease the divorce process. Not one group of self-proclaimed guardians of social morality raised a ruckus about it. Why, the matter went barely noticed. It's hard to imagine such a thing happening as late as the turn of the century, when political parties were bringing the roof down on the issue of youngsters celebrating Valentine's Day (granted that there still are extreme right-wing organisations wreaking havoc occasionally, but they are pretty much the exception now).

The institution of marriage is another aspect of traditional Indian life this is beginning to come under pressure. Admittedly divorce is still a rare phenomenon- a few thousand in a population of one billion is but a drop in the ocean- and yet, anyone living in the major cities would acknowledge that it is no longer an extraordinary event. The increasing trend of young people moving away from their home town to work has resulted in thousands of youngsters living in cities where they are complete strangers and as such immune from the social influences they would be subject to back home. Not surprisingly live-in relationships are becoming increasingly common, especially in the bigger cities.

Even perceptions of marriage have changed. Whereas people of my parent's generation married in their early to mid 20s, it is commonplace to people to wait until their late twenties or even the early thirties to marry. At 29 I'm still single but still under no pressure to marry. It is common to see women in the mid/ late 20s who are still single and not yet looking out in urban India- unthinkable a generation ago. With the age of marriage getting pushed further and further away, it is quite possible that sexual mores might change in a generation or two, to the point where extra-marital sex might become not just acceptable, but possibly even the norm.

Another problem is in social interaction with the opposite sex. People like me who were born in the early 80s- the first post '91 generation- are in many ways, sandwiched between the two worlds. Urban Indian society is caught in a time-trap between the old and the new. Outwardly most urban youth like me are highly modernised and yet somewhere deep down, we still haven't completely unentangled ourselves from the past. Just to give a simple example, most young men of my age (including this writer) would be hesitant to propose a young lady for a lunch or dinner date simply because its hard to be sure how the proposal would be taken. It was unthinkable a generation ago, but generally acceptable today- generally, but not necessarily so! In short, it is difficult to know what is acceptable and what is not.

This problem becomes more pronounced when people from smaller places come to bigger cities. The reason is pretty simple: society is a lot more conservative in provincial cities, where young men and young women cannot mix freely- being seen with a member of the opposite sex can itself land you into trouble. Coming from a world where its nearly impossible to freely communicate with the opposite sex to one where one can freely interact, many of them make the mistake of presuming that anything goes. Lot of young men from smaller cities make the mistake of presuming that the woman is interested in them merely because she talks to them freely and happily live under the illusion until realisation dawns- usually with an egg in the face.

For women too, the transition is (I imagine, subject to correction) a trying one, stuck as they are between 20th century India and India of the new millenium. If on the one hand they are looking to liberate themselves, some part of them is still struggling to break free from the past. Outwardly, they may speak English fluently and wear trendy dresses that could, at times, even be revealing. But beneath the surface, few of them have truly managed to liberate themselves. To this day, I hear of women still content to let their menfolk make the decisions- and I'm talking about educated young ladies who would appear 'mod' from outside. This being the case, I daresay little must have changed in provincial cities.

One last significant change worth mentioning, which is beginning to happen is the blurring of caste distinctions. The fact is that the caste system haunts India to this day, but anyone familiar with urban society would know that caste distinctions are rapidly vanishing. At a time of rapid economic growth and plentiful opportunities for employment, commerce dictates decisions and caste is obviously a factor that counts for little, if at all. True, most people at junior levels or menial jobs are of the lower castes, but the reason for that is the legacy of the past and not any deliberate attempt to exclude them from learning.

The question that naturally arises is, what is all this in aid of? The answer is admittedly not easy to come by, especially in an evolving society like India in the throes of a socio-economic transformation bigger and quicker in scale and nature than any since perhaps the transformation wrought by British policy two centuries ago. It is equally significant to bear in mind that the changes mentioned in this article are by no means permanent, but a transitory phase in the transformation of urban Indian society. Given these two facts, any conclusions one may draw from the present are largely guesswork- not even the most astute social historian will be able to project the future with any degree of certainty. The conclusions I shall go on to state need to be viewed in this light.

As I see it, Indian society will make a transition towards a more economically equitable society in that more and more people will move from poverty or below poverty line to middle class over the next few decades. How long that transformation takes is anybody's guess. What is certain is that the speed and the nature of the change will vary from region to region. Whereas the south and the western states of Maharashtra and Gujarat are likely to have the middle class constitute more than half their population in another 15-20 years, the corresponding transition in eastern India and most northern states is likely to take a generation or two longer. I daresay by 2050, we should have lifted at least 300-400 million people out of poverty.

At a social level, its likely that people will become more and more individualistic. While family is likely to retain its importance over the individual, the trend will almost certainly be that of nuclear families. What it naturally means is that there will be a huge generation gap between the fathers and sons (borrowing the title of Turgenev's famous novel) of India. We are increasingly going to find an older generation struggling to come to terms with a new world far removed from the one in which they grew up. What the nature and outcome of that generation gap will be, only time will tell.

As for society itself, I daresay that caste distinctions will start disintegrating. In the new world, economic power rather than caste is likely to be the determinant of one's social status. That such an outlook is materialistic is true, but then it is far better than the caste system. Whereas one can aspire to improve one's economic conditions, the caste that one is born into is a stigma or a privilege (depending on which side of the divide you are) for life that one does nothing to earn.

Whether the said changes will actually happen, how and when they will do so, should they come to pass at all, is a tough question to answer. For sure, different sections of society will make the transition at different stages. Whereas people like this writer, who belong to the old middle class, have already made the transition to upper middle class (the new upper-middle class if you may), there are a few hundred million from poor families who constitute the first generation middle class. The transition to upper middle class that ones like me have undergone would perhaps be a generation or two away for them. Further below them are the people who are poor or below poverty line, for whom just making it to the middle class is a dream and who are unlikely to make it at least until another couple of generations if not beyond.

Needless to say, values and social sensibilities will also evolve according to economic status. While the upper middle classes will be quicker to adopt western influences and abandon traditional sensibilities, the lower middle class- people whose parents were poor and as such share their sensibilities will remain more conservative for another generation or two. In other words, what we can expect is a continuation of the status quo: different sections of societies with vastly different cultural sensibilities co-existing, each of them aspiring to a lifestyle and a way of living imitating the one above.

It is just a matter of time before the multiplex/ coffee house culture makes its presence felt in smaller cities, which will start underegoing a lifestyle transformation similar to the one the bigger cities have undergone over the last 6-7 years. What kind of social changes that in turn will wreak is a matter of conjecture. Not being very familiar with life in provincial cities- which is a very different world from the major cities- this writer is hardly in a position to make an informed guess.

But one thing is certain, a massive change is happening and what we're seeing is just the beginning. For sure, India is a society in flux.

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