Return to India
Twenty Years of Change in the Sub-Continent
Jeremy Warner/The Independent, January 29, 2007
It was almost exactly 20 years ago. Two months of backpacking around India was coming to an end. I'd been standing in line for what seemed like hours trying to check into a Delhi hotel before taking an early-morning flight back to London. Or three lines, to be precise. The first was to register, the second was for the mysterious purpose of picking up a docket giving rights to the third queue, at the end of which, after more form-filling, was the promise of keys to the hotel room and a couple of hours' sleep.
Even by Indian standards this seemed an extraordinarily unnecessary process, but after a while on the subcontinent you get used to these things. Except that I hadn't. I really hadn't. Indeed, I had completely had it with the daily frustrations of Indian life. Can it really be that difficult to book into a bloody hotel room?
Emaciated by weeks of dysentery and still half-crazed by a dose of psychedelically-charged dope a phoney guru in Jaipur had persuaded me to imbibe, I was ready to explode. Approaching the front of the third queue, I fumbled in my pockets for the docket which would deliver the room keys. In my confusion, I had mislaid this apparently vital piece of paper. As the man ahead successfully completed his marathon, I desperately searched bags and rechecked pockets. The hotel receptionist was unyielding. Without the ticket, I couldn't have the keys. I offered him money but to no avail. It was back to the beginning of the first queue or no room. And so the eruption began, spilling out, quietly at first, in a disgraceful torrent of expletives, and continuing on to a loud-mouthed, shamefully rude rant on the iniquities of the Indian nation and all who dwelled there. That the bureaucracy I had just encountered was almost certainly a leftover from British rule didn't occur to me.
The queue of mainly Indian nationals behind me counter-erupted in an appropriate manner - with mocking laughter, that is - at this pitiful display of anger. A kindly-looking gentleman shook his head. "How long have you been in India? You really should know better. You cannot come to India and expect to live life at a Western pace. You'll go mad. Go home. Maybe you'll think better of us after a couple of weeks."
He was right. Nobody who visits this astonishing country is left untouched by it. My memories of that trip are still among the most vivid of my life. Within months I was longing to return to this intoxicating mass of chaotic humanity - the sights, the smells, the noise, the landscapes, even the brutality of the climate. Back home, things seemed colourless and predictable by comparison with this veritable feast for the eyes. Yet career, children and rival destinations have until now kept me from it.
* So here I am, 20 years later, fresh from a Jet Airways flight from London, back on Indian soil once more. The airline itself is instructive. It didn't exist when I was last here, but today is part of a plethora of new Indian airlines established to feed the country's explosive economic growth. The calm, service-oriented efficiency of the flight, more than a match for Western counterparts, is impossible to reconcile with the chaos of India I remembered.
This is a very different kind of trip to my first. I was a tourist then. Today I'm here to learn about the Indian development story. This is a happening of truly seismic importance that in time may come to be seen as of greater historical significance than many of the things we worry about closer to home, including the present traumas in the Middle East. Along with the rapid industrialisation of China, it is fast changing the way we must think about geopolitics. The long-term impact of Asia's integration into the global economy, which is still in its infancy, is likely to be profound.
Back then, India was just another Third World country, albeit still one of considerable cultural influence. It was largely closed to outside economic influences. Today, pockets of it are already virtually indistinguishable from the developed West. It is also growing and modernising with a speed that 20 years ago would barely have been conceivable. Rarely has India been so much in the news as it is now. It's not just Shilpa Shetty and the racist taunting of Big Brother, or even the possibility of a repentant visit by Jade Goody to the poppadom land of her imaginings. Nor is it call centres and the outsourcing of growing numbers of British jobs to this former jewel in the crown of the Empire. Nor still is it because globalisation and low-cost tourism is beginning to make cultural and social developments on the other side of the world as immediate, news worthy and influential as those in our own back yard. Much more important, in my view, is the realisation that India, with its population of more than a billion people, is finally joining the global economy. That forces us to engage, on an equal footing, with a nation Britain has largely ignored since post-war independence. It has also coincided with a huge revival of interest in the teachings and wisdom of Mahatma Gandhi. Large numbers of Indians may live in poverty, but in a world where Western capitalism plainly doesn't have all the answers, the striving for the spiritual improvement that he stood for has never had more relevance.
* The idea of karma teaches you to accept life as you find it. You are born into your condition and are largely powerless to change it. Nor would you want to, for the soul is constantly reborn until it is perfected.
This core, religious belief was one of the most striking features of society on the Indian subcontinent when I was last here. It invites a passive acceptance of position, status, wealth and predicament which, to the Western mind heavily tutored on the idea of self-improvement, is hard both to understand and accept.
One of the most culturally shocking aspects of India to the Warner of 20 years ago was the way the Indian treated his fellow, but lower-caste, Indian. A dog, and certainly a cow, which is a sacred beast, would get more respect. On a rickshaw ride, I was reprimanded by my Indian guide for showing the skin and bones who towed us a little common courtesy. I was not to give him ideas, I was solemnly told.
Down the ages, these social mores have incited repeated rebellions. They are one of the reasons why Islam and Christianity have spread among lower-caste Hindus. Rival religions seem to offer a better prospect of self-respect and escape.
Yet even after independence, they remained a deeply ingrained aspect of Indian life. Not everyone shares this outlook on life, but most do. Gandhi sought release from the quagmire of materialism through the virtues of human dignity and social justice, but in this land of massive contradictions, many of the spiritual values that he championed are still a powerfully oppressive force and barrier to change.
As I left India two decades ago, it was hard to be anything other than pessimistic about its future. I had arrived hoping for a kind of enlightenment; I left wholly convinced of the merits of Western materialism.
What inroads into Indian society have our Western ways made in the years since I was last here? On first impressions, not very much. As I am driven from the airport to old-town Delhi, there's a lot more traffic. Roadworks and uncompleted flyovers seem to be everywhere. The Indians have also caught the Western fixation with mobile phones. Yet the human chaos and desolation remains the same.
As we stop at the lights - they seem to be new, too - a hand reaches up from the road and assumes a begging pose. Looking down, I see a small mass of humanity, its deformed, rag-clad body crawling dangerously around between the gaps in the traffic in search of compassion. Not much change there, then. Last time I was here, I taught myself to be immune to such sights. A grim smile breaks out on my face. They'd warned me that the place would be unrecognisable. Regrettably, it already seems only too familiar.
I have just a week in India, which is plainly inadequate even for the purpose of scratching the surface of such a vast land mass. What's more, it is to be filled mainly by meetings with business leaders and bankers. The chances of seeing much of the "real" India seem remote. My first trip was a slow-lane trundle by bus and rail around the boathouses of Kashmir, the palaces of Rajasthan, the temples of Varanasi and the backstreets of Kolkata.
This was to be a kerosene-fuelled quick step between Delhi, seat of the Indian government, Bangalore, centre of India's burgeoning IT services industry, and Mumbai , home to some of India's wealthiest entrepreneurs and financiers, as well as Asia's largest slum quarter. Mumbai is also home to Bollywood, whose studios in the north of the city produce more films than anywhere else on the planet.
* It's less than 20 miles from Bangalore airport to the Infosys campus, yet the journey takes more than two hours through customary scenes of abject chaos. To my disappointment, there is not an elephant in sight - "No elephants here," my taxi driver insists with pride, "all gone now." But there are plenty of cows amid the massed hordes and confusion of auto rickshaws, motorscooters and beaten-up cars. There's even the odd Merc and BMW fighting for progress in the scrum. How these status symbols of the new rich manage to avoid being pranged is beyond me, yet they seem blemish-free.
The outsourcing and IT services phenomenon has made Bangalore a boom city where seemingly everyone, even the beggar on the street corner, has a mobile phone and a story to tell. Yet though you are told to expect it, nothing prepares you for the bizarre sight of the Infosys cluster of futuristic office blocks and software labs looming out of the surrounding mayhem. It could be Microsoft in Seattle, or Google in California. Yet this is the very same India I had once dismissed as for ever stuck in a bygone age. There it stands, a monument to the new India I had come in search of.
Inside the walls all is quiet serenity. Workers ferry themselves between sites on electric golf carts and bicycles. The lawns are green and perfectly manicured. There's even a pitch-and-putt course, shopping facilities, restaurants and a hotel. You wouldn't have to leave the premises at all if you didn't want to.
Looking at the chaotic contrast that lies little more than a stone's throw away, it is easy to see why the Infosys workforce is so keen to come to work each day. The average age is just 26, and everyone feels privileged to be working here. For those who believe the future belongs to the emerging economies of Asia, there is no more startling example of progress than this. Sir Digby Jones, former director-general of the CBI, used constantly to warn that the Chinese and Indians would be eating our lunch, breakfast, tea and dinner if we weren't careful. The seriously minded, highly educated young Indians who work here don't look predatory to me. But they are absolutely determined at least to eat at the same table as us.
Infosys started life as a conventional IT services and outsourcing company. Modern communications technology allows it to take work that Western corporations and governments no longer regard as core to what they do, and service it remotely from centres in India. The country's vast and fast-growing pool of young graduates, many of them more fluent in English than their British and US counterparts, allows India to do this a lot more cheaply, and often to a higher standard, than is possible in the West.
As the company has grown, it has climbed further up the value chain, branching out into other areas of business process outsourcing, such as accountancy, design, engineering, consultancy, and even proprietary software and operating systems.
In so doing, Infosys and other Indian-based companies like it have become one of the key catalysts driving corporate change in the developed West. The modern, customer-facing corporation is, progressively, just about brand and marketing, with virtually all else outsourced to others that can do the work better and cheaper. Technology has made it easier for companies to slice the pie and give what used to be undertaken internally to someone else.
Sheer weight of numbers means that India is more likely to have the right skills at a competitive price than Europe or America. The majority of Indians are still essentially uneducated. Infrastructure is poor to appalling, while bureaucratic restriction and corruption ensure that change proceeds at a glacial pace. Yet among the 650 million who are literate, there are bound to be quite a lot of people who are exceptional. Technology allows the ageing West to plug into this youthful new resource.
Nadan Nilekani, chief executive of Infosys, smiles politely as he anticipates my question. "We have a lot of Western journalists who come through here," he says, "and they all ask the same thing: 'How come you can get such a smart company from such a poor country? How come order can spring from such chaos?'"
The joke answer to this question is that the government didn't understand IT services and therefore failed to crush the industry at birth, in the way it has most others, with restrictions, tax and bureaucracy. By the time India noticed, it already had a roaring success on its hands, and the industry has therefore been untouched ever since.
Benign neglect has allowed Infosys and others to flourish. There's more than an element of truth in this explanation. Prior to the economic reforms of 1991, there were few domestic opportunities for the ambitious entrepreneur to pursue at home.
To succeed, he had to seek markets in the outside world. The young turks of IT services, many of them sent by rich families to top US universities, knew exactly where to look. The drive to ever-greater levels of productivity in corporate America and Europe meant the Indian IT pioneers were pushing at an open door. Even today, less than 5 per cent of Infosys revenues come from domestic sources, though as the Indian economy achieves lift-off, this segment of the business is now growing fast.
The success of Infosys and other entrepreneurially driven companies like it has encouraged the Indian government to seek private-sector solutions to India's many challenges. The emphasis in public policy is, as a consequence, on deregulation - the opposite of the approach being pursued in Venezuela by President Hugo Chavez. It is also quite at odds to the more centralised, controlled approach to development being followed in China. The self-evident constraints under which business operates in India leads it to seek out new solutions and approaches that are now driving change on a global scale. In India, necessity truly is the mother of invention.
There are perhaps some other equally important influences. There is nothing intrinsically superior about the Indian mind that makes it more mathematically or computer-literate than its European or US counterpart. On the other hand, young Indians are still on the whole socially restrained by family and religion.
Relatively poor parents make enormous sacrifices to send their children to private school so that they can better themselves and break permanently free of poverty. There is, as a consequence, a hunger to succeed among the young that is perhaps now lacking in the decadent West.
An Indian acquaintance of mine says of his country that you can offer any view you like of India, and you will certainly be right. If you then say the exact opposite, you would be right too. The diversity and contradictions of India are both its fascination, its attraction and its strength. As the country grows and develops, the danger is that much of this diversity, together with many ancient traditions, will disappear. India is completely different to the West. That's what makes the country so attractive. India must develop to survive and meet the aspirations of a population where 200 million and growing are between the ages of 15 and 24. Yet if it loses its diversity and traditions, it will lose its soul.
Today, though, there are many more reasons for optimism about India than there were 20 years ago. Even so, what I had witnessed at Infosys is plainly not the "real" India, the great bulk of which is still untouched by these developments. The "inclusive" economic growth sought by the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, remains only an aspiration. The reality sometimes seems the reverse. At least 40 per cent of the population still lives on less than $1 a day, and an equal magnitude on not much more. Last year the economy may have grown by a record rate of more than 10 per cent (the final estimate has not yet been published), but agriculture, which accounts for the great bulk of employment and livelihood, grew by less than 2 per cent, and production of key bulk crops actually declined. Much of the country is going backwards.
The famous demographic bulge, which means that there will soon be a higher proportion of people in India under the age of 30 than in any other country in the world, is what makes this market such a mouth-watering proposition to multinationals.
Yet with still hopelessly inadequate nutritional standards among many children and widespread health issues, including the fastest-growing rate of HIV/Aids in the world, the demographics could be as much a liability as an asset. Poor levels of general education and training compound the challenges.
All these people will require jobs, and if they cannot get them or are incapable of doing them, they will require welfare. To meet these aspirations, India needs to keep growing by 10 per cent-plus per year in the indefinite future.
The state cannot provide such growth, but the private sector perhaps can. To stimulate this investment, India must hugely increase the pace of deregulation by dismantling what remains of its protections, opening the flood barriers and allowing foreign capital to flow in. The dangers of this approach in a country steeped in tradition are only too obvious. It's like driving a car - the more you hit the accelerator, the more dangerous your journey becomes. Yet India has no choice but to proceed at breakneck speed.
To see why this is the case, I've come to Dharavi, Asia's largest slum. Around 60 per cent of Mumbai's population of 20 million lives in slum quarters like it, and this number is growing all the time as more people leave the land in search of employment in the cities.
I don't want to be too downbeat about these places, for they fulfil the vital purpose of providing affordable accommodation in a city where rents are now among the highest in the world. Many of those who live amid the open sewers and refuge-filled alleyways are second generation and actually seem to like the place. There's no running water, but most of the huts have both electricity and television, and with evident pride are kept spotless.
It is here and in other slums around Mumbai's urban sprawl that Mithu Alur practices her own particular brand of "inclusive education". She's the head of the Spastics Society of India and even the most cynical of observers couldn't help but be inspired by her work.
In India, disability is widely seen, particularly among the uneducated, as quite literally a curse - a punishment for misdemeanours in a former life, or perhaps worse, as some kind of retribution visited on the mother of the disabled child.
Ms Alur calls them India's "invisible children". Many would rarely see the outside world and are kept hidden away in back rooms as an object of shame. Her charity seeks to break down these attitudes and prejudices through schooling programmes located deep in the slum districts. Here the disabled are educated alongside the able-bodied. The parents of ordinary children use the schools because they teach English and provide the opportunity of improvement. In so doing, the programme both provides a vital educational service in the slum quarters, allowing mothers the freedom to go to work, and helps to normalise disability. Set against India's vast panoply of problems, this particular one might seem of quite marginal importance, or at least a long way down the scale of priorities.
Yet by chipping away at these specific challenges, Ms Alur and other such social entrepreneurs are galvanising wider change. The success that they evidently achieve is one of the reasons for remaining optimistic about India's future.
To me, India doesn't seem to have changed fundamentally in the 20 years since I was last here. Few places do. While I'm in Mumbai, there's a riot by the lower castes that kills several people and brings large parts of the city to a standstill. The disturbance is undoubtedly a sign of wider social tensions, but its immediate cause is that a necklace of slippers has insultingly been hung round an idol's neck, probably by Muslims.
According to the local police chief, this makes the riot, if not entirely justifiable, then certainly understandable. In another part of the city there is a celestial wedding, while outside the city, incompetence in the dismantling of a bridge causes it to collapse on to a passing train, killing scores of its passengers. Life for most in India remains precarious and cheap.
As the aircraft turns for take-off, I notice that there is a large slum quarter backing on to the runway, literally yards away from the point where the aircraft throttle back for flight. There are children waving from this exhaust-filled shanty town. I've been told that they live here because they want to. This I doubt. They are here because this is what they were born into. If I were them, I'd want my lifestyle. It's unlikely they will ever have it. But their children's children just might.