[Reader-list] A tale of two Indias - The Guardian April 5

Nitin Govil ngovil at ucsd.edu
Wed Apr 5 11:03:37 IST 2006

Monte Carlo tans, cash liquidity, rubbing shoulders (respectfully)  
with your neighbors in your gated utopia:



A tale of two Indias

A gated development for the subcontinent's super-rich ... and a  
funeral for a cotton farmer, forced into
suicide because of spiralling poverty. India's economic growth is  
dazzling but, in the new, globalised era,
its inequalities are becoming even more polarised, discovers Randeep  
Ramesh .

Wednesday April 5, 2006
The Guardian

A blue-suited Boris Becker strokes his chin, shakes his head and  
speaks into the lens. "No, no. I'm sorry, I
can't think of any place I like to live in as much as this place."  
Flanked by wooden, Swiss-style chalets and
manicured, verdant lawns the former Wimbledon champion then saunters  
off, presumably to find his place. The
advert, which has been shown repeatedly on Indian television screens  
for the past month, promotes the
impression that Becker wants to live the rest of his life in the  
shadow of the Sahyadri Hills, an oasis of
greenery in the dust of the Indian state of Maharashtra.

What is being advertised is a first in the country - a private  
enclave that will eventually separate 35,000
wealthy residents from the teeming poverty in India. In the process,  
11,000 acres of prime forest are slowly
being converted into a city, called Aamby Valley, which is sealed off  
by eight-foot-high brick walls topped
by an electric fence. Inside, every home has a panic button and  
streets are lined with closed-circuit
television cameras. Gated and guarded by a gun-toting police force,  
the township is out of bounds to
non-residents - intentionally cut off from the rest of India.

In many ways, Aamby Valley resembles a luxury holiday resort rather  
than an exclusive utopia. It boasts some
of the best weather in the country, with the temperature rarely  
rising above 32C, and it is cooled by
year-round breezes. There are water parks, hiking trails, rock- 
climbing walls, an 18-hole golf course, a
tribal village, five-star restaurants, a 1,500-bed hospital and an  
airport for private jets. With just 250 of
the 7,000 homes built, Aamby Valley has the creepy feel of an  
abandoned Hollywood set.

But the township is more than just a flash housing development. Its  
construction marks a step change in
India's evolution from dirt-poor country into a middle-income one,  
unembarrassed by the fact that the rich
are getting richer - some of them very rich indeed.

Previously, the wealthy have had to deal with the choking poverty of  
the country, edging their Mercedes past
lolling cows and avoiding pavement pools of urine in their Manolo  
Blahniks. There was no way to shut out the
crime, traffic and noise that pervade the country's city streets.  
Until India globalised in the 1990s,
Indians tended to identify with the poor - a societal trait that drew  
inspiration from the example of the
ascetic Mohandas Gandhi.

Gandhi's India, or at least his influence on economics, has all but  
disappeared in the past decade. From 1947
until 1991, the economy grew at 3.5% a year, the so-called Hindu rate  
of growth which championed equality and
social stability over wealth. After 1991, that all changed. Notions  
of speed and efficiency were stamped on
to a civilisation that traditionally took a slower, more relaxed view  
of life. Economic growth rose to 6% a
year. In the past three years, it has zoomed to 8% a year - meaning  
that the economy will double in size in a
decade. The message now is similar to that of China during the 90s,  
in the phrase attributed to Deng
Xiaoping: "To get rich is glorious."

Not that the wealth has reached all of the country. India is one  
land, but the rich and poor exist on
apparently different planets. Virtually unreported are some awful  
daily realities: the rate of malnutrition
in children under five is a shamefully high 45%. Less than a third of  
India's homes have a toilet and most
women have to wait until the dark of evening to venture out to answer  
the call of nature. The talk of making
poverty history sounds hollow in India, a land which is home to a  
third of the world's poor and where some
300 million people live on less than $1 a day.

Yet another world is growing up, fuelled by the immense wealth that  
is being amassed by India's new monied
classes, who shop for brand-name luxury goods, ski in the Alps and  
send their kids to Harvard. Very soon the
country will have 3.8m households with an annual income of 10m rupees  

Below them in any rich list is the middle class, estimated to number  
about 150 million. Their hunger for
goods has seen a new money culture - how to make it and how to spend  
it. India's masses were, under the more
equal state-run economy, denied shopping choices. The country is  
today undergoing a consumer boom. For some,
this is proof enough that, in opening up, India has gained from  
globalisation - allowing Dior, Bulgari and
Rolls-Royce into the country. Consumption in this India is nothing if  
not conspicuous.

Aamby Valley offers Indians a way to buy their way out of the state:  
a couple of acres costs 70m rupees
(£900,000). In British terms it may not sound like a fortune, but the  
price of the cheapest wooden
two-bedroom chalet is 15m rupees (£190,000) - 90 times the average  
Indian family's annual income. This alone
will ensure that flourishing India is kept well apart from the  
unwashed masses.

Surveying her six-acre plot, Savitha Mansukhani, the wife of a multi- 
millionaire electronics tycoon, says
that her home city of Mumbai is too crowded and "everybody knows  
somebody who has been robbed at home". "Here
I will feel completely safe. It is a walled city and nobody can walk  
in. Only the right sort of people."

Apart from feeling secure, Savitha gushes forth about Aamby Valley's  
benefits: its broadband connections, its
poolside dining, its watersports centre. Her husband Vijay, who has a  
mild heart condition, loves their
Spanish-style villa overlooking the lake. She lingers in describing  
her plans for a chintzy inside waterfall
and the about-to-be-laid Italian marble floors. "For the first time I  
wish I was 10 years younger. Then I
would have longer to enjoy it all." Another two sprawling private  
suburbs are planned just a few hours' drive

At the heart of these ventures is the privatisation of India's urban  
spaces. Aamby Valley is run by a private
company, Sahara, an Indian business conglomerate which launched a  
national airline, runs television stations
and operates a rural banking network in north India.

The townships' rules and regulations, currently being formulated, are  
reminiscent of a Singaporean zeal for
law and order. Few will regret prohibiting the unsavoury Indian habit  
of spitting red streams of "paan", a
chewy paste made from betel nut that stains most streets, or  
forbidding men from using the kerb as a public
toilet. But within a decade Aamby Valley will be handed over to a  
contractor who will run the city's
services. The township will be governed by a council that will be  
"selected not elected", and a new set of
regulations will spring up to determine what colour each chalet can  
be painted and where denizens can park
their limos.

All this points to a deeper trend: a swelling class of people with a  
deep mistrust of government who dream of
creating an Indian Shangri-la. The new wealthy in India are quietly  
abandoning the state: paying for their
own private police force and playing golf at private clubs. There  
appears to be little concern about
supporting public services or about the poor who are stuck with  
decrepit hospitals and schools. This kind of
institutional inequality has its roots in the caste system, India's  
social hierarchy, but it will soon be
criss-crossed by another set of divisions that will see older cities  
becoming dumped with an Indian

One only has to turn on the television to see this new India being  
created. Characters in Indian car
advertisements always seem to be driving along pristine highways in  
the forests of Austria or along the
beaches of California, with never a rut or a holy cow in sight. Aamby  
Valley's promotional video sees Daley
Thompson apparently rendered speechless as he relaxes in an outsized  
Mediterranean cottage. There is an
exultant sense among the country's wealthy that a brash, bold India  
is claiming its appropriate place in the
world. The thinking goes that in an age of outsourcing, high  
technology and nuclear weapons, India's image
overseas can no longer be shrunk to one of elephants, maharajahs and  
rag-clad, swollen-bellied children.

It often takes celebrity to lift the poor in India out of anonymity.  
On a sultry spring evening in Delhi last
month, the novelist Arundhati Roy could be found in the middle of a  
troupe of chanting, sari-clad women, who
were hoping to draw attention to a terrible blight on the rural  
landscape: farmers' suicides. Thousands of
farmers have taken their own lives, having found themselves with a  
debt that, in dollar terms, would scarcely
buy an iPod, but which is enough to impoverish a family.

Roy likens the country's progress to two convoys of trucks: a small  
group that is on its way to a "glittering
destination near the top of world", and a more massive pack that  
"melts into the darkness and disappears". "A
section of India has seceded from the nation," she says. "This  
project of corporate globalisation has created
a constituency of very rich people who are very thrilled about it.  
They do not care about the hawkers being
cleared from the streets or the slums that are disappeared  
overnight." As she sees it, India is not coming
together but coming apart because liberalisation has convulsed the  
country at an unprecedented, unacceptable
velocity. In the cities, the hammer and bulldozer are, often, noisily  
demolishing slum block after slum
block, making way for shiny new apartments. Nowhere is this shift  
more profoundly felt than in the country's
villages where, Roy says, "India does not live. It dies".

India is largely a mosaic of 500,000 villages, each with a population  
of about 1,000 people. This basic
demographic unit has, for centuries, acquiesced to an unseen order,  
governed by caste rules, harvests and
religious festivals. Yet the blooming of capitalism that, in India's  
cities, translates into rampant
consumerism, extravagant architecture and looser sexual mores has had  
a more wrenching effect in the nation's

Just a few hundred kilometres from Aamby Valley, in Vidarbha, the  
farming belt in eastern Maharashtra, are
fields of black soil that once reaped a rich harvest of "white gold",  
as cotton was known. But the crop has
lost its lustre in recent years. The arrival of new pesticides,  
genetically modified seeds and swanky
tractors that soak up increasingly expensive petrol has pushed up the  
cost of the production. At the same
time, India dismantled the wall of duties that kept out foreign  
cotton as part of its liberalisation drive.

Vidarbha's farmers, unprotected by market controls and tariffs, have  
to compete with growers from the
European Union and US who are subsidised to the tune of billions of  
dollars a year. The last vestiges of
Indian government support were withdrawn a few months ago. The result  
is that Indian cotton farmers have
become impoverished in a few short years. Many have borrowed to stay  
alive - first from banks and then from
usurious moneylenders. Chained in poverty by debts they cannot pay,  
farmers began to sell first their carts,
then their cattle, followed by land and homes. Some offer their  
kidneys for 100,000 rupees (£1,300).

Others have put up entire villages for sale. The 800 acres of Dorli  
village in Wardha district, complete with
accommodation for 46 families, can be yours for 200m rupees (£2.5m),  
about the same as three plots in Aamby
Valley. "I can negotiate," says Sujata Halule, the 27-year-old  
elected member of the village council who
senses a sale in my questions. "We have no food, no clothes ... dogs  
live better here now." On the front page
of the local newspaper there is a grisly running tally of farmers'  
suicides in the area: the six-month total
on the day I arrive is 348.

Kadu Petkar became one of them in February when he swallowed a bottle  
of insecticide, lay in the cool dawn
shade of his string cot, vomited and died.

Past parched, yellow fields and sun-bleached lanes is Petkar's house  
in Kurjhi Fort village. The home, which
is low-slung and made of brick and mud, has space for three or four  
small rooms which, when I arrive, quickly
fill with jostling mourners. Petkar's mother squats on the floor  
holding her arms and rocking slowly back and
forth, often dissolving into tears. From beneath her brown chiffon  
scarf, Petkar's daughter Nanda speaks of
finding her father's body in the early morning, his lips cold and  
caked with the contents of his stomach.

The 45-year-old had borrowed 31,000 rupees (£390) a decade ago;  
despite occasional repayments, the debt had
tripled by the time of his death. The bank had already come to  
collect its dues, forcing the sale of some of
his land.

Left to sink further into poverty are Petkar's wife, 75-year-old  
mother, 80-year-old father and four
children. The older members of the family have taken to working in  
the fields as daily labourers for less
than a pound a day. Sixteen-year-old Nanda will soon join them.  
Although she would like to continue her
studies "in the big city and go shopping like the other girls", her  
father's death has all but extinguished
such ambitions. "Now I do not have any dreams," she says.

Last month, 77 farmers took their own lives, at a rate of almost  
three a day. Some Indian writers have called
it a "great depression", but in the week that grisly death toll was  
published, there were more stories on
Mumbai's fashion week in the newspapers than on rural desolation.

Globalisation in India has been a broad and brutal process, creating  
a country in vital and vulgar flux. The
bigger the gains in India from open markets, the bigger the  
disorientating changes. And the Indians who count
themselves among the losers from this process easily outnumber the  
winners. More than 400 million farm
workers each earn India just $375 (£230) a year in output. The  
comparable amount made by the million or so
software engineers is $25,000 (£16,000).

It is such inequalities, particularly in a culture that has come to  
promote assiduously the accumulation of
wealth, that fuels predictions by the CIA and investment banks such  
as Goldman Sachs that India, along with
China, will come to dominate the world economy in the next few  
decades. China is already the globe's
second-largest economy; India is on the verge of overtaking Japan to  
become the third biggest. A future of
even greater wealth seems assured. But so does today's reality that  
India remains a terrifying place to be

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