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India: a work in progress

Every country that is on the ascendant feels the need for a “coming out” party. In the last half century, that need has been met most often by hosting the Olympic Games. Japan did it in 1964, South Korea followed in 1988, and China in 2008. The Olympic itch seems to come in the wake of economic growth that takes per capita income to the vicinity of $6,000—as was the case with Japan and China when they played host, and not far off the mark for Korea. It was true for the Soviet Union (which hosted the 1980 Games) as well. Only Mexico among the emerging markets was ahead of the curve; its per capita income at the time of the 1968 Games was barely $4,000. Sometimes, the Olympics were not a stand-alone showpiece project. Japan timed the launch of its Shinkansen bullet trains for the Tokyo Olympics and China started its high-speed trains a year ahead of the Beijing Olympics.

India’s per capita income, calculated on the same basis, was $3,372 in 2009–2010 and can be expected to get to the $6,000 mark before too long. The itch for showpiece projects like high-speed trains is already evident in India; one has been proposed, to link Mumbai and Ahmedabad. It’s a fair bet that if the economy fares well over the next few years, whichever government is in office in 2019 will feel compelled to bid for the Olympic Games of 2028; by then some high-speed trains should be up and running. That will be presented as a statement of India’s “arrival”—and serve also to bury memories of the scandal-scarred Commonwealth Games of 2010 in Delhi.

It’s a fair bet that if the economy fares well over the next few years, whichever government is in office in 2019 will feel compelled to bid for the Olympic Games of 2028

But long before any Olympics, a country on the ascendant should see a hundred flowers bloom—entrepreneurs flourish; audiences and markets grow for film and music, sports, art, and books; and the country attempt a more ambitious external outreach. The Jaipur Literary Festival began in 2006 and now attracts audiences from across the country and authors from around the world. At least a dozen other cities now hold annual literary festivals. The print runs for books are small by global standards, but their growth has been explosive. The popular storyteller Chetan Bhagat has reportedly sold 2 million copies of his latest novel, Half Girlfriend. Self-help books and romance novels have sustained sales in the hundreds of thousands, while non-fiction “bestsellers” are expected to sell not 10,000 copies as of old, but multiples of that number. India is now the third-largest market for books in English; by one estimate, 90,000 titles are published annually.

The art market is thinner but also buoyant, with sales by art galleries and auction houses reflecting growing interest and fetching much better prices than in the past. The highest price at a Mumbai art auction in the late 1980s was a record Rs 1 million for an M. F. Husain (about $65,000 at the time); against that, Christie’s two auctions in Mumbai in 2013 and 2014 fetched $2.8 million for a Tyeb Mehta and $3.7 million for a V.S. Gaitonde, with combined sales of all works sold topping $27 million. The growth of professional sports is another marker. Indian cricket’s governing board has become the game’s financial powerhouse; domestic professional leagues exist now in hockey and football (soccer) as well as the homegrown kabaddi, once a strictly rural sport with no urban following. Private ownership of newly formed clubs and teams and the support of satellite television have made the difference. The inaugural year of the kabaddi league delivered a viewership of over 400 million, not too far behind that for the mega-sports event, the Indian Premier League (involving privately owned teams that play 20-over cricket).

Then there is the flowering of entrepreneurial talent—not just the emergence of e-commerce poster boys like Flipkart (touted as India’s answer to Amazon), its rival Snapdeal, the mobile ad player InMobi (funded by SoftBank and others), and online furniture businesses like Urban Ladder (supported by Ratan Tata) and Pepperfry, but also scores of others. The rush of investor money into these and other firms has produced instant wealth for the founders, but with suggestions of a pricing bubble; the homegrown cell phone marketer Micromax promised extra-long battery backup and quickly became the second-largest vendor in a booming market. The company, dependent on imports from China and Taiwan, has started local assembly and exports to Russia. Business newspapers devote special pages to start-ups, and one has announced a set of annual awards in the category. Bengaluru’s residents used to take pride in being a tech city; they now talk of its start-up culture—the city is said to attract 30% of the total angel investment in the country.

A confident indigenous ethos shows in films and popular music groups too—though the money outside of mainstream commercial cinema is still very limited. Citizen engagement reflects in the growth of civil society activism as large numbers of youngsters commit to careers in non-profit, public-interest activities. The millennial generation’s attitudes are noticeably different and more freewheeling, compared to the safety-first approach of the country’s post-colonial generation, with its focus on conventional careers and traditional family values. Nielsen’s consumer confidence surveys (which track the mood with regard to jobs, spending intentions, and changing habits) consistently show that Indians with access to the Internet are the most optimistic in the world; except for the first quarter of 2009, the country has never ceased to be optimistic since the tracking began in 2005. The optimism rides high even when half the respondents think the economy is in a recession!

The problem with defining the emerging India by using these parameters, however indicative they may be of the direction of change, is that the country does not offer a neat narrative about bullet trains and the Olympics

The problem with defining the emerging India by using these parameters, however indicative they may be of the direction of change, is that the country does not offer a neat narrative about bullet trains and the Olympics—not when large numbers of people travel by train in Bihar by squatting on the roofs of overcrowded coaches; and not when the average speed of a goods train has remained static at 25 kilometers per hour for decades. The fact is that you can still approach the India story from fifteen different angles and get multiples of that many different narratives.

Markets for consumer goods are expanding in breadth and depth, but half the country is still outside the pavilion in which consumers have voice and choice. Rural land prices in some states have gone through the roof, but in many parts of the country farming remains essentially unviable—with newspaper reports of farmer suicides almost routine. Agricultural growth rates have risen, but the yield per hectare of some crops is barely half of what it is in other countries.

India takes pride in its premier institutes of technology and management, which have been expanding even as they mentor new ones. Seventeen IITs now turn out 10,000 engineers every year. But one Technion in tiny Israel has 10,000 undergraduates, and is partnering Cornell to set up an applied science and engineering campus on Roosevelt Island in New York—something that no IIT could hope to do (if it wanted to, that is). In any case, the IITs account for less than 1% of the total number of fresh engineering graduates in the country, and leading companies say that the majority of people emerging with engineering degrees and diplomas are in effect unemployable. Three-quarters of the 1,000 officially certified business schools would not pass muster in any proper certification process; their alumni can hope at best to find work as frontline sales staff. And lest one forget, the ground-level fact is that the average number of years of schooling in India was just 5.4 (for China it was 7.5), so claims of the country being an intellectual powerhouse are strictly for the home crowd.

India has taken belatedly to building a navy, with almost all new fighting ships now being built in domestic shipyards. But China builds a guided-missile destroyer in two years, less than a third of the time it takes for Mazagon Dock in Mumbai. India’s 2013 law on land acquisitions stipulates processes that could require up to four years to release land for an infrastructure project. That’s more than the two and a half years that it took China took to finish building its 1,318-kilometer Beijing–Shanghai high-speed railway line.

The defense could be that India is a democracy and that the state cannot ride roughshod over people; indeed, the country has been an early exemplar among poor countries for sustaining governance by consent. While democratic processes can be slow, to many citizens the state seems predatory enough, being a systematic violator of basic human rights. Torture is routinely used during police interrogation, and at least half of those in jail should never have been put there.

New Internet entrepreneurs grab the headlines, but old-style conglomerates still subvert the rule-making system; their mishandled projects in steel, power, and road-building have left the country’s banks in a mess. India’s share of world trade has been rising, but the country remains defensive in world trade talks (a reflection of internal weaknesses) and unprepared for the next round of rule changes through supra-regional trading arrangements. It is seen as an emerging power, but the grittiness of everyday Indian reality and the extent of open defecation cast a bad odor over any comforting narrative.

Joan Robinson, the British economist, is frequently quoted for her pithy comment, “whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true.” So you can spin a hopeful narrative about the delayed blooming of India while someone else spins a depressing story about all the things that are still wrong. In almost every way that you can think of, India is very much a “work in progress.”

Featured image credit: Rupees by geralt. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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