India at 60

Raring to Go

An Indian woman has her face painted with the colors of the Indian national flag ahead of the Aug. 15 Independence Day celebrations to take place in Mumbai. (Photo: Sajjad Hussain / AFP-Getty Images)

"Chak De" is India's new theme song as the nation completes 60 years of independence from British colonial rule on Aug. 15, with hopes high as it abandons the shibboleths of old while marching boldly ahead with confidence and aplomb.

Sixty years of age for a human being is usually the time, according to ancient Hindu Vedic scriptures, when one begins to retreat from the worldly life. But India is bucking the trend as a nation.

"Chak De" is a Punjabi word, which loosely translated means 'keep it up' or 'come on.' "Chak De India" is the title of an about to be released Hindi movie with a theme of a male coach who encourages the Indian women field hockey team to win a gold cup at an international hockey against all odds.

And that's what India is doing now, while disregarding and overcoming the myths of old that held back this ancient nation of over one billion people from attaining its full status for many centuries.

The engine of change has been fueled by the booming economy, with the world looking at India in a new light and with the youth of the nation leading the charge by setting new standards for a nation that until the 1960's was importing wheat and baby food to sustain itself.

The economy is set to grow at 9 percent for the third straight year and Indian businessmen are increasingly launching "raids" on the developed world to buy up acquisitions that were once among the jewels of the industrialized West.

This process has spawned a new set of Indian businessmen who are regularly featured among the top 100 in lists generated by business and money magazines published around the world.

While previously the House of Tatas and Birlas were the last word on industrialized India, now the new buzz names include Ratan Tata, the Ambani brothers, N. R. Narayamurthy, Azim Premji, Laksmi Mittal and many others from the younger generation.

The Turning Point

While India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, spoke of a "Tryst with Destiny" on the night of Aug. 14, 1947, when India became free by overthrowing the yoke of British rule after more than two centuries, there was a sense of doubt among its people and the world that democracy would ever work in India.

There were many "Cassandras of gloom" who predicted with glee that Indians would not be able to manage the millions of problems that included drought, floods, non-existent health facilities for the masses, communal and caste riots, the Hindu rate of growth (hovering at 3 percent G.D.P.), an unbridled population boom, illiteracy, wars with Pakistan and other afflictions that impair emerging nations.

Their despair became more acute when India held its first national elections to parliament in 1952 on the basis of adult franchise. Even as India has held on and in the process strengthened its roots of democracy, it is surrounded by failed nations.

The first three decades of freedom was technically an age of consolidation, as India followed Soviet-style economic policies with pre-eminence being given to the public sector that also saw the emergence of License Raj.

The seeds of change were sown by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the grandson of Nehru, who soon after assuming power in 1984 set the nation on a march to new goals. He encouraged the use of computers in offices and home, for which he was derided as a 'utopian,' while asking the youth to think positively about the goals ahead.

While Gandi was in his 40's when he took charge after the assassination of his mother and then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her bodyguards, he and his associates set the framework for modern India and encouraged private and foreign investment in the country's economy.

But India's turning point came when P. V. Narasimha Rao became the prime minister in 1991. A low-key but astute politician, he named Manmohan Singh, the current prime minister, as his finance minister.

Singh, a world-renowned economist, loosened the strings that were holding back the nation, to the astonishment of his countrymen and the world. Since then the term "market economy" has became India's byword.

There were just two automobile manufacturers in the country — Fiat and Ambassador — until then. It used to take three years to get a landline telephone and it was said that if one purchased a motor scooter that it might be delivered for one's grandchild, for the amount of time it took. Air travel was only for the rich or for family emergencies. The only mode of long distance travel was by smoke-laden railroad.

The scenes in the rural areas of the country were straight out of Indian movies of that era where the poor peasant was beholden to the greedy Zamindar (landlord) and where the kerosene oil lamp, dusty roads and bullock cart where the symbols of the countryside.

The movies, the only mass means of entertainment, reflected the national gloom in all its fullness where the problems of the peasants and the working class were regularly highlighted, intercepted with syrupy doses of romance and song and dance numbers to blow away the all-encompassing hardship of life.

This era of helplessness gave birth to an "Angry Young Man" in the person of Amitabh Bachchan. Helped by a group of screenwriters, he managed to change the persona of the nation by shedding its inhibitions while challenging the world on its own terms.

Bachchan, now in his mid-60's and a grandfather, is still 'Numero Uno' in Bollywood, while younger stars like Shahrukh Khan, known as the Badshah (king) of Bollywood, Aamir Khan, Salman Khan and many others make movies that are moneymakers not only in India but across the world. These films are lapped up by over 20 million Indians living across the globe and are also winning raves among people in many nations across Europe, South America, Africa and Asia.

The movies are now in color and the storylines reflect the aspirations of the modern Indian nation in its full splendor. Gloom has now given way to glam.

Rural Difficulties

But life has not been all that wonderful across all of India. While the urban areas have prospered basically due to the economic clout of a middle class of 300 million, the rural areas, where the heart and soul of real India lives, is still miles away.

The flow of credit to agriculture by commercial banks and regional rural banks may have shown a compounded annual growth of 22.2 percent, but the poor are still waiting to reap the benefits, according to former governor of the central Reserve Bank of India, C. Rangarajan.

According to Rangarajan, out of a total of 89.3 million farmer-households in the country, 51.4 percent have no access to credit either from institutional or non-institutional sources. Of these individuals, only 27 percent were indebted to formal financial sources, leaving behind 73 percent of farmer-households at the mercy of moneylenders.

Of the marginal farmer-households, nearly 55 percent did not have access to either formal or non-formal sources of credit. For large households, the population sans credit sources was about 33.6 percent.

Bankers agree that the banking system in India has not been able to cater to the needs of rural India because of its lack of penetration.

A detailed study provided insight on the requirements on rural Indians that force them to go for these loans. Financial emergencies come out as the prime reason for taking a loan — accounting for 35 percent of the lending aggregate.

Next in importance are medical emergencies and farm/crop loans, which account for 20 percent and 18 percent respectively of loans taken. These three requirements add up to 73 percent of the loans assumed by rural earners. At the next level comes the need for homes and land, business requirements and social obligations, which account for 12 percent each.

When it comes to taking small loans, the banks' share stands at 26 percent, which trails the loans taken from relatives at 42 percent. Moneylenders closely follow banks with 21 percent.

According to various studies, over 100,000 farmers have committed suicide in the past 14 years across India, mainly due to their inability to pay debts.

A study by a volunteer group called the National Social Watch Coalition (N.C.W.C.), indicated that an 'arc of death' has been stalking the states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, along with Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, toured Vidharbha, the worst-hit region of Maharashtra state in June 2006 for an on-the-spot assessment. However, according to a report, farmer suicides have not subsided since then.

Atul Sood, co-author of the study, said: "We are not sensitive to the problem of farmers in our villages. I think the government's apathy towards millions of farmers in the country is leading to suicide in our country."

Data on maternal mortality in India show that tens of thousands of malnourished, health-poor and resource-poor women without access to hospitals continue to die during pregnancy, while giving birth or immediately afterwards.

The Maternal Mortality Ratio (M.M.R.) has dropped significantly in recent decades. It fell to 301 (per 100,000 live births) in 2001-2003, down from 398 in 1997-98. The figure was as high as 750 in the 1960's. About 78,000 women continue to die here each year. This is a significant proportion of a total of 500,000 pregnancy-related deaths globally. The U.N. Millennium Development Goal is to bring the M.M.R. down to 200 by 2007, and to 109 by 2015.

The crisis is rooted in poverty and social inequity. India continues to spend a lower percentage of G.D.P. — 2.4 percent — on public health compared virtually to every other country. Experts say that scale of the tragedy could be reduced by stepping up interventional strategies and facilitating institutional delivery. In 2003, only about 28 percent of all births in India took place in medical institutions.

P. Sainath, author of the award winning book "Everybody Loves a Good Drought" has an interesting story to relate. He said that while the entire nation was enthralled watching models walking down the ramp at an fashion held in India, over 400 farmers had committed suicide in Vidharbha during the one-week period of the fashion parade.

While over 500 newspersons covered the fashion event with the television and print media vying for coverage, the farmers' deaths went totally unreported according to Sainath, who is one of the recipients of this year's Ramon Magsaysay Award — the Asian version of the Nobel Prize, for the category of journalism, literature and communication.

While nearly 6,000 farmers have committed suicide in Karnataka since 2001, on the other side of the coin is the fact that the Indian Rupee-millionaire club in Bangalore, the state capital, is the most crowded in the country. The IT capital of India has the largest number of households with income of rupees one million per year and above.

With 3.3 percent of 31,17,843 households in the country earning rupees of one million and above per year, Bangalore ranks No. 1 in the list of the millionaires club followed by Bombay and New Delhi.

Bangalore's phenomenal growth has been fuelled by the IT industry, which crossed the $50 billion mark in 2006-07, recording a growth of 32 percent in rupee terms.

The Growing Youth Movement

India is a very young nation in terms of population. About 55 percent or 550 million are below the age of 30.

That's why a generational shift is taking place on the campuses across India. The first batch of liberalization's children — those born in and around 1991 — are just getting into colleges with big bucks as their life goal.

Not bogged down by the past, "they are clearer-headed about their identity," sociologist Dipankar Gupta has been quoted as stating, while others concur that the youth of today possess an unbelievable level of confidence.

The "India Story" is no more exclusively urban, with stories of poor rural children whose parents drove foot-pedaled rickshaws, and were farmers and clerks, making their mark.

But with a difference.

While the urban child usually opts for a course in management, medicine or computers, the rural kid tends to aim for the elite Indian Administrative Service (I.A.S.), a college that turns out top bureaucrats.

Take for example, Govind Jaiswal, 27. His father used pull cycle-rickshaws in Varanasi. He went to a government school and a modest college. His family sold their land to finance Govind's ambition by sending him to a coaching school in New Delhi. Once he made the grade early this year, he has been flooded with marriage offers. He proudly said: "Earlier, the police used to harass my father, now they say Sir, Sir."

Take another case of Muthyalaraju Revu, 26, from Andhra Pradesh state. He has been quoted as asserting:"The death of my 12-year-old sister due to poor medical facilities in the village spurred me in the direction of the civil services."

V. Anbukumar, 33, the son of a retired police constable in Tamil Nadu is now a powerful official in neighboring Karnataka state, having cleared the civil services examination. He said proudly: "In our country, there are three people who are most powerful, P.M. (Prime Minister), C.M. (Chief Minister of the state) and D.M. (District Magistrate or chief local official). I wanted to be a DM."

With so much happening, India — once billed as a hardship post for diplomats — is now a hot job destination for many foreigners. Indian companies are recruiting them in sectors like oil and gas, energy, construction, training, aviation, design and retail.

According to headhunters, expats — besides bringing capabilities that are scarce in the country — seldom jump employment contracts. Attrition is becoming a big issue in many areas of the country, especially in the IT and telecommunication sectors.

To sum it all up, if India is dancing to the tune "Chak De India" can anyone blame it?

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for M.G. Srinath.