India Celebrates 50 Years of Independence

A moment comes which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. - Jawaharlal Nehru, first prime minister of a free India, on Aug.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on August 18, 1997

A moment comes which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. - Jawaharlal Nehru, first prime minister of a free India, on Aug.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on August 18, 1997

India Celebrates 50 Years of Independence

A moment comes which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. - Jawaharlal Nehru, first prime minister of a free India, on Aug. 14, 1947, the last day of British rule

It is a muggy Thursday evening in downtown Bombay, and Neera Jain is about to get dinner delivered to her studio apartment. "Would you like pizza, Chinese or Thai?" she asks a few twentysomethings who have gathered at her place in the lively Colaba district before heading out to one of the city's hot new dance clubs. Fast-food delivery has been available only in the past few years, fed by the new youth culture that arrived with MTV and Baskin Robbins after India unshackled its centrally planned economy in 1991. Jain, who has been working late overseeing the interior design of a planned new Marriott Hotel, enjoys the convenience. "Pizza it is," she says. The thin, orange pie arrives minutes later, modified for Indian tastes with spicy hot chilies.

Single at 42, and casually chic with shoulder-cropped hair, T-shirt and denim shorts, Jain admits her traditional parents have given up hope that she will find a husband and have children. Three of her male guests have yet to think about families; they are too busy with the high-income careers in marketing they began in the last five years. Except for the sea of humanity camped out just a few kilometres away - half of Bombay's more than 12 million people are homeless - this group could as easily be hanging out in, say, Vancouver.

As a living-room fan circulates the heavy monsoon air, they pause to ponder India's Golden Jubilee. The consensus: Mahatma Gandhi's fight for freedom and national self-sufficiency is ancient history. Aug. 15, Independence Day, will be celebrated mainly as a day off work. "Independence for me means a lot of business," says 27-year-old Jude Cardozo, an events promoter who moved to Bombay from the resort city of Goa. "Everybody wants to cash in on it, to link their product to the 50-year anniversary." There are freedom billboards, freedom concerts, even nail polish and lipstick in the national colors of green and orange. "It is media hype," says 24-year-old Kishore Naidu, an advertising account manager, as one of the four cellular telephones in the room starts to ring.

It is not exactly the new age that Nehru had in mind when he celebrated the end of two centuries of British rule at midnight on Aug. 14, 1947. To many Indians, the consumer side of the nation's soul was suppressed during 44 years of Nehru-generated socialist and protectionist policies and now "finds utterance" in the fruits of six years of economic liberalization. It was, after all, virtually impossible to buy a Sony TV or a foreign car legally in India as recently as a decade ago. Now, Fords, Peugeots and Suzukis are replacing the long-reigning Indian Ambassador on roads where sacred cows and destitute beggars still share the streets. In New Delhi, a Pizza Hut outlet opened earlier this year with its staff dancing the Macarena, as if to celebrate India's tardy arrival in the global economy.

The children of India's wealthy elite have become yuppies who are Internet-literate and pepper their conversation with business abbreviations like MOU (memorandum of understanding) and USP (unique selling point). The dynamic, southern city of Bangalore is now India's Silicon Valley, headquarters of the domestic computer industry. And most significantly, there is a new upwardly mobile middle class, estimated at anywhere from 100 to 200 million strong, buying tens of thousands of washing machines and cars on credit, a recent concept. Even in urban slums like Bombay's Dharavi, TVs glow from inside shacks. Global satellite broadcasting - available since 1992 - is now penetrating rural India, where 70 per cent of the population still lives. The sheer numbers involved in the new market have led Western business gurus to rank India among the world's top 10 emerging economies.

Canada's stake in India's future is rising as well. Early last year, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's Team Canada road show signed $700 million worth of initial contracts - although only $150 million in Canadian investment has so far followed. The Bank of Nova Scotia entered India in 1984, and Toronto Dominion Bank opened in Bombay last year. Alcan Aluminium Ltd. has invested in mining equipment, and other Canadian resource firms may enter in the wake of a decision four months ago to open mining to foreigners. Meanwhile, the country continues to be a source of 15,000 to 20,000 immigrants a year to Canada, where the Indo-Canadian community exceeds 500,000. Taking advantage of the vigorous Bombay stock market, at least one financial firm is marking Aug. 15 by launching a new India-based fund for Canadian investors.

Some call India the next Asian Tiger, predicting that the world's most populous democracy - now at about 960 million and growing at 15 million a year - will rival China as a new economic superpower by 2020. Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, speaking at a New Delhi seminar last week, said he expects India's economy to grow by seven per cent this year and to maintain eight per cent annually in the future. Yet, as the honeymoon of Indian capitalism passes, economists have begun to question whether such a galloping growth rate is sustainable, and even if it is, whether living standards will improve beyond the most privileged layers of society. "In India, you are not pursuing a new national strategy like China or South Korea," says C. P. Chandrasekhar, a noted economist at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University. "You are opening up and hoping for the best."

There is a long way to go. India's annual per-capita income is a mere $1,910, trailing even neighboring Bangladesh and well behind China's $4,050 (Canada's is $30,660). Almost half the population is illiterate, and a quarter lack safe drinking water. Most of the new foreign investment - $3.7 billion last year alone - has been spent on making and marketing upscale retail items. Surveys show that most of rural India does not even know liberalization has happened. "A beam of light is being shone on a small part of our population, and the darkness around it is being ignored," says Arundhati Roy, acclaimed author of the novel The God of Small Things. "Those people in the darkness are not being heard because they do not have a voice."

The voices that do vie for power are increasingly fractured. Regional and nationalist parties have gained ascendancy, displacing Nehru's long-dominant Congress Party and leading to shaky coalition governments in New Delhi; current Prime Minister Inder K. Gujral is the fourth in 15 months. Ethnic and religious tensions such as those between Hindus and Muslims continue to simmer, with memories still strong of the bloodbath that killed nearly a million people when India and Pakistan were partitioned 50 years ago. The discriminatory caste system remains entrenched, and resentment over it is being exploited by politicians. Corruption is rampant, and criminal dons wield huge control over government officials.

"A new India is emerging, but whose India?" asks Anurag Chaturvedi, 42-year-old editor of the Bombay alternative daily The Metropolis. His view of the past five to 10 years is bleak. "With all this unemployment and corruption, what is there to celebrate?" he asks. "The fire of the freedom struggle has turned into ashes."

The new openness is also unleashing rapid social changes, such as a rise in divorce. Kalpana Sharma, assistant editor of India's second-largest English language paper, The Hindu, decries the "me first" callousness of the younger generation. "I grew up with a pan-Indian identity," says Sharma, who, at 50, is from the generation known as "midnight's children." "We had a social conscience," she says. "The goals of Nehru and Gandhi? They are really dead. If you are not a careerist, you are an oddball."

Yet for people like 81-year-old Hiraji Chikale, the goals of Nehru and Gandhi are as alive as if they were proclaimed yesterday. "We were slaves before," says Chikale, a now-blind fisherman who was jailed for three months in 1930 for his part in the Quit India movement that eventually felled British rule. "Only those who knew slavery can appreciate the joy of freedom." Chikale remembers walking behind Mahatma Gandhi when the spiritual leader camped near his village in 1946, preaching civil disobedience. "A monk would beat a drum as Gandhi-ji walked very quickly through the crowd, stopping to lay his hands on the heads of women," he recalls. Chikale brushes off the problems facing India today, stressing how much worse off his village was in his youth. "Although we still fight with each other," he says of India's divisions, "democracy is superior."

Without doubt, maintaining a spirited parliamentary system - through four wars, numerous regional insurgencies and the assassinations of Nehru's daughter Indira Gandhi and her son and successor Rajiv Gandhi - is the chief legacy of 1947. A vigorous press and reasonably fair elections continue to provide a release valve for a nation containing every major religion and more than 1,000 dialects. "We love democracy, but we don't care a heck about politics," says promoter Cardozo.

For the young, shopping and music videos rule. At Bombay's HQ disco, Armani-clad teenagers are less concerned with the rise of the nationalist right than with who's hot among Western rock stars and the catchy homegrown hybrid known as Indi-pop. Mignon Gomez, 20, and her friend Tricia D'Souza, 19, both slim and trendy in retro platform shoes and black nail polish, have been going out at night for three years. "I don't smoke," says Gomez. "I don't drink. I just like to dance with my friends. It's good, clean fun. My parents don't mind."

But as he unwinds at the bar, ad man Naidu talks about a less-acknowledged side of the new openness in which 15- and 16-year-old suburban girls, whose parents don't let them go out at night, hold hashish parties at 3 in the afternoon. Nor is premarital sex taboo any longer. Abortion is the solution of choice for those who get pregnant, says Naidu, looking around to see if anyone can hear him. Outside HQ, some kids pile into one girl's parental Mercedes for the 1 a.m. ride back to their affluent suburb. How do they respond to the poverty they drive by? "I build a shell around myself," says Naidu. "Maybe when I become really wealthy I can start a project that will make a difference."

This is no time for petty and destructive criticism, no time for ill will or blaming others. We have to build the noble mansion of free India where all her children may dwell. - Nehru

The concrete apartment blocks of Vasant Kunj mark the horizon of suburban New Delhi, its outdoor shopping strips lining the subdivision's red-dust streets. This bastion of the new middle class is home to about 100,000 people - and almost an equal number of migrant squatters who live in tent "clusters" throughout. The chairman of the Vasant Kunj residents association, handicrafts exporter Yogesh Khanna, and his wife Shivani are a sort of Indian Ozzie and Harriet, espousing an upward mobility reminiscent of North America's new suburbanites of the 1950s and '60s. But Ozzie and Harriet did not have to deal with squatters. Khanna says 90 per cent of his association's budget goes for security; the colony is privately patrolled around the clock.

The Khannas are giving their two young children a good education, which in India means a costly private school where English is the language of instruction and computers are taught from age 8. "My wife stays home, but my daughter will surely work when she grows up," says Khanna. "These kids won't consult us about who they marry." Almost every home here has a washing machine, and many have maids, drivers or cleaning ladies from castes lower than their own.

Yet this island of new prosperity may not be what it seems, says soft-spoken economist Chandrasekhar. He is not concerned about the running debate over the size of the middle class - some studies contend it is only 80 million people purchasing all the upmarket goods - but about whether it will expand. The rise of the middle class, he says, owes little to the reforms of the past few years, and much to the bloating of the civil service during the 1970s and '80s. Private business in the '90s has boosted output - but failed to increase the overall number of jobs. "The consumer society won't necessarily grow, not at this rate," says Chandrasekhar. "It is too fragile."

Try telling that to those who list products such as ice-cream makers and food processors on India's own home shopping TV network. The items are pitched at women like Shivani Khanna, who may want to use an Oven-Toaster to make "pizza, for the king of my heart," according to one infomercial. An electronic frost-control sensor for the fridge is so simple "even housewives can install it," says another.

Shobha Dé, English-speaking India's best-selling novelist, says the ads are evidence of how far Indian women have to go to be liberated from centuries-old stereotypes. Still, a mini-revolution in the attitudes of urban women is apparent in the pages of such magazines as Femina or Savvy, which recently asked on its cover: "Cloning: what will we do with the men?" And Dé's sexually brazen rant, Surviving Men, was a popular success, as are her books about sexually confident women. Self Esteem, a television soap opera she writes, has as its heroine a late industrialist's mistress with two illegitimate children. "This is broadcast to 250 million viewers," Dé says. "Ten years ago it would have been unthinkable."

The big change, the author says, is that large numbers of women are working outside the home. "Women are now seeing there is a world out there and they are part of it," she says. "They are now realizing they have control over their bodies and the right to enjoy sex." She is highly optimistic about India's future, precisely because she has never had trouble writing what she chooses. "I wouldn't have been this free in any other Asian society," says Dé.

That, other intellectuals agree, is a source of comfort in what is otherwise a confusing time in the national identity. "Democracy in India means freedom of expression," says the country's most celebrated architect, Charles Correa. "Yes, we get to complain about everything," adds his wife Monica, as the two lunch at the Bombay Gymkhana social club, a relic from the British Raj. What is still missing is accountability and good governance, says Correa, who chaired a 1986 national commission on urbanization. The corruption scandals that eventually drove the Gandhi family's ruling Congress Party from power have led to widespread cynicism. Many Indians are placing their hopes in the market because all else seems to have failed.

"The mistake we made was thinking a bureaucracy could deliver social justice," says Correa, who now reluctantly supports economic liberalization. "In 1947, the rich behaved so badly to the poor, if you didn't side with the oppressed you had to be a horrible person." Now, Correa wants to see the inefficiencies of heavy-handed state control swept away.

Author Roy believes the years of British rule lie at the heart of India's current confusion, having distorted the development of the country's economy - and its identity. "The legacy of colonialism is something we grapple with every day of our lives," she says. "Now, we have to take responsibility for ourselves."

The service of India means the service of the millions who suffer. It means the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity. . . . So long as there are tears and suffering, so long our work will not be over. - Nehru

In the forest village of Raitalli, the tiny Sita has given birth to twins. At a month and a half old, they look like newborns, their mother's milk providing insufficient nourishment. Sita, a tribal Warli woman of approximately 26, has two older children and has lost two others. Her husband works in a factory in the industrial town of Dahanu, a three-hour train ride from Bombay. He earns 27 rupees ($1) a day and strives to supplement that by cultivating a postage-stamp-sized rice paddy. The women pick roots in the forest, having devised a method to safely cook the poisonous ones.

This is life at rock bottom in India. Many of the area's "tribals" - India's First Nations - are severely malnourished, despite the iron and multivitamin tablets the local health unit distributes. The tribals are a source of cheap labor who often begin their toil at age 9 or 10, working away from home sifting sea salt in the coastal wetlands for eight months at a time. Schooling, if they get any, seldom lasts more than three years. The majority of the men eventually migrate to the slums of Bombay.

Pradeep Prabhu and his wife Shiraz Bulsara have been working in 200 villages near Dahanu for two decades. Things have improved since 1947, says Prabhu, because outright serfdom has been replaced by hard physical labor at the fringes of the capitalist economy. "Emancipation to some extent has taken place," says Prabhu, an ironic lilt in his voice. "Outright bondage has been replaced by seasonal and partial bondage."

Prabhu and Bulsara also fear the long-term effects of a thermal power plant built in Dahanu to supply Bombay - but not the locals - with electricity. Much of the topsoil in the area was removed for landfill to build it, temperatures are affecting the fruit growing season, and coal burning is expected to bring acid rain to nearby forests within a decade. Environmentalists say such dislocation is the under-reported underbelly of economic growth. "The consumer society is destroying our social fabric and natural resources," says activist Medha Patkar, who won the Goldman award, the world's top environmental honor, for opposing the World Bank-funded Narmada Dam in Gujarat state. "That is the real threat."

To Belgian economist Jean Drèze, who has studied India for 15 years, the reforms are not wrong, just incomplete. Unless the government turns its attention to social development, he says, the benefits of liberalization will take decades to trickle down to the masses. "It is one thing to deregulate imports," he says. "It is quite another thing to reform education and health. If you want the private sector to flourish, you need the public sector to function."

Even in the private sector, it has not been easygoing. Several U.S. companies, including Reebok, Kellogg and even Coca-Cola, have acknowledged difficulties in cracking the complex Indian market. German electronics giant Siemens announced last month that it is losing money for the first time in four years of India operations. But to young businessmen like Ashok Seth, 33, these are simply growing pains. "Socialism was a bad movement for our country - we're getting over it," says Seth, who owns a commercial film-editing studio in Bombay. As for the threat to the country's identity: "We've had 2,000 years of invaders coming in. The Moguls and the British couldn't destroy Indian culture. Why do they think MTV will?"

Bombay homemaker Kaveri Appanna, 43, agrees. "We stayed shut away far too long," she says after arriving back from a walk with the dog at her nearby golf club. But she also displays the pride of a nation that loves to criticize itself. "Even if we made a mess of the last 50 years," she says, "it was our own mess." The most striking impression of India after a half century of going it alone is the resilience of its people even as their society shifts under their feet.

Maclean's August 18, 1997