Not just two, but three Indias

Neelakantan’s comment to my previous post, where he says,

"The two Indias have always existed and will not go away in a hurry. The
difference is that there is a big bulging middle ground where most of
India is finding itself (give or take a few) – neither too bad nor
exorbitantly rich – but a lot happier and money to spend and jobs to
do. Things they never had a few years back."

made me ruminate about "The Great Divide" or The Two Indias" so popular in newsmedia mythology. In one sense, the comparison made, particularly in The Guardian article – poverty stricken suiciding farmers versus billionaires in urban metropolises is equivalent to comparing the lifestyle of someone living in Beverly Hills, CA with someone whose life has been affected badly by Hurricane Katrina adn then tut tutting about the terrible state of the United States. (Well, we won’t get into that here, this post is about India now)

What Neelakantan points out is the third India, that of the growing middle, between the ultra rich and the absolute poor. Our country, when portrayed as such, in media stories, sounds more like France just before the Revolution. The "Great Indian Middle Class" is not a new or unknown phenomena – it’s visible emergence led to the first burst of globalization in the nineties, when it began displaying amounts of disposable income hitherto unavailable. And in the decade since, this amorphous, burgeoning, difficult to classify mass has only grown in size, regardless of purchasing power parity, annual GDP or what-have-you used as a metric.

"Harmonious Schizophrenics" is a wonderfully insightful article  by author Pavan Varma, written in February 2006, that best articulates a view of India I think even Neelakantan will find acceptable :). To wit,

One of the core strengths of the Indian middle class is that it has a great aspirational buoyancy. It is a class incorrigibly seeking to get on the fast track to upward mobility. This fuels other kinds of collateral growth alongside […] In fact, the distinction between urban and rural India is fast eroding. There is a middle class in the largest villages which will buy Gucci without the double c because it’s something they want to acquire.

Compared with 97 percent in the leading economies of the West, only three percent of the Indian economy lies in the organised sector. The rest — including huge swathes of the middle class — work with the most unpredictable parameters. They survive in impossible circumstances and actually come out a winner. This is what sets apart the Indian middle from those of other countries. Much of what the middle class takes for granted in other countries doesn’t exist here. Water, electricity, transport, health care are either unavailable or are precarious benefits. But this class refuses to go under.


Another remarkable quality about the middle class is that the waterline of hope somehow always remains a few notches above that of despair. A person who owns a cycle is dreaming about a scooter. Somebody with a fan wants a cooler. Somebody with a small car wants a bigger car. This is one reason a communist revolution hasn’t taken place in India. As people clamour on the lowest rung of the middle class, the possibility of becoming rich overtakes the fear of being inevitably poor. As psychologist Sudhir Kakar said, “This class somehow has the ability to transmute a flame into a blaze.”

And my favourite topic of jugaad, the motive power behind Indian innovation and creativity,

It thinks out of the box. It is a hugely entrepreneurial class. Scarcity and adversity have made Indians very inventive. In fact one of India’s great strengths is this homegrown entrepreneurship.

And to refute The Guardian article’s assertion of India’s "newfound" obsession with wealth accumulation,

Arth (money) is one of the four highest Purushaarths. We have no Biblical injunction about the rich. Laxmi is a ubiquitous deity, as is Ganesh, who is not an emaciated god hanging on a cross. So the middle class is an extremely pragmatic class. Today, as opportunities seem to outgrow or at least match with aspirations these tendencies of not jeopardizing what you have for what may gain through irrational actions are getting further reinforced. The membership of the RSS is falling. Some years ago, the most conservative Islamic seminary, Deoband quietly introduced English and computer classes because middle class recruits want a job. These are good signs.

Overall, a balanced viewpoint from Varma, giving a more realistic look at the changes afoot in India today. Go read the full article. This conversation will continue.

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5 Responses to Not just two, but three Indias

  1. neelakantan says:

    The aspiration levels of the “middle class” is very high. In fact, so high that I would not call them the middle, they are the aspiring class. Cab drivers want to drive their cabs for a few years and get back to doing something else. Many cab drivers have taken loans and own more than one cab and employ a few more people as drivers. Their kids study in English medium schools. They want their kids to be like the call center employees they drive around.
    My maids granddaughter studies in an English medium school in Krishnagiri (TN) – her parents are barely literate but that does not stop them from dreaming.
    I could go on and on about such individual examples. I see it all around me. And I am sure thats not a one off or a few off cases. This class will drive India in the future.

  2. niti bhan says:

    I think you may have something there – the “aspiring” class, once pegged as ‘LMC’ are the ones who see the opportunities, realize that it’s too late for themselves to make the big jump (through english, education or computers etc) and therefore put their heart and soul into ensuring their children’s future. Once your maid’s granddaughter can read and and write English (and how many of those stories do we know?) she could very well only progress from there – whether admin asst, “steno”, call center employee or other, aspirations which just a decade or so ago, would not have been possible. You’ve read about the guy from a village in Bihar, whose family is illiterate who got into IIT? The future of his entire village has changed, if only in terms of “possiblities”. I’ll look for that and post, you bring up a very interesting phenomena not really covered outside of India in your comment.

  3. neelakantan says:

    Read this, for one more example.
    He has been written about in a hajaar other places in Indian media.

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