The Pulse | Society | South Asia

A Changing India: A Land of Dichotomies and Magic

India contains multitudes.

Akhilesh Pillalamarri
A Changing India: A Land of Dichotomies and Magic
Credit: Akhilesh Pillalamarri

Editor’s Note: This article is the second in a series.

The model described in the previous article, a mixture of nationalism and consumerism, would perhaps be tolerable if the people of India got the trade-off between authoritarianism and economic growth that the governments of Singapore and China have argued were necessary. But while the average Indian has been growing richer, and government programs have lifted the poorest out of utter destitution, one often wonders if the Indian government is capable of actually lifting the majority of its people into the middle class.

India is a land of many dichotomies, but most of these—rural versus urban, poor versus rich, non-English speaking versus English-speaking, public-service users versus private-service users, polluted areas versus clean areas, chaotic traffic zones versus organized urban areas—ultimately come down the same thing: India’s great class divide. Politics, religion, and caste matter immensely in India, and overlap to some extent with class, but over time, I believe they will matter less, and the division between classes will come to define India, based on current trends.

Of all my observations during my trip, this dichotomous nature of Indian society stood out to me the most starkly. Those with means retreat behind walls and pay for their own private sewage services and electrical generators, while the rest of the population needs to make do as best as possible for the most part. This is why India often seems anarchic, but Indian society functions as though it is the product of spontaneous emergence—some sort of order comes forth out of chaos, as it must, for society to function.

Why this is the case is a harder question to answer, and it may well be a case of the chicken or the egg problem. Did the division of Indian society into family and caste-based groups lead to an indifference for the public good? Or was public disorder the factor that led to the private pursuit of economic and social goods? Certainly, the idea of the public sphere is relatively new, and not only in India. In much of the world, houses have been built with courtyards facing inward, rather than gardens of porches facing outward, demonstrating what was important for people socially.

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Urban Planning

The structure of Indian cities, at least the ones I visited, reflect these phenomena. The oldest, more established areas of cities like Delhi, Jaipur, and Hyderabad, are subject to increasing urban decay and chaos, with traffic and hawkers encroaching on sidewalks and roads, making getting around by foot or car increasingly difficult. Increasing population growth and unregulated construction make it hard to provide efficient services to these cities; many Indians resort to jugaad, that is “an innovative fix or a simple work-around, a solution that bends the rules…or [a way to make] existing things work, or to create new things with meager resources.” This can mean siphoning water off from pipelines or using the street as a garbage dump.

Instead of fighting for urban renewal, Indians of means often create their own neighborhoods in cities (leading to a jarring dichotomy as one travels through a city), or satellite cities away from the older parts of towns, essentially creating parallel settlements (for example, Gurgaon near Delhi and Cyberabad in western Hyderabad), often serviced by private companies. The nearest American equivalent of this trend would be the creation of suburbs and flight from urban blight, another aspect of India today that resembles America of the 1950s. How the people of India will cope with climate change and water shortages in a few decades is a frightening thought. It is impossible for a population to be fully energized in an increasingly sweltering summertime environment.

A Private Services Society

When the state is not up to task, people with money will sidestep the state and create their own alternative services, while those without money will ignore the state as much as they can and fend for themselves. If the growing authoritarianism of the Indian state can actually strengthen the ability of the state to provide services and infrastructure to the masses, then this may perhaps be a trade-off many Indians are willing to make in exchange for fewer political rights.

The alternative, that of a skeletal state—and this is a warning for other countries, including the United States—is a model where governments will provide shoddy services for the masses, parallel to a privatized economy where basic services are provided by for-profit entities. Not only the rich will avail themselves of these services, but so will many of the poor who will buy into the idea they should pour their savings into alternative educational and healthcare schemes to “fend” for themselves as best as they can: this is exactly what happened to the education sector in India. Such as a state is not all that different from its pre-modern avatar, where its main purpose is the provision of security and balancing between various component groups. If the private sector is what works best, people will resort to it, even if it is profit-oriented. In a country like India, this ground-reality has to be harnessed for the social good, rather than waiting for an efficient public sector to emerge. I accordingly noticed a large number of public-private partnerships.

Some combination of poor infrastructure, governmental neglect, social divisions, incomplete industrialization, and undereducation are responsible for this state of affairs. It must be asserted here that this is not a problem of poverty, development, or corruption, but one of vision and implementation. Unless the problem of providing adequate services and opportunities to its masses is solved, India will not be able to meet its full developmental and human potential. The idea of human development needs to be taken very seriously for India to move forward; society would otherwise be a highly dichotomous mix of a few educated knowledge workers and a large mass of undereducated servants, laborers, and farmers. As it is, I suspect that India is inefficient by design, as a more efficient system would deprive a large portion of its numerous but undereducated workforce of a livelihood. Upon entering a store, one can often find that there are dozens of store clerks to help with all sorts of mundane tasks, such as taking a book from a shelf and handing it to the customer.

Yet The Heart is Still Indian

Phir bhi dil hai Hindustani is a Hindi phrase I’ve heard people use to sometimes describe their relationship with India. It means  “yet, the heart is still Indian,” despite all its issues. The phrase aptly captures my feelings toward India. Despite the skepticism and critiques laid out above, the overarching historical trend in India today is toward less poverty, greater literacy, and more personal empowerment, after centuries of less favorable social trends. More so, I cannot help but feel a strong personal bond to the land of my ancestors, the place where generation after generation sweated, bled, wept, sowed, lived, and died.

Indian society has much that needs changing—and it is in the process of changing—but also has much that is wonderful, so ancient, deep, and diverse as it is. Not all ancient wisdom should be discarded: meditation has been proven to shape the brain in beneficial ways, for example, and traditional Indian ways of collecting water, including the stepwells unique to the country, are more efficient than most modern schemes.

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Exploring India, one will always come across a new face and facet. Readers of my work, especially those interested in India and its trajectory should most definitely visit India, which despite it flaws, such as heat, pollution, disorganization, bureaucracy, and inefficiency, is a wonderful, beautiful, and magical country. Traveling through India was like experiencing an alternative reality, filled with amazing historical sites, hospitality, shops, and food: my culinary tour of India’s various regional and ethnic cuisines ranging from Tibetan to Rajasthani to Konkani, from Kashmiri to Mizo to Hyderabadi, was a heavenly odyssey in itself; meanwhile people are experimenting with all sorts of new fusion foods, teas, and liqueurs.

India is home to almost a fifth of the world’s people, with their own stories and goals, and rightly deserves to be explored and written about from as many angles as possible.