India Rising?

By Nigel Wilson

A lively audience gathered at the Frontline Club as a distinguished panel grappled with the factors driving change in India. Leaving the country’s recent growth wobble aside, the panellists unravelled the economic revolution that has thrust India to the front of the global stage.

The discussion began on a positive note as travel writer and author Oliver Balch recounted stories from his latest book India Rising.  His optimism for the future of India lays in his belief that young Indians can now realistically aspire to a professional career.

“For the first time if you’re the son of a carpenter, who’s the son of a carpenter, you don’t necessarily have to be a carpenter. That is a dramatic change… For the Indian youth to have the chance to be something else, that’s what the economic story has given.”  

Balch’s positivity was complemented by the cautious optimism of second speaker Dr. Ruth Kattumuri, co-Director of the India Observatory and Asia Research Centre at LSE. Stating that India has improved vastly in the past 40 years and remains a work in progress, Kattumuri praised the strength of India’s plural democracy.

“The fact that people have a voice to say what they want, to go and demonstrate in the streets, the fact that Anna Hazare is able to influence certain things in the country, that’s what makes India dynamic.”

Moderator Shahzeb Jillani, South Asia Editor at BBC World Service News then brought in Abhik Sen of the Economist Group and the discussion moved towards doubts over the sustainability of India’s rise.

“For everything that is true about India, the opposite is true as well. For every great entrepreneurial success story that Oliver’s written about, there are thousands if not millions of possible success stories that have been stymied by all kinds of forces beyond the control of individuals.”

Sen cast doubt on the popular idea that India is a land of inventive entrepreneurs, stating that many Indians have to show a street wise cunning in order to survive.

“This entrepreneurial spirit that we talk about, it’s not something that’s been plucked from Mars. It is something that all Indians have to be to get through daily life. You have to be an entrepreneur of sorts to get a gas connection or a phone connection. You have to be innovative and inventive to make sure that you’ll have food on your table.”

Robert Wallis of the Panos photo agency added another sceptical voice as the lights were dimmed and the audience treated to a multimedia piece. The short piece detailed the impact of mining activity on agrarian communities in Jharkhand state.

“Most of these mining operations are highly industrialised so there’s very little employment for former farmers. The only employment that results for the people whose land this once is usually a type of scavenging.”

In a lively Q & A session, the panel debated the above issues without reaching a consensus although they agreed that the implementation of people’s rights is an important step for India.