Friday, May 16, 2008

Townships vs. Naxalism: which India will win?

About 11 years ago, a dynamic and thoughtful scion of a major Indian industrialial house, told me this. He worried, he said, about the divide in India. He worried that there would be bubbles of growth and modernity in India, but not everyone would be able to participate in it. “India will be like a scene from a Jetson’s comic, with one part of the country living in growth bubbles high above the ground, while below will be the teeming masses, hungry and seething that they are not part of that growth.”
It was a frightening picture - more so, because it felt so much like the reality.
A decade has passed, and India has progressed. But with such little reform, and nearly half the country not having had the chance to ride on the growth rocket, is the industrialists’ worst fear coming true?
It has been feeling so these days.

Last month, I was wandering through Gadchiroli, a district in Maharashtra where the militant Naxalites rule and the writ of the state does not run. A few months earlier, while in Orissa, a state in the east, an ancient culture rich in mineral resources, it was evident that the poor are seeing their way of life destroyed by a careless state that's sold mineral access to corporations for sizeable sums. The politicians who approve those deals live like the super-rich, and abdicate all responsibility for their constituents. The environment is being devastated, the land is being raped, the people are protesting and sometimes dying and turning to anyone who will help them. That is a reality of India.
But today I collided with another Indian reality. As I walked through the neat aisles of the Haiko supermarket in Powai, a Bombay suburb, for about four minutes I thought I was in suburban America. There was everything that a suburban American supermarket carries - varieties of biscuits, cheeses, rice, wheat, shampoos, a rack of nice coffee mugs, even non-stick utensils and kitchen towels. Around me were young people - all young people - with push carts piled with their weekend shopping. They knew what to pick, and where to get it. Paid at the counter, took their bags, and sauntered across the road to the Kentucky Fried Chicken, perhaps to the cinema complex, mobile phones at their ears.
This is also India.
These young people have never really known another kind of shopping, I thought in wonder. They've never haggled with the vegetable-wallah in a dirty city steet, or had to pick up and smell fruit and feel the flesh to tell whether it was ripe or sweet or go to another part of town to buy utensils. The supermarket does it all for them. They've all had an education (including the boys at the check-out counter at Haiko), and they're all earning a decent living. They can all hope for a better life.
Haiko is part of an amazing township called Hiranandani Gardens. It was perhaps the first one built in Bombay's environs, by an enterprising doctor's son called Niranjan Hiranandani. It used to be middle class a decade ago - too far from south Bombay, where the financial district was, and where all the action was. But now it's even upper-middle class, with apartments selling at a pricey $500 a square foot - a third to half the price of south Bombay, but pricey still.
In these apartments live the young professionals of the new India - the call centre chiefs, the young doctors, the young MBA-educated managers, the IIT grads who have become entrepreneurs. Hiranandani's Powai offers everything - space for headquarters for multinationals (Colgate Palmolive, for example), posh call centre and back office space (check out the Olympia building), incubation centres (IIT-Bombay is a stone's throw from the township), educational institutes (a new business school focusing on finance), hospitals (the ultra-modern Dr. L.H. Hiranandani Hospital with bright, Western educated and trained Indian returnee doctors). Vijay D. Shetty, the 39-year old orthopedic there who trained at the Wellington Hospital in London before returning home to India, says many many of his peers are coming back to work.
Modern townships like Hiranandani are popping up all over India. The big builders like DLF and Hiranandani and Raheja and Unitech are driving this. So is the government's SEZ plans. As these develop, there will be pockets of super-development across the county, which will look in parts like Singapore or Hong Kong or Sydney or London or Seattle.
The question is, will they link up together, and create a new India without any gaps in the middle?
Or will they result in an India with bubbles of development, high above the seething, Naxal-inspired masses below, an India awaiting catastrophe?

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