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Letter from India

July 2006
Letter from India

Of Famines and Fortunes

From prada-toting socialites to the beggar on the street corner, Reetika Khanna Nijhawan takes a look at the new and improved Mumbai and wonders whether India's current economic progress has trickled its way down to the grassroots

I may have killed a blind man today. I didn't wait to check. No, it was not your everyday hit-and-run. You could say it happened because living in Atlanta these past few years; I've lost the ability to dodge traffic and cross a busy Mumbai street.

The beggar was standing on a pedestrian bridge over Charni Road. His appearance was testimony to the wear and tear of city life. I did the N.R.I. thing - I pulled out a fading fifty-rupee bill and placed it in his bony hand, gently whispering to him the value of the money. As I began to walk down the uneven steps, a burly man dragged the beggar all the way to the bottom. The attacker appeared to be grasping at something in the beggar's tight fist. My sister, a Mumbai-native, whisked me away before I could take stock of the price of my magnanimity.

Double-page spreads in The New York Times and premier economic journals – all hail that India is pushing forward with leaps and bounds. And yet, in the commercial capital of the country the destitute have not experienced the faintest glow from her recent successes. The streets, nor the life that thrives on them, have improved. What have changed are the destinations the roads lead to. Shopping arcades crammed with brands one would find at Perimeter Mall. Packed multiplexes and nightclubs that could be in Buckhead. Gated communities like Amby Valley that offer opulent living. We are talking anywhere between 25 to 100 million rupees for a chateau/villa off the Mumbai-Lonavala expressway (about half-a-million to over 2 million dollars). In a city where the population density in some parts is as high as one million per square mile, an expansive two-acre bungalow on the city's fringes is unbelievable.

The well-heeled, the middle class and most of all the credit-card happy generation X are riding the wave of prosperity. Washing machines, microwave ovens, perhaps even a holiday to Malaysia with the family are now within reach. Youngsters have their own barometer for measuring the country's growth. Ask a 20-25-year-old Mumbaikar about what has changed in India over the past two years, and he/she will probably tell you, "Everything you get in the U.S. you can now get here." Designer clothing, international foods, snazzy cars – hedonism is in vogue.

Socialites toting Prada bags make headlines in national newspapers. Much ink is spent describing glitzy Mumbai soir�es in excruciating detail. Sure, the impoverished do get written about as well – when the court decrees their shanties on government land be razed to the ground. Or when a four-year-old (or five, depending on which newspaper one reads) is sold by his widowed mother for a measly sum of Rs. 800 because she can't afford to feed all her children. Budhia Singh of Orissa, the four-year-old who ran 65 kms in just over seven hours was a hot topic for a few days. His coach, Bircharan Das (who "repurchased" the boy) claimed that the young Forrest Gump is aiming for Olympic medals. I have a four-year-old boy. His aspirations are limited to a candy after lunch or perhaps a dip in the pool. So, is Budhia being used to fulfill his coach's dreams?

We don't need a Katrina to unearth the poor. They live amongst us. Our luxury-infused lifestyles are buttressed on their services. Yet, most of us are indifferent to the hardships of the cleaning woman who spit-shines our Elle-D�cor inspired granite countertops. I am not suggesting the affluent adopt a frugal lifestyle. Go ahead, dress in Dolce & Gabbana, drink Dom Perignon, but don't let the frou-frou go to your heads. We need to keep sight of the bigger picture.

I am no economist, but I believe that in order to become a truly progressive nation, India must introduce constructive changes at the grass roots. Opportunities must be created for the rural youth in their backyard to prevent them from flocking to cities like Mumbai. The civil aviation minister, Praful Patel, believes that India has finally woken up to the fact that infrastructural advancement is imperative to sustain its current growth. Will the government take proactive measures in the rural sector as well, or will it continue to lean on NGOs to do the needful?

Reetika Nijhawan is regular contributor to Khabar. An Atlanta resident, currently she is on a one-year sabbatical to India, from where she will comment on life from the perspective of an expatriate. We welcome your responses to this article. Please write to letters@khabar.com

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