India became independent just 60 years ago this week. I’m sure one can study for years the conflicts and contradictions within the world’s largest democracy, but what is both intriguing and distressing about India today is vibrantly apparent on even a short trip.
I went there recently with the White House Fellows, the group of outstanding young people who have spent the past year working in the executive branch of our government. They were there to study India’s booming economy. On the trip I felt as if some of tomorrow’s best and brightest were also assessing part of their future competition. They came home from the subcontinent reassured yet uneasy.
India’s much acclaimed “economic miracle” is still not very apparent on the clogged streets of Delhi, where overfilled busses stuffed with young men on their way to work occasionally make way for a mangy cow. Or in Mumbai, the largest slum in Asia, where there is a smoking brick kiln blackening nearly every other alley way. Yet there is an amazing energy on those same crowded, dirty streets, and awareness among everyone with whom the group talked — from pedantic government officials to hard-working farmers in a small, poor, rural village — that it is the transforming power of education that is pushing along India’s rate of growth. On the road to Agra and the Taj Mahal while there are still camels, elephants, and monkeys that beg rupees from tourists and add local color, you also notice there are signs every few miles advertising local colleges of management and technology.
The India we saw was not the “Incredible India” of the multi-page slick advertisement that has appeared during the past year in every glossy travel magazine. Oh, sure, we saw the Taj and it is beautiful. Unfortunately, 117 degrees makes it hard to admire the translucent carvings without wondering exactly how long it will be before you can get back into the semi air-conditioned bus. Those glossy travel magazines suggest a visit in February. We went in May.
In Delhi, we visited a YWCA girl’s school supported in part by USAID. At the school, girls are taught some remedial math and language skills, as well as sewing. The girls, around twelve or thirteen, come from near by communities made up of castes of rag pickers, snake charmers, and ear cleaners. Yes, being an ear cleaner (which is done with a stick, forget the Q-tips) is an occupation performed by one of the castes that resides near the school and allows its daughters to attend for a few hours a day. Before the ’YMCA’s program the girls, like the majority of girls in India, did not attend school. And the probable career for these shy, dark-eyed beauties would have been prostitution.
After visiting the school we went to the rag pickers’ village, a collection of huts made out of the rags that are collected. Piles of debris which the villagers gather to sell are stacked outside in cages. The children can only go to school after they have done each day’s work, fanning out across Delhi to pick up plastic and glass bottles, papers, and the rags. Still the young man who sells the rags for the village wore an immaculate white shirt and was eager to share how he negotiates for the very best price.
The next day, in almost perfect contrast, we went to a telephone call center in a sleek suburb. It was located in a skyscraper that reminded me of Bloomberg’s headquarters in New York. That was followed by an elaborate dinner at a hotel so over-the-top it seemed more suited to Dubai than even the most prosperous section of Delhi. Every government official we met talked about India’s overwhelming challenge–how to help the country’s 500 million poor and uneducated benefit from the current boom that the technological sector is now so giddily experiencing.
The man who heads the call center proudly described how efficiently his company operates around the clock and agreed that yes, globalization is inevitable and so very beneficial. He also mentioned that he had recently gone on a vacation to a very remote part of the Himalayas with his family. While at a resort he met an American executive, a customer of his call center with his family. Proof, indeed, he declared, that the world is becoming small.
But even as the world shrinks for some, the difference between the call-center executive and his nearby rag-picker neighbors is vast. The Fellows were made uncomfortable by India’s dirt, the slums, the chaotic traffic, the decayed infrastructure, and the nearly naked people on the streets. But, as one Fellow who hopes to be a university president one day said, India is producing thousands of engineers and Ph.Ds in science each year. We’re not. That’s the real miracle of India today, and the problem we may face tomorrow.
– Myrna Blyth, long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founder of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of Media Sell Unhappiness – and Liberalism —to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.