Today's date:
Winter 2008

India : Sacred Cows and Software

Winter 2007

Jamnagar, India — Is immutable India changing? India is, above all, heat and dust and poor people. Masses of people. Hundreds of millions of people squeezed onto buses and hanging out of trains, walking arid paths, living in boxes on sidewalks. Whole families piled onto one motor scooter. Grotesquely deformed beggars and desperate children, mostly ignored, pleading for rupees whenever traffic stalls.

India's 300 million-strong middle class, created by the post-colonial import substitution policies of the so-called "license Raj," is bigger than all of America's population combined. But it is encircled by a spilling slum of 800 million inhabitants. Outside the shining enclaves in New Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai, the landscape is strewn with garbage. The water is bad. The burning air is a mixture of fumes and smoke. Infrastructure is seedy and long past disrepair.

Yet, something new is sprouting in this heart-rending land enveloped by misery and suffocated by bureaucracy and corruption. The emergent contrasts say it all: reincarnation and outsourcing; sacred cows and software; untouchables and connectivity; ancient temples and postindustrial business parks; bone-jarring roads and broadband.

Globalization has thrown India a lifeline as it is on the verge of sinking.

These thoughts came to me during a meeting of the Observer Research Foundation and the Pacific Council in the Jamnagar compound, along the Arabian sea in the western state of Gujarat, of the gigantic Reliance Ltd. oil refinery—itself a symbol of the new India as the very antithesis to the founding vision of self-reliant, backyard cotton-spinning cottage industries propounded by Mahatma Gandhi. Owned by one of India's richest families, the Ambanis, the $6 billion plant was built from (mostly imported) scratch over a mere 36-month period beginning in 1999 by the American construction firm Bechtel.

Like other private business complexes all across India, the paved roads and landscaped gardens end at the property border. To get from the refinery compound to a private jet waiting at an airbase terminal 15 miles away, my colleagues and I rumbled over potholes large enough to swallow the cows wandering at will through the villages and countryside along the way, sometimes lying down with the villagers in the shade of the highway billboards. That's India. Immutable or changing?