Sunday, October 28, 2012

Will India pull ahead?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, nations, India, modernization

After reading Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, and 1491 by Charles Mann (reviewed here in 2007 and here in 2006, respectively), I started to wonder what North America would be like if the successive epidemics that resulted from European "discovery" had not happened. Could the waves of immigration that started in 1607 have happened if the "indigenous population" numbered not a few millions but perhaps 150 million? Would there be a United States of America today? If there were a united nation on this continent, it is quite unlikely that the grab-bag ethnicity "white" would constitute more than 70% of the population, as is now the case.

Looking around at my workplace recently, and recalling conversations with my colleagues, I realized that North America might look a lot more like India, with its 20+ cultures and hundreds of languages. In a rather small work group, I have four colleagues from different parts of India, who speak four different "home" languages, plus Hindi and English. They converse in English, which they claim to speak better than Hindi, but of course I sometimes hear their home languages when they speak on the telephone. Just at such a fortuitous time I came across India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India by Akash Kapur.

The author is a man of two countries, and of mixed parentage. He was raised in his father's region, in Tamil Nadu State near Pondicherry (AKA Puducherry to be more faithful to its Tamil name). At age sixteen he moved to the United States, his mother's country, where he expected to get a better education. In 2003, after about ten years in the U.S., he returned to Pondicherry, to the intentional community of Auroville, in which he grew up. As he built a new life there, married and began raising children, he began to study the changes taking place around him.

India in 2003 was already much different from the place he had left. A whole generation had arisen who were ambitious, technologically adept, and contemptuous of tradition. Most of the people he visited with, many of them repeatedly, were along the Chennai-Bangalore axis (Chennai is northeast of Pondicherry, and Bangalore is further west, just outside Tamil Nadu on its north side). He also spent some time in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) far up India's west coast, and a bit of time in a few other places. Thus his geographical focus is rather narrow, but his cultural conclusions do represent changes happening throughout the nation.

The stories of two men illustrate the tension of a changing India. Sathy, a farmer and the scion of powerful feudal lords, sees not just his aristocratic way of life collapsing, but agriculture with it. Though more than 70% of Indians are rural, as opposed to 2% in America, for example, this is changing fast. Hari, a young tech worker, is struggling rather unsuccessfully with the strains and temptations of sudden prosperity, and with his own desire to come out as gay to his family. On every side, tradition and galloping prosperity collide. Beginning in 2009, both men, and many others Kapur interviewed, began to suffer further shocks as India was drawn into the global recession triggered by the American crises in subprime lending and banking fraud. By the way, American status worldwide has fallen to a level similar to that of Nigeria, because of the simple fact that so few bankers (count 'em on one hand) and congressmen (zero, last I checked) were jailed.

The fate of the land itself is equally poignant. Who speaks for the dirt? If I were king, it would be a capital offense to "develop" land on which crops can be grown. The spread of "development" throughout rural India (and China for that matter) is an ecological offense of the highest order. In America it is lesser only because there are so many fewer of us.

Unless I missed something major, India is blessed with a larger proportion agricultural land, and a larger absolute amount, than any other nation. More than half of India's land area is arable, or is growing permanent crops such as orchards. That amounts to nearly 1.8 million square kilometers, 5% more than the U.S., which has three times the total land area, and 15% more than China, which has 11% more people and is just slightly smaller than the U.S. My authority for these figures is the CIA World Factbook. Now, if we say that America and India have a similar amount of land for farming, but India has four times the population, we can see that India is much closer to agricultural saturation. She cannot afford to lose farm land. But I am not king, and there seems to be no sentiment in New Delhi to retain agriculture. Maybe they think they will buy food from the West, with no limit.

Change is always bittersweet. It is more so, when someone like Mr. Kapur grows to understand both sides of the equation, the losses equally with the gains. In the end, he is optimistic for the future of India. At the moment, India is lagging behind China, but this may not last. Indians have the advantage of speaking English, and there is a thriving industry in "accent reduction", so those help center calls you make will be with someone you can understand. I speak on the phone with them from time to time, and the experience continues to improve. It is equally bittersweet for me to realize that these two mega-nations are likely to divide up the technosphere, and thus both could economically pass up American, possibly in my lifetime.

No comments: