Poverty and Riches in Booming India Tomorrow's World Power Turns 60


Part 2: A Land of Contrasts

GURGAON: 'It Will Be Singapore in Five Years'

Mahatma Gandhi (r), who led India to independence, laughs with the man who was to become the nation's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, at the All-India Congress committee meeting in Bombay in July 1946.

Mahatma Gandhi (r), who led India to independence, laughs with the man who was to become the nation's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, at the All-India Congress committee meeting in Bombay in July 1946.

Ashish Gupta sits in a glass booth on the second floor of a salmon-colored, semi-circular office tower in Sector 39 of Gurgaon, and says: "It will be Singapore out there in five years." Today there are still meadows out there, and cows still routinely stroll across the street, holding up traffic. But Gupta is quite serious.

The India of the future is emerging in Gurgaon. Where there was once nothing but brush, now glass and concrete towers are being built to house the offices of Western conglomerates like Siemens, Alcatel and Microsoft. The construction workers live in tents between the buildings. An eight-lane highway cuts through what is still a no man's land, with constant traffic jams lining up in front of half a dozen new shopping malls. A subway is being built to downtown Delhi.

Gupta wears black trousers, a blue shirt and a tie. He attended college in the United States and once worked for corporate consulting giant McKinsey. He is the Chief Operating Officer of a company called Evalueserve. His job is stressful and he is sweating profusely, despite the air-conditioning in his office. The company has 2,100 employees and has only been in business for the past six and a half years. It grew by 100 percent each year in the first four years, and another 75 percent in the interim. Evalueserve is in the process of expanding into China, Chile and Eastern Europe. Gupta's sentences are sober enough, and yet he sounds almost intoxicated: "The question is not how big we want to become, but how big we can become. Theoretically, there is no limit."

Evalueserve is a showpiece company in the new India. While China is growing through low-cost industrial products, India in growing through cheap services: call centers to serve customers in Ohio, IT specialists handling the programming for European clients and market research companies such as Evalueserve that perform tasks like analyzing the shampoo sales of their clients' competitors.

According to Gupta, there is absolutely no doubt that India is becoming a global power. "We need another 20 years, but they'll fly by."

The Indian economic miracle began in 1991, when Ashish Gupta was still a student. Manmohan Singh, the finance minister at the time and India's prime minister today, jettisoned the "democratic socialism" of the country's founding fathers. Until he came into office, large sectors of Indian industry were still state-owned. Singh began privatizing companies and liberalizing markets. The IT industry has been booming since the late 1990s, and the economy as a whole has grown by an average of 8 percent a year in the last five years.

At Evalueserve more than 100 people, most of them under 30, work in a single room, sitting at long rows of yellow desks and staring at computer screens. One of them is Senior Analyst Andrea Demsic, a 30-year-old blonde with cherubic cheeks and a contented smile, who works in the company's Business Research department. She comes from the southwestern German town of Schwäbisch-Gmünd and speaks the Swabian dialect. After earning a degree in economics from the University of Jena in eastern Germany, she says, it was relatively difficult to find a job in Germany. One day she saw a job posting at her local employment office: Seeking analyst for overseas position. She applied for the position and, a year and a half ago, ended up in Gurgaon.

Demsic's starting salary was 21,000 rupees, or about €380, plus a free apartment. She was promoted after the first year. She says that she could imagine staying in India for a while longer.

She is impressed by the ambition of her Indian coworkers, and by the city being built around her. "There is movement here. Everyone wants to achieve something. There are opportunities to climb up the corporate ladder in India. It's so different from Germany."

Thirty-six foreigners work at Evalueserve, and their numbers are also increasing in other Indian companies. Ashish Gupta, the COO, smiles. He needs people who know Europe and speak its languages perfectly, because his customers come from Europe. But he is also happy with the message he is sending to the world: Instead of hiring exclusively Indians to work for the West, Indian companies are now also creating jobs for Western workers.

VIDARBHA: 'They Build Cities and Neglect the Villages'

His wife and two sons were sound asleep when Punjaram Kubde, a farmer, got up in the night and went into the next room, where he kept sacks of seed, fertilizer and poison. He poured himself a cup of pesticide and drank it. His wife found him dead on the stone floor the next morning.

Now his body lies underneath a pile of wood that the men and women of Chondha have assembled on a green hill in front of the village. They have painted his face purple, brought him flowers, rice and coins for his journey into the next world, and wrapped his body in a white sheet.

About 200 people have come to attend his cremation. Their faces are serious. Kubde's is the first case of a farmer taking his life in their village. Some say that if it doesn't rain soon his suicide will not have been the last.

Chondha is in Vidarbha, in the middle of India and one of the country's poorest regions. This year alone, 521 farmers have already killed themselves in Vidarbha. Last year there were more than 1,200 suicides. Almost all of the men used pesticides, while a few set themselves on fire.

The wife of the dead farmer sobs quietly, her body trembling. Her name is Lalita and she is wearing the orange sari she reserves for special occasions. She is only 30, young and beautiful, but she will remain a widow for the rest of her life. Village rules forbid widows from remarrying. Sagar, the couple's eldest son, is 10. A man helps him hold a burning bundle of straw, which he must use to ignite the funeral pyre. Then the men and women of Chondha walk around the fire, throwing in sticks.

Punjaram Kubde was an important man. He owned 12 hectares (30 acres) of land, a large house and a motorcycle. He was 45, a powerful man with a mustache and, like most men here, he was a cotton farmer. He grew a strain known as "Bt cotton," developed by US agricultural chemicals giant Monsanto. According to the farmers in the village, conventional seeds are unavailable these days. No one knows why, but the dealers no longer sell it. Monsanto's genetically modified seed is expensive and a new supply has to be purchased every year. The seed makes up half of the farmers' production costs. Even worse, if Bt cotton gets too much or too little water, it reacts far more sensitively than normal cotton.

When last year's heavy rains ruined his harvest, Kubde was unable to repay his bank loans, and the banks refused to lend him more money. He went to private moneylenders, who lent him the money he needed for new seed, but this year brought more heavy rains and Kubde lost his crop once again. In the end he owed half a million rupees and no one was willing to lend him any more money.

Unable to liberate himself from his mountain of debt, he would have been forced to become an indentured servant to his creditors. He chose an easier way out.

The man who counts the region's dead is named Kishor Tiwari. A former engineer, Tiwari founded his own NGO in the small city of Pandharkawada, where he now has his office. He spends his days sending out e-mails filled with accusations and numbers. More than 6,000 farmers have already committed suicide in Vidarbha, he writes, and more than 2 million farmers are in debt. Tiwari reports the news from an India that has nothing to do with the country analysts are touting these days.

About two-thirds of Indians today are still farmers, a number that puts many things in perspective. They live in villages that consist of a handful of tiny mud huts, each containing a sleeping room, a second room for the kitchen and an outdoor latrine. The muddy paths between the huts are littered with cow dung.

More than 300 million Indians live in poverty and 400 million are illiterate. In many parts of India, dependent feudal relationships still exist, women and untouchables are oppressed, there are honor killings and the practice of setting widows on fire is still not entirely abolished.

Kishor Tiwari is a cantankerous man wearing polished shoes, black trousers and a white shirt. He has himself driven through the area in a car with a sign in the front window that reads: "God has sent this man to the poor."

He sits in the back of his car as it bumps across a street filled with potholes, blaming the liberalization of the agricultural market for the farmers' troubles. First, he says, the government almost stopped buying up cotton altogether, and then it permitted the importation of cotton and genetically modified seed. The end result was a plunge in the price of cotton.

He talks about Mahatma Gandhi, who founded his village commune Sevagram Ashram in 1936, not far from here. Tiwari says that Gandhi's successors have betrayed him. "They build cities and neglect the villages. For Gandhi the village, which is self-sufficient, was the pillar on which this country stands. Instead we now have the enslaved village."

According to Tiwari, the same liberalization that is driving India's growth is breaking the farmers' backs.

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