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

By Mathieu von Rohr

It's been 60 years since India won its independence and the country of Mahatma Gandhi is now on track to becoming a global power. But the country's new prosperity remains elusive for many, with millions of farmers still leading lives of abject misery. SPIEGEL visits five very different places to see what India's future holds.

India celebrates 60 years of independence on August 15.
REUTERS

India celebrates 60 years of independence on August 15.

The Republic of India was only four hours old when an untouchable, a girl named Shyama, came into the world in Gurgaon, a village near Delhi. She was born at 4 a.m. on August 15, 1947, in a simple brick house, the third of seven children.

Shyama's mother later told her about the fireworks and the street celebrations that night, and about the historic words of India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru: "At the stroke of midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom." But one man, Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the Indian nation, was not celebrating that night -- because millions of people were still starving and because independence also meant partition of the former British India into two countries, India and Pakistan. Instead, Gandhi stayed at home and fasted.

The family that Shyama was born into that night was not among India's poorest. Her father was a low-ranking civil servant. But they were pariahs, members of the Jatav subcaste. Their ancestors had been leather workers, which made them unclean, placing them at society's lowest rung. Not even their shadows were permitted to touch a Brahmin.

An untouchable, a man named Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, had written much of the new country's constitution. It was designed to create a country in which all citizens would have equal opportunities. "If things go wrong under the new constitution, the reason will not be that we had a bad constitution ," said Ambedkar, "What we will have to say is that man was vile."

Over the course of the country's history since independence, it periodically seemed that things would indeed go wrong. But now that the Republic of India is turning 60 on Aug. 15, the world no longer mentions the country in the same breath as tales of poverty and hopelessness. Today's stories about India are tales of success.

The legacy of the 1947 partition can still be felt in India, especially in disputed Kashmir.
DER SPIEGEL

The legacy of the 1947 partition can still be felt in India, especially in disputed Kashmir.

Shyama was a good student, one of six girls to attend the local college in Gurgaon. She loved to dance and wanted to become a film star. But the other students shunned her. Their families were from the affluent Jat caste of farmers, and they routinely disparaged her as an untouchable and called her even worse names, which she later did her best to forget. Shyama swore to herself that she would be a great success in life. When she was 16 she assumed a new last name so that people could longer tell what her caste was. Because she was born on the same day as India, she called herself Shyama Bharti -- Shyama, the Indian. "I abandoned my name to abandon my caste," she says.

Like the country, Shyama is now almost 60, but she looks younger. She sits in her office in downtown Delhi, wearing a pink sari. She has large, dark eyes and a narrow nose with wide nostrils that makes her look almost aristocratic. She wears her dyed black hair piled up on her head in a hairstyle similar to the one favored by her idol, Indira Gandhi, India's third prime minister.

As a general director of Delhi Transco Limited, the city's electric utility, Bharti is at the highest level she can be promoted to in her career as a civil servant. She has four telephones on her desk, and her business card reveals that she has four university degrees. "As far as education goes, I'm a Brahmin," she says, laughing.

She earns 42,000 rupees, or €760, a month. Her husband receives a government pension. The couple is provided with a driver and a car, a company mobile phone and a large house with servants. The Indian state treats its civil servants well.

Shyama Bharti managed to complete her ascent into the upper middle class long before today's new generation of social climbers, who make their money as call center agents and IT specialists, came on the scene. About 200 million of India's 1.1 billion people are already part of the middle class today, a number that is expected to increase to about 600 million by 2025 -- figures that are enough to make investors delirious.

The West has long realized that India is on its way to becoming a global power. The giant country is expected to be the world's third-largest economy within the next three decades. India and the United States signed a joint nuclear treaty only two weeks ago. India has been de facto accepted as a nuclear power, and its next goal is a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. The country's elites are literally bursting with self-confidence.

Indians who read newspapers can marvel at the daily stories of progress in their country, and of its rise to prominence. India launches an Israeli spy satellite into space. Indian automakers plan to acquire Jaguar. Free wireless Internet in all of Bangalore. Domestic flights doubled in the space of two years. Bank accounts opened for each and every resident of the state of Himachal Pradesh.

At the same time, India's infrastructure remains a problem. Its roads, buses and airports are in a woeful state of disrepair, and power outages are common.

A trip through India is a lesson in glaring contrasts. India is a land of the future, and yet parts of it are still a long way from the present. It is a country of the fabulously rich and the desperately poor, of Hindus and Muslims, wooden plows and nuclear power plants.

Shyama Bharti will go into retirement on Aug. 15, her 60th birthday. She and her husband will move to her old village, Gurgaon, which has since been engulfed by Delhi's southwestern suburbs. The land the couple bought there 20 years ago is worth at least 100 times what it cost them to buy.

SPIEGEL traveled to five different parts of India to get a glimpse of the country's future.

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