EMERGING INDIA OR DYING INDIA
The Yomiuri Shimbun
Japanese cars are sold at this modern shopping mall that recently opened in a suburb of New Delhi.
The following is the second installment in a series of articles reporting on new developments in India, which celebrates the 60th anniversary of its independence this year, and where that nation is heading. High levels of economic growth are changing the country, once referred to as a "giant sleeping elephant," to an emerging global power.
Anand, a 33-year-old strategic consultant for a client company at a foreign-affiliated information technology company, and Anjali, a 23-year-old student trying to get a master's degree in business administration, married three years ago after they met on a matchmaking Web site. They now live in a quiet residential area in southern New Delhi.
In India, it remains a common custom for parents to choose marriage partners for their children, but couples like Anand and Anjali have been gradually becoming more common, mainly in urban areas.
Anand earns 800,000 rupees (about 2.08 million yen; 1 rupee is about 2.6 yen) a year. Since people earning 40,000 rupees to 180,000 rupees a year are considered to be in the middle-income bracket in India, he can be called a high-income earner.
The couple is interested in buying a fridge and a washing machine.
"We got an opportunity," said Anjali. "We're concerned with the quality rather than the price [of appliances]."
Recently, household electrical appliances have been selling in huge numbers in the country.
In fiscal 2004, India produced 9 million color television sets, 3.9 million refrigerators and 1.6 million washing machines--an increase of more than 10 percent from the previous year.
Strong sellers are 21- to 25-inch flat-screen television sets priced at between 22,000 rupees to 30,000 rupees.
As for mobile phones, about 5 million people become new users every month in the country. The total number of cell phone users reached 130 million in September.
According to an estimate by the Indian Communications and Information Technology Ministry, the number is likely to reach 500 million, nearly half of the country's population, by 2010.
Santosh Desai, 43, president of the major advertising company McCann Erickson India, said he believes there are at least 400 million people in the middle-income bracket in India, a figure exceeding the population of the United States.
These middle-class people are playing the leading role in India's consumer market, which is now the center of attention in the business world.
According to Desai, until a while ago, 20 million people, the number equivalent to Australia's population, are said to have joined India's middle-income bracket every year. But he said that the figure has recently increased to 60 million, close to the population of France.
Indians who used to ride bicycles have now switched to motorcycles and then compact cars. In major cities, large, sophisticated shopping malls are being opened one after another.
The diversification of payment methods, including credit cards, banking institutions and loan systems offered by each consumer electronics maker is boosting consumer spending in India.
"In recent times, ICICI Bank has shown a two-time increase in the loan to consumer," said Ashwini Kumar, a sales executive with the major bank in New Delhi.
India was once described as a country where the gap between the rich and the poor was so wide that there was no middle class.
At present, the poor, who live mainly in rural areas, account for more than 30 percent of India's population and are often left close to death from starvation. Saving the poor is a big responsibility for the government.
However, it also is true that the number middle-income bracket families is increasing sharply due to the country's economic growth, creating a gigantic consumer society. They are about to change India's image.
Desai said that Indians can believe now for the first time in history that their life will be better tomorrow than it is today.
His words reflect the dynamism India has today.
The growing middle-income bracket is heating up the consumption spree in India. But the Indian government faces difficult challenges in improving living standards for the poor, who have not benefited from the nation's economic growth, and in narrowing the wealth gap in its society.
There is a popular waterfront disco in the coastal city of Mumbai, India's largest commercial city, in Maharashtra State in the western part of the country.
Behind a metal detector and a heavy door, about 50 men and women dance under glimmering lights.
Tanvi Gandhi, 27, an employee of a television station in Mumbai, said she came to the disco at least once every two weeks.
Gandhi said that she did not know where else to spend her money because she and her friends could spend twice as much money as they had before since cable TV stations and call centers were opened there.
But the situation is dramatically different in the village of Sunna, about 900 kilometers east of Mumbai. The village of about 1,000 residents is located in the middle of vast cotton fields.
Vijai, a 53-year-old farmer in the village mourned the death of his 26-year-old son, Ravi.
"We don't know any proper plan in mind," Vijai said with tear-filled eyes. "How can we do? I am in too much shock to offer any future plans for my family."
Ravi had committed suicide three days earlier by hanging himself from an electricity pole in a cotton field.
The family had debts of 250,000 rupees (about 650,000 yen) to banks and other lenders due to a poor harvest. Ravi had been very worried that his family would not be able to pay for his sister's marriage expenditures as her wedding date was approaching.
"My son didn't drink or smoke. He just worked hard for my family. He was pressed by his sense of responsibility how to do for a living as as householder," the father said.
Ravi and his wife lived in a small room with a black-and-white TV set they bought 10 years ago. But the local electric power company had cut off electricity supply to the whole village as many residents had often failed to pay bills.
In the Vidarbha region where Sunna is located, about 3 million people work in cotton farming. And in the same region, 1,140 people committed suicide between June 2005 and November 2006.
Vidarbha People's Movement Society, a nongovernmental organization supporting poor cotton farmers in the region, made a map on which small skull illustrations marked places where suicides occurred. Soon the whole of the map was covered with the marks.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited the Vidarbha region having taken the news of a "suicide village" seriously, and announced an emergency aid package including financial assistance for the coming five years.
In late November, Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar emphasized the effects of the aid saying, "The emerging trends in respect of this region indicates that the number of suicide by farmers due to agriculture-related causes is on the decline."
However, Kishor Tiwari, 51, secretary of the NGO, said that three people per day had still committed suicide even after the prime minister's visit.
"The government said a fraud," he said angrily.
Mumbai and other big cities in India are in the midst of an unprecedented feverish wave of consumption. But for farmers living in the region, the prosperity is, according to one rural resident, a world "not relevant to us. This is only for rich men and bureaucrats."
In the country's general election in 2004, the ruling coalition led by the Indian People's Party (BJP) suffered an unpredicted major setback despite a slogan of "Shining India" praising the recent economic growth.
It was because those in poverty and other socially vulnerable people interpreted the coalition's policy of prioritizing economic growth as neglecting the weak.
The current governing coalition led by the Indian National Congress Party insists that consideration should be given to "another India," where many people have no access to the benefits of economic growth.
Sonia Gandhi, president of the party, has said that the country is now walking a tightrope between prosperity and achieving social justice.
Singh, an economist, said that the coming 15 to 20 years will be the key, because the number of people in poverty can be reduced drastically if the economy grows 8 percent to 10 percent every year during the period.
Conversely, India now has no other measure to save the poor than continuing to pursue more economic growth to enlarge shares of prosperity.
(Feb. 1, 2007)