Fri, Aug 27, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Young Indians waiting for their political chance

By David Rohde  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , KNOWLEDGE CITY, INDIA

By the time he reaches retirement age, Pandey boldly predicted, India will be the world's most powerful nation. "Fifty years, we'll be No. 1," he declared.

His optimism is based in part upon his coming of age in the portion of Indian society that has experienced explosive economic growth in the past five years. Pandey earns US$8,000 a year, an amount that puts him among the elite of India, where the average yearly wage is about US$460. But he was emphatic that for India to truly develop as a nation, its legions of poor must also flourish.

"We have to build up the whole mass to develop," he said.

The Brahmin son of a professor and a housewife, he grew up in the holy northern city of Varanasi. As a teenager, he scored high enough on standardized tests to win admission to one of seven distinguished Indian Institutes of Technology, where only about 2 percent of applicants gain admission each year. Harvard, by comparison, has a roughly 11 percent acceptance rate.

Pandey, like many of his co-workers, is of an upper caste. But he and others said that private sector competition, not legislation, was easing caste, class and religious discrimination. In private companies, merit, discipline and skill are rewarded, they said, while in state-run organizations, caste, seniority and connections rule.

Pandey said about half his friends were so apathetic about politics that they did not bother to vote. Those who did favored the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, because they saw it as more free-market-oriented.

But he complained that satellite television featuring HBO and ESPN, as well as a grueling six-day workweek, were altering India's culture. He said American-style nuclear families were replacing the centuries-old Indian extended family system, where sons live with their parents after marriage. He lives in Mumbai, away from his family.

"People are getting away from each other," he said. "There used to be more human bonding earlier."

Muhammad Imtiaz

Thirty miles from the Reliance cafeteria, Muhammad Imtiaz, 25, lives in Asia's largest slum, the Mumbai neighborhood of Dharavi, home to more than a million people.

Five-foot-wide alleys are the main thoroughfares and cramped single rooms are homes for families of six. Slightly larger rooms are "factories" where morose adults and children churn out clothes and wallets. Children are bald and shrunken from malnutrition, lice-infested and near-naked.

The son of a rickshaw driver, Imtiaz is a classic striver -- his family's first to graduate from college. He is a Muslim, as are about 15 percent of Indians.

"I've seen privatization," he said, as whiffs of cooking spices, rotting trash and feces swirled in the air around him. "It should be stopped."

He works as a lifeguard at a luxury hotel that he said cheats its workers and corporate clients and has no commitment to improving Indian society. He hopes to become a teacher, a job he thinks can truly help his country.

Imtiaz said he supports the Congress Party, and that the state's role should be to provide reliable jobs to poor people.

"I don't believe there is any benefit to private companies," he said.

Yet like his peers, he displayed tremendous ambition and believes that hard work will be rewarded. He said that as he watched rich Indians and foreigners frolic in the pool, he had made a resolution.

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