Mon, Jan 07, 2013 - Page 9 News List

What future for India in wake of Delhi bus rape?

The vicious rape of a 23-year-old woman has highlighted the ‘inbetween’ world in India where poverty, honor killings and banditry are commonplace

By Jason Burke  /  The Guardian

A few months later, I reported a particularly egregious “honor killing,” one of the hundreds, if not thousands, that take place each year in India. The male teenage relatives of a young woman had killed her and her supposed lover with an unlicensed “country” pistol before fleeing. They lived not in a remote village, but in the northwest of Delhi. All of those involved in the murders lived nonetheless on frontiers: between Wazirpur, their working-class neighborhood, and Ashok Vihar, the adjacent upmarket suburb; between the increasingly cosmopolitan Indian capital and its deeply conservative hinterland; between the crushing poverty of their parents’ childhoods and the relative wealth of their own.

In 2011, an investigation into a hitman who bragged of killing a hundred or more people took me to a small village an hour from Delhi, to Ghaziabad, a rough and violent town that is now part of the Indian capital’s urban sprawl, and to Gurgaon, another satellite city just a 10-minute drive from Mahipalpur. Jaggu Pehelwan had grown up in the village, was part of a gang based in Ghaziabad and found most of his targets and clients in Gurgaon, among businessmen and criminals based among the call centers, multinational corporations, five-star hotels and luxury malls.

It was the opportunity, the wealth, the corruption and the chaos of new India that had made Pehelwan, who otherwise would have been a small-time thug in his village, what he was. Pehelwan existed in a world of Mahipalpurs — cheap hotels, cheap restaurants, parties fueled by locally made foreign liquor and escorts. He had taken holidays to Goa and Kashmir, the two classic middle-class Indian destinations, and had bought a big four-wheel drive, a classic Indian middle-class acquisition that he drove, for fun, on the new expressways near his village homes. One of these leads to Noida and the new Formula One circuit, a US$400 million project. Beyond the half-built apartment blocks around the track are the villages of farmers who had once tilled the ground beneath the tarmac. Many have received huge sums as compensation for their land. Others have not. This too has generated tension.

All these places — Ghaziabad, Gurgaon, Noida, even Mahipalpur — will grow in the coming years. This urban sprawl will not just be limited to Delhi and its environs, where about 17 million people already live. Most experts say that further urbanization is necessary for India’s economic growth to continue; the new middle classes will want apartments and parks and roads and schools. There is a huge youth bulge pushing through. Some 290 million people were living in cities in India in 2001, a figure that rose to 340 million in 2008 and is set to reach 590 million, about 40 percent of the population, by 2030. By that year, business consultant McKinsey and Co predicts, there will be 68 Indian cities of more than a million people, 13 with more than 4 million and six megacities with populations of 10 million or more. More than 30 million people will live in Mumbai and 26 million in Delhi. By then the dominant feature of modern India may well not be the rural village or the picturesque forts and saris of the tourist brochures, but the nondescript, semi-finished, ragged-edged, semi-urban, semi-rural world that is simultaneously neither and both of them.

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