Young Indians waiting for their political chance

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

Fri, Aug 27, 2004 - Page 9

This American-style corporate campus outside Mumbai is complete with an artificial lake, gym, cafeteria and the ambitious young Indians who are its lifeblood.

Ask them about India's future, and they chorus politely but firmly: If older politicians will just get out of the way, a new generation of politicians will make India an economic superpower.

"There are old people in wheelchairs," lamented project manager Huafrid Bathena, 24. "Let them lead themselves, not us."

In a demographic bubble that is transforming politics and society, 54 percent of India's billion-plus people are under age 25. As that group ages, seeks jobs and raises families, their demands, dreams and frustrations will dominate India.

Indeed, they already are, from their growing demand for limited university slots, to marketers' frantic efforts to shape their consumer impulses, to the way their attitudes about sex and families are changing patterns of population growth and the spread of AIDS.

They are a demographic behemoth but not a monolith. In interviews with 21 Indians under age 25 in high-technology offices, slums, villages and cities across the country, young people expressed a clear split over how India can achieve greatness.

The division reflects the difficult mandate facing the new government, led by the Congress Party. As it pursues continuing growth and globalization, it must balance the rich and the poor, the old and the new.

It must reconcile the division between those who hearken for India's community-oriented quasi-socialist past and those who embrace capitalist Americanizing influences, between those who believe the profit motive fuels selfishness and greed, and those who believe it most efficiently allocates and expands resources.

Some young Indians are extravagantly successful, linked by technology to a globalizing world. More are poor, isolated from the rest of the world and frustrated by their exclusion from a narrow economic boom.

Young, highly educated Indians employed here at Reliance Infocomm, an Indian telecommunications conglomerate, express little faith in government, hail private-sector work, and vote and often live independently from their parents. They call the free market the best tool for eradicating poverty.

Poorer, less-educated Indians say they generally trust the government, want public-sector jobs, live at home and vote like their parents. They believe that the state should lead a sweeping campaign to end poverty.

Young Indians did agree on some things. They sharply criticized religious extremism and called for a new generation of leaders. Most said they expect India to develop into a leading economic power in their lifetimes.

They praised American business practices now sweeping across India, saying they had brought more merit, efficiency and entrepreneurship to the country. But they criticized American popular culture, saying it was decreasing human contact, creating political apathy and weakening traditional Indian culture and families.

Their views reflect the hopes and contradictions of maturing youth everywhere, but also the ambitions of a nation that has decided its time has come.

Rohit Pandey

Barely audible over the din generated by hundreds of Reliance Infocomm coworkers, Rohit Pandey, 23, and two fellow engineers brimmed with confidence as they sat in an American-style corporate cafeteria.

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.

"I made my mind up that someday I will get to that position," he said. "I believe in hard work."

Anamika Chakraborty

Three years ago, Anamika Chakraborty's family moved from Assam, an impoverished northeastern state that endured a 20-year Marxist insurgency, to Calcutta, a city long associated with India's Communists and its cruelest poverty.

For the last quarter-century, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has ruled West Bengal, the state that Calcutta lies in, the longest term of rule by any political party in India. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the state was dismissed as a socialist anachronism.

But a new generation of reformed Communist leaders is eagerly recruiting foreign investors, declaring the city a high-technology hub and allowing foreign corporations to pay for the maintenance of city parks, which are now immaculate.

American-style shopping malls and private housing developments have sprouted across the city. Huge billboards advertising housing developments named Fortune City and Princeton urge India's growing middle class to move in, enjoy the swimming pool and "smash, splash and have a bash."

Chakraborty, 25, a Brahmin who was strolling through a market with her cousin on a weekday night, said she was completing a MBA program in New Delhi.

She dismissed state-run corporations as wasteful, praised the reformed Communists for halting almost daily strikes that once crippled Calcutta and said labor unions should be involved in a process of "give and take." Privatization's backers in Indian politics, she said, were the ones truly aiding younger Indians.

"For the young Indians, those striving for jobs, they have done a lot," she said.

Chakraborty's goal is to work for a foreign corporation, but she also fears globalization. Young Indians who wear Western clothes, listen to Western music and demand to move out of their parents' homes early surround her, she said. Yet in her own life, she has decided to wear saris and other traditional Indian clothes, not American ones.

She is determined to be both thoroughly modern at the office and to remain traditionally Indian at home. She said the most important decision in her life will remain with her parents, as she plans to accept an arranged marriage.

"These things are changing," she said, referring to traditional Indian culture. "These things should not change."

Munna Kumar

Asked what type of politician he liked, train sweeper Munna Kumar, 15, seemed puzzled.

"I once heard Nitish Kumar," he said, referring to a local politician. "He came to my village."

At 15, Munna is a lower-caste train sweeper in Bihar, a northern state of 83 million people that is widely considered India's most backward. He, like 70 percent of Indians, lives in a rural area where farming remains the primary means of survival.

He dropped out of school in the second grade to help support his family. His parents, who are both house servants, have five daughters and two sons. His home has no running water. He occasionally watches television in friends' houses.

Each morning, he boards a train in his small town, Khagaria, and rides for four hours to the state capital, Patna. Along the route, he sweeps the train, then each afternoon makes the four-hour journey home. His earnings, usually less than US$2 a day, go to his parents.

Asked what he wanted to be, he answered, "I don't have any desire."

Prodded, he said, "I wish I could be a big man and have my own shop."

He stood barefoot, holding a small straw broom, in Patna's main railway station. He said he thought a job in a private company would give him enough time off to visit his family. But he seemed confused about what working for a company, state-run or private, was actually like.

"By taking a government job I won't be able to get leave," he said.

Politics, too, seemed to confuse him. The only political position he articulated involved something he had experienced personally: corruption. He said politicians' No. 1 priority should be to eradicate it.

"Even here, police are taking money all over the place," he said, gesturing at the crowded train platforms. "Once I saw it on a train, the police extorted 100 rupees per passenger."

Asked if India would be rich at the end of his lifetime, he replied, "I don't think so."